15 Note-Worthy Facts about General Robert E. Lee

Robert Edward Lee, born on January 19, 1807 was a famous American general, particularly recognized for his achievements in leading the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War. Lee was a son of another famous man, a distinguished army officer going by the name of Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee III. Robert was not only a talented commander, but he also showed great engineering skills. His military service was especially valued during the times of the Mexican-American War, where he served as a US military superintendent. Here are 15 important facts about General Lee’s life and accomplishments.

robert e lee 2

1. His father was the governor of Virginia.

Robert E. Lee came from a family with deeply-rooted statesmanship traditions. His father, Henry, participated in many historic battles, fighting under the command of George Washington himself. Moreover, he was elected the ninth governor of Virginia in the year 1791 and remained in office for the next three years. Lee, Senior also served as Major General of the US army in the years 1798-1800. He was an excellent equestrian, which earned him his peculiar nickname. Robert was one of the six children he had with his second wife, Anne Hill Carter.

Henry Lee III
Henry Lee III

2. Robert had a clean slate when he graduated.

Only 4 other students of the West Point Students could boast a similar achievement. Lee started his education at this prestigious military college in the summer of 1825, after a year-long wait for acceptance. At that time, the school was supervised by members of the Army Corps of Engineers, and so engineering became the central subject taught at school. The school had a very strong discipline and the students were rarely allowed to leave the grounds. Lee graduated second in his class after an extensive four-year course of study. Upon leaving school, he was immediately commissioned to the Corps of Engineers.

3. His wife was a great granddaughter of George Washington.

Robert and Mary Custis have known each other since they were small kids. They lived in close proximity to one another and generally got along quite well. Mary was the great granddaughter of both George and Martha Washington, the First Presidential pair. At first, when Robert proposed to her, Mary’s father was reluctant to the marriage, but Robert E. Lee eventually gained the permission to marry. The couple tied the knot on June 30, 1831, during one of Lee’s summer breaks from the Academy. Together, they had seven children.

Mary Custis Lee
Mary Custis Lee

4. Robert E. Lee’s tactical skills contributed to America winning the war against Mexico.

When the Mexican-American War broke out. Lee served under the command of General Winfield Scott and observed his actions, learning much about how to outsmart the enemy, plan tactic moves well and respond to the situation in a prompt manner. Lee later made use of this knowledge during the battles of Vera Cruz (March 1847), Cerro Gordo (April 1847), and Chapultepec (September 1847). One of his achievements was finding the routes which were thought difficult to pass by the Mexicans and stationing the American troops within them.

5. He had a difficult time deciding which side to support.

In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln offered Lee a promotion, which would require him to join the Union forces and head South. Lee reportedly thought about the offer for two days, while also praying for counsel. In the end, however, he decided to stay true to his roots, resign from the US army and join Virginia. Hi wife, Mary Lee, nee Custis, would later on describe making the final decision by her husband as ‘the severest struggle’ of his life.

The Battle of Buena Vista
The Battle of Buena Vista during the war with Mexico

6. Lee’s first Civil War campaign started with a defeat.

The first assignment that Robert E. Lee got was commanding the Confederate forces during the military campaign in western Virginia. However, the beginnings were tough for Lee. In his first battle, he was defeated by the Unionist leader, General William S. Rosecrans. This was the famous Battle of Cheat Mountain, which took place in September 1861. Afterwards, Jefferson Davis replaced him in his post and the press put much blame on him for all the Confederate misfortunes.

7. He started of as „Granny Lee” only to become „Marse Robert”.

In June 1862, Davis again made an attempt to allow Lee to gain some military experience, by asking him to be a substitute for General Joseph E. Johnson, who was unfit to command due to injuries sustained in the previous battles. Lee took the offer, but his manner of giving orders was so gentle and indecisive that it soon earned him the nickname „Granny Lee”, because the soldiers in his troops compared him to a feeble, elderly lady. But things changed, when Lee stood in for Johnson in the Seven Days’ Battles. His bravery and tactics earned him a new nickname „Marse Robert” which denoted respect and praise.

General Ulysses S. Grant
General Ulysses S. Grant

8. He surrendered in 1865 to General Ulysses S. Grant.

The Seven Days’ Battles opened a spell of victories for Robert E. Lee, including the famous Second Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Chancellorsville. He became an inspiring figure for both those on the battlefield and those tracking the course of the war from their households. What the Confederates did not have, however, was access to good weapons and latest warfare technology. Therefore, also partially outnumbered, the Confederates from the starting point were in a less favorable position. Seeing no point in continuing the unequal recontre, General Lee surrendered to the leader of the Unionist forces, General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865.

9. His burial posed several problems.

Robert E. Lee passed away in September 1870 having suffered a heart attack. He died within approximately two weeks of the unfortunate event in Lexington, Virginia. The stroke also probably left him with aphasia, the inability of speech, but some sources claim this untrue. Due to the muddy roads of the area, no coffins were readily available at first, and when by chance one has been found washed ashore, General Lee was too tall for it. Thus, he had to be buried barefoot. The general’s tomb is now found at Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University.

postage lee

10. He has been commemorated at least five times on postal stamps.

The first series of the stamps paying tribute to Lee also honored Stonewall Jackson and both prints were distributed from 1836. The second series came out in 1955. Lee appeared pictured next to his horse, which stood in the background of the picture. Also the celebratory stamps issued by the Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia feature the portraits of both Robert E. Lee and George Washington next to a sketch of the University building. The last two series came out in 1970 and commemorated Jefferson Davis, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and Lee. The focal point, however, was the depiction of the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial in Georgia, a relief carved high up in the mountains.

11. His letters have received record sums at auctions.

In 2007, three of General Lee’s Civil War letters have reached the copious amount of $61,000 at the Thomas Wilcox auction. However, the record for a Lee collector’s item was made in 2002, when someone paid $630,000 for Lee memorabilia. The Wilcox auction presented over 400 items owned by the Wilcox family. The government of South Carolina tried to stop the auction, claiming that the memorabilia were official government documents, but the state court overruled the notion.

New Orleans statue of General Lee
New Orleans statue of General Lee

12. General Lee has several buildings and memorials in his name.

The most famous one of these, and in addition the tallest, is the New Orleans monument with an impressive roundabout called Lee Circle, amidst which the proud statue of the General stands. There is also the Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, formerly serving as the Custis–Lee Mansion. What is more, Lee has a commemorative statue in Richmond, Virginia made by the famous French sculptor Jean Antonin Mercié and the Barracks at West Point military academy, have also been named after him. Last but not least, there is Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and Lee College in Baytown, Texas.

13. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant have served together.

The first encounter between the two generals took place during the Mexican-American War. Both took part in the march from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, led by General Scott. Grant served as a quartermaster, whereas Robert, due to his previous education, handled engineering and tactical issues. Both of their services were highly valued. The war between US and Mexico ended on February 2, 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, demarcating the new U.S.–Mexico border, passing through Rio Grande, going all the way to San Diego.

American Civil War illustration
American Civil War illustration

14. Robert E. Lee, as a Confederate, supported slavery.

The family of Mary Custis had a large amount of land to farm, and all those lands were inherited by Robert, when his father in law passed away. This created some troubles for Lee as he failed to get along with the former servants. In his letters, he wrote: “I have had some trouble with some of the people. … [They] refused to obey my orders, & said they were as free as I was, etc., etc.—I succeeded in capturing them & lodging them in jail. They resisted till overpowered & called upon the other people to rescue them.” But this is no wonder, since he just shared the views of most Confederates at the time.

15. Upon surrendering, Lee issued a Farewell Address to his army.

This document in an epistolary form is also known as the General Order No. 9. Lee sent it to his Army of Northern Virginia on April 10, 1865, one day after he surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. The Farewell Address spoke about „overwhelming numbers and resources” of the enemy’s army and the inability to surpass such disadvantage. Lee explained his somewhat awkward decision about retreat as an attempt to „ avoid the useless sacrifice” in the course of the war.

Farewell Address
Farewell Address


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