Robert E. Lee at 200

By Brown, John S. | Army, January 2007 | Go to article overview
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Robert E. Lee at 200


Brown, John S., Army


January 19 marks the 200th birthday of Gen. Robert Edward Lee. An icon of American military history, Lee is considered by many to be the greatest soldier America has ever produced. Despite the distance that separates his era from our own, his example still has much to teach us about technical skill, the operational art and soldiering as a profession.

Lee was born into a prominent Virginia family, the son of "Light Horse Harry" Lee, a hero of the American Revolution. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1829 as an engineer officer. He soon demonstrated an impressive combination of leadership and technical skill while working to achieve Mississippi River flood control and to establish effective defenses along the Atlantic coast. In the Mexican War he distinguished himself at Veracruz, Cerro Gordo, Churubusco and Chapultepec. By war's end he had risen to brevet colonel, and in 1852 was appointed Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy.

While on leave in Arlington, Va., in October 1859, he was ordered to deal with John Brown's seizure of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Taking command of a detachment of marines, he quickly put down the uprising with minimal bloodshed. As secession became imminent, he turned down an offer to command federal forces in the field because he could not envision fighting his fellow Virginians. At that time he had had 32 years of continuous service in the U.S. Army, unlike so many of his contemporaries whose active service had been brief or intermittent. Lee accepted command of Virginia's forces, and prepared his state's defenses while serving as a military adviser to the Confederacy's President Jefferson Davis.

Lee started the war under the cloud of West Virginia's successful separation from Virginia and in the shadow of the overall Confederate field commander, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. After Johnston was seriously wounded in the Battle of Fair Oaks (May 31, 1862), Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia, defending Richmond against Gen. George B. McClellan's much larger and better resourced army advancing up the peninsula. He strung a series of masterful tactical successes, collectively characterized as the Seven Days Battles, into a campaign that forced McClellan off the peninsula. He then decisively defeated Gen. John Pope in the brilliantly executed second Battle of Manassas (also known as Bull Run), August 29-30, 1862. A subsequent invasion of Maryland, ending at Sharpsburg (also known as Antietam), September 17, 1862, went less well, partly because a copy of Lee's general orders fell into Union hands. Sharpsburg was at best a draw for the Confederacy, and Lee withdrew from Maryland rather than fighting on at a serious disadvantage.

Union forces followed up on their relative success at Sharpsburg with further operations in Virginia, but were bloodily repelled by Lee at Fredericksburg (December 13, 1862) and smashed by his daring envelopment at Chancellorsville (May 2-4,1863). Recognizing that the South would be worn down in a war of attrition, and that its best hope for success lay in a psychological blow that would shatter the Union's will to continue, Lee gambled on yet another invasion of the North. The gamble failed. Momentarily deprived of his customary dominant knowledge of Union movements because of flamboyant Gen. J. E. B. Stuart's misuse of his cavalry, and encumbered by supplies he had accumulated on the march, Lee committed to the climactic three-day Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863). Defeat here did indeed mark the "high tide of the Confederacy." Beginning in May 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, another iconic American general, undertook to batter his way into Richmond with an army twice the size of Lee's.

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