If the Army of Northern Virginia is identified with any one man, it is Robert E. Lee. He was its commander, inspiration, and the architect of its victories. Its defeat in 1865, however, opened up his reputation to criticism.
Regarded almost universally as one of America's greatest generals for a good century after the Civil War, Robert Edward Lee has now become one of America's most controversial. There are certain things that are still above debate. Lee's soldiers loved him and many of them stayed to the end, not even believing the surrender at Appomattox at first, because they were convinced that Lee could do anything with them and would end up victorious, despite any odds. As George Washington had been the glue that held the Continental Army together during the American Revolution, Lee was the glue that bound the Army of Northern Virginia together. Had Joseph E. Johnston remained in command of the army defending Richmond in 1862, chances are the war would have ended that year or the next, even with McClellan in command of the opposing army. Lee was not bombastic. He was modest in demeanor, pleasant with all ranks and stations in life, controlling the temper he sometimes displayed in private. He fully cooperated with civilian authorities, especially Jefferson Davis who was not an easy man to get along with and who maintained feuds with other leading Confederate generals throughout the war. He was also devout.
The outline of Lee's life is a simple one. He was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on January 19, 1807, the fourth child of a hero of the American Revolution, General Harry Lee. “Light Horse Harry” squandered his money, being at one time imprisoned for debt. Once released, he participated in putting down a riot in Baltimore where he was badly injured. He left for an island off Georgia to regain his health, and died there. His widow raised the children in Alexandria, Virginia. While Robert's older brother Samuel went off to join the U.S. Navy, Robert Lee received an education at schools in Alexandria, and gained an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1825.