Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

ROBERT EDWARD LEE
(January 19, 1807–0ctober 12, 1870)

Leonne M. Hudson

Confederate General Robert E. Lee was born on January 19, 1807, at Stratford in Westmoreland County in Virginia. His father, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, served with distinction in the Revolutionary War. He was selected as the governor of Virginia in 1791 and elected to Congress eight years later. In 1793, Henry Lee married Anne Hill, daughter of the wealthy Charles Carter, uniting two of the most prominent families of the planter aristocracy of Virginia. Henry Lee’s propensity for wreckless investments in land destroyed the family’s fortune. Following his release from debtor’s prison, he relocated his family to Alexandria, Virginia, in 1810. Misfortune continued to plague Lee when he was seriously injured in Baltimore in 1813 by a mob. To escape the scene of his troubles, Light Horse Harry sailed to the Caribbean, determined to rebuild his fortune. Robert was six years old when his father left home.

In 1825, Robert enrolled at West Point. His academic background, perceptive mind, and strict discipline helped him to excel at the academy. Because of Lee’s exemplary deportment, he did not receive a single demerit during his years at the military institution. Charles Mason of New York and Lee graduated first and second, respectively, in the class of 1829, which consisted of forty-six cadets. After graduation, Lee, the newly minted second lieutenant of the engineer corps, reported for work as a construction engineer on Fort Pulaski in the Savannah River. In June 1831, Lee married Mary Anne Randolph, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, who was an heiress to the Arlington estate on the banks of the Potomac River. Somber and pious, Mary Anne Custis enjoyed the luxuries derived from wealth.

It was paradoxical that Lee, who relished the chance to establish his own family, would have to endure a painful marriage. The union, which lasted nearly forty years, was bedeviled by extensive periods of separation. Adding to Lee’s frustration was his wife’s poor health and the difficulty she experienced in transitioning from Arlington to the humble quarters of military life. In search of

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