January 19, 1807–October 12, 1870
Granny Lee, King of Spades, Marse Robert, Uncle Robert, Bobby Lee
WORDS TO REMEMBER:
“I must say that I am one of those dull creatures that cannot see the good of secession.”
In April 1861, the highest-ranking soldier in America, Winfield Scott, needed a ringer. Since the shelling of Fort Sumter, he was facing a lower South in open rebellion and a handful of other slave states on the verge of going the same way, including his native Virginia. President Lincoln, his new superior, had authorized the mobilization of an army of volunteers to deal with the crisis. But in his mid-seventies, Scott himself was too old to take the field at its head. What he needed was a younger, experienced officer of sterling reputation, unimpeachable character, and consummate ability.
And he had just the guy: a colonel in the regular army who had been on Scott’s staff during the latter’s world-famous conquest of Mexico City in 1847, and who had emerged from that conflict as one of the most respected officers in the military. Since then, Scott had taken the dashing officer—a fellow Virginian—under his wing and embraced him as a friend. No one was held in higher esteem by Scott, who planned to make his estimable protégé an offer he couldn’t refuse: commission as a major general and command of an army that could conceivably grow to 100,000, a host of historic proportions. As for the candidate’s loyalty, there was little question: “I wish to live under no other government,” the fellow wrote to a relative in the midst of the secession crisis. “I wish for no other flag than the ‘Star spangled banner.’ ” Was this guy perfect or what?
At the conclusion of the Civil War, Lee signed an oath of allegiance to the Union—but the document went misplaced for more than a century. Lee died having never reaffirmed his loyalty, at least in a clerical sense.
He sure was. But Robert E. Lee wrote something else in a letter to his family: “I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for [the Union’s] preservation.” Everything but honor. And that’s why he turned down Winfield Scott’s proposition, turned his back on the sort of opportunity that every ambitious West Pointer lusted for. Shortly after Scott tendered the offer, Virginia seceded; Lee was now bound by sacred duty to defend it with all his ability, whatever his opinions on slavery, states’ rights, or Abraham Lincoln. To Robert E. Lee, honor was everything.
Handsome, urbane, of old Virginia blood, Lee embodied the chivalric aristocracy of America’s South. Even his ancestry fit the bill. His father, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, had been one of George Washington’s most effective fighting officers during the Revolution and a legend in his own time. In fact, Harry’s tactical gifts were matched only by his astounding financial incompetence—he ultimately went through the inherited fortunes of two wealthy wives, mostly in idiotic land speculations, as easily as he had scattered terrified redcoats during the war.
Harry had numerous children. Robert Edward, destined to be the most famous, was born by Lee’s second wife, Ann Carter Lee, descended from a hoary clan that stretched back across the Atlantic and into English history. (An ancestor on her mother’s side,Alexander Spotswood, had been with Marlborough at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704.) Robert’s illustrious father died, broken and shamed, when the boy was just eleven. Though the youngest of Ann Carter Lee’s sons, Robert was to take care of his dying mother with a sincerity and attention to detail that marveled neighbors and acquaintances. He became the young patriarch of his mother’s household—a household that, though nearly penniless, was still established by connections to the Fitzhughs, Randolphs, Custises, and other prominent Virginia families. Robert, an intensely dedicated son, of extraordinary intelligence and deportment, was everything that West Point was looking for (and, best of all, the academy offered a free education). Like many of Virginia’s finest, he was off to that idyllic bastion on the Hudson in 1825.
With such sterling qualifications, it was hardly surprising that Lee graduated four years later ranked second in his class. But the fact that he did so with no demerits whatsoever on his record—well, that was just spooky. Lee was like some sort of martial ideal. Scooped up by the Corps of Engineers, he commenced a truly enviable military career. After constructing fortifications and harbor works around the country, he served on Winfield Scott’s staff during the war with Mexico, earning the great commander’s enormous respect, three brevets, and a wound, incurred at the Battle of Chapultepec. He went on to serve as a very highly esteemed superintendent of West Point, and took a lieutenant colonelcy in the cavalry, patrolling the desiccated, interminable wastes of the Texas frontier. As for his finances, things were looking up. In 1831, this impoverished son of discredited nobility had married a very wealthy, very beautiful, very difficult young lady named Mary Custis, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, who was Martha Washington’s grandson and George Washington’s adopted son. Upon his father-in-law’s death in 1857, Lee found himself taking extended leaves to go back east and settle the estate that his wife had inherited—which included a vast, gorgeous estate overlooking Washington, D.C., called Arlington.
It was in the midst of one such sojourn that the colonel found himself summoned by President Buchanan in 1859 to do something about the raid on Harpers Ferry by John Brown and his squad of radicals. Dressed in civilian clothes, with James Stuart by his side (a younger acquaintance made during the West Point superintendency, who would one day make history as the flamboyant “Jeb” Stuart), the colonel directed a detachment of marines to storm Brown’s garrison inside the town’s fire engine house, bringing the tense standoff to a close. The incident further secured Lee’s reputation as a dependable and loyal servant of both the federal government and the Commonwealth of Virginia—two authorities that would soon be pitted against each other, forcing him to make the defining decision of his life.
Few who faced that decision made it so reluctantly. “You have made the greatest mistake of your life,” said Winfield Scott to the man he had hoped would end the rebellion. Instead, Robert E. Lee would draw it out into a ghastly, murderous marathon, and all because of the qualities that had made him Scott’s first choice as pacifier of the South.
Those days were far off, however. In the meantime he was made a major general in his home state’s military, burdened with organizational responsibilities. The Confederate government immediately understood his value, and made him a brigadier general in the C.S. Army. Field command soon followed in northwest Virginia, where Lee—er, blew it. At Cheat Mountain and Laurel Mountain, his Rebel force was held off by determined Union resistance, earning him the sobriquet “Granny Lee” for his apparent lack of audaciousness. Reassigned to South Carolina, he oversaw the construction of coastal defenses. Then it was back to Richmond, where he assumed his place at President Jefferson Davis’s side as military advisor.
It was in this capacity that Lee found himself with President Davis at the dawn of June 1862, watching Joseph Johnston lead his troops against George McClellan’s bluecoats at the Battle of Seven Pines. Soon reports filtered back that Johnston, son of a man who had fought under Robert E. Lee’s father in the Revolution, was wounded. The Rebels defending Richmond were leaderless. Gustavus Woodson Smith, Johnston’s nonplussed, jabbering second-in-command and successor, rode up and filled Lee and Davis with fear at his obvious lack of command potential. (Smith soon suffered a nervous breakdown.) The Confederate capital was in danger, and Davis did what he needed to—he placed Lee in command of the defenders of Richmond.
And so the seeds of a legend were sown. Up to now, Lee had been known as a “Granny” and, for his insistence on defensive earthworks, the “King of Spades.” But he was about to give the world a lesson in brazen generalship. Assuming command of a hopeless situation (for it surely seemed like one to any sane observer), Lee managed to stem McClellan’s advance on Richmond just long enough to hatch a crazy plan. Leaving a weakened screen in front of Richmond, he gathered the strength of his force—now called the Army of Northern Virginia—for a blow on McClellan’s right flank, where a single corps was separated from the rest of the Federal army by the swollen waters of the Chickahominy River. It was so bold that McClellan fell for the trap: unwilling to test the Confederate lines before Richmond (where Lee was weakest), the Union commander interpreted the storm of enemy activity on his right as an indication that the Rebels outnumbered him and threatened his army’s very existence. He fell back, and back again. For a week of clashes known as the Seven Days, Lee thrashed against his enemy’s greater strength, each time receiving better than he gave, but forcing McClellan further back toward the James River. Even as they continued to deal telling blows on their Confederate attackers, the more numerous Union forces, relentlessly pressed, continued to retreat from the goal that had so recently been within their grasp. McClellan ultimately withdrew to Harrison’s Landing and evacuated his army. Lee had saved the Confederacy.
Frankly, it was a miracle. At no time was McClellan outnumbered—indeed, at no time did he lack the men or resources to smash through to Richmond. Lee had gambled everything and won, like a poker player who had bagged the whole pot with a deuce, a three, a six, and a set of balls the size of Hippity Hops.
This was to be Robert E. Lee’s methodology for much of the war. He stood out not only because he understood the Confederacy’s very precarious situation, but also because he knew how that situation could set him free. When you have unlimited resources and men to draw on, you had better not risk them foolishly. But when you’re hampered by a paucity of matériel, and you’re hoping to pummel your much wealthier opponent into a state of dizziness and despair, you had better risk big or not show up at all. Hell, you’re certainly going to lose if you don’t give it a try. And this is what Lee understood: gamble or lose.
So he kept gambling. It worked at Second Bull Run, where he sent Stonewall Jackson up and around the Federals in a huge flanking maneuver and then finished them off by marching north with Longstreet and uniting the Army of Northern Virginia in time to deal a devastating defeat. So devastating, in fact, that Lee decided to take the army into Maryland, where—it was expected—they would be met as liberators. But there his gambling produced trouble. Determined to take the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry, which would be in his rear during a thrust into Maryland, Lee split his army into several columns that were to converge on the target. Risky? Quite—especially when your opponent gets his hands on your plans. Left carelessly by a subordinate as a wrapper around a few cigars, Lee’s elaborate orders regarding the advance on Harpers Ferry fell into McClellan’s possession, handing him the opportunity to strike at an Army of Northern Virginia that was divided rather than united. The result was the bloodiest single day in American history.
McClellan, alerted to his opponent’s weakness, moved west to intercept him. Slowly. Made even slower by the Army of Northern Virginia’s delaying actions, McClellan was unable to confront his nemesis before Lee had the opportunity to gather most of his strength. Still, the Southerners were radically outnumbered, the Potomac River barring their path to safety. Should their position prove untenable, they would have nowhere to retreat to, producing either a mass surrender or a slaughter. This was the price of Lee’s gambling writ large: He had concocted a scheme that would’ve worked under ideal circumstances but that had fallen apart under the realities of campaigning.
The epic fight that resulted was called Sharpsburg in the South, after the nearby town, and Antietam in the North, after the creek that meandered between the opposing armies. The clash was intended to be Lee’s destruction and nearly was. Throughout a day of unprecedented carnage, Lee and his lieutenants desperately made the most of their meager numbers, strengthening challenged sections of the line by weakening others and praying for some sort of deliverance. Interestingly, they got it in the shape of A. P. Hill’s Light Division, which had raced some seventeen miles from Harpers Ferry to answer Lee’s summons. Hill’s appearance was the Army of Northern Virginia’s salvation.
Having escaped annihilation by a whisker, Lee was content to leave Maryland (which hadn’t been very welcoming after all). Regrouping and refitting after the slaughter of Antietam, he next met the Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg. There, in December, he awaited the crossing of Burnside’s forces and watched, awestruck, as waves of enemy troops broke against his entrenched infantry in bloody futility. “It is well that war is so terrible,” he famously remarked while watching the spectacle, “or we should grow too fond of it.” A staggering Union defeat, it was shocking proof that the Confederacy’s principal army was more than a match for the North’s overwhelming material superiority. Lee was literally getting away with murder.
And so dawned 1863, the year of reckoning that was to witness the Army of Northern Virginia’s greatest success and its most ignominious failure. When Joseph Hooker stole a march on his enemy and managed to bring much of the Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock and the Rapidan to advance on Lee’s flank from the north, the resulting clash at Chancellorsville saw Lee the gambler at his greatest. Leaving part of his army at Fredericksburg to guard the back door, as it were, Lee moved west to intercept Hooker in the thickets of the Wilderness. Already outnumbered, Lee once again ignored military sanity and further divided his army, sending Stonewall Jackson on a long, circuitous flanking maneuver while he himself risked getting smashed to pieces by a force that dwarfed his own. Hooker never caught on, however, allowing Jackson to creep up on the Union right flank and shatter it with a brilliant surprise attack. Once again, Lee had gambled—on his enemy’s caution, his subordinates’ surpassing skill, his infantry’s resilience, and his own lucky streak.
But the war was already two years old—how long could this go on? He needed to force a decision—to win foreign support, to undermine Northern resolve, to buy time for his army and his cause. The Army of the Potomac, whatever the relative quality of its commanding generals, was only getting stronger. By contrast, Lee’s men already had trouble finding shoes and often subsisted on green corn. Something dramatic had to happen soon. Though he had trounced the enemy at Chancellorsville, he had failed to destroy him.
And so he went after them—“those people,” as he always referred to the Army of the Potomac. He went north to draw them out and crush them and also to live off the fat of the Pennsylvania countryside, to find those shoes his men needed so badly. But when the battle came, it wasn’t on ground of Lee’s choosing. At the town of Gettysburg, the Federals held on to the high ground and dug in. Lee was advised by James Longstreet, his “old warhorse,” to shift the army southeast and draw the enemy off its ridge by threatening the road to Washington. But the commander demurred. The Army of the Potomac was here, and it was here that he would destroy it.
Or not. Gettysburg was a Rebel defeat that could be laid squarely at the feet of Robert E. Lee. Having snared the Army of the Potomac, he would not let go. For three days he threw his splendid infantry at George Meade’s bluecoats: initially on the enemy flanks and finally—most spectacularly—right up the middle. Meade’s men were happy to oblige their eager assailant with devastating, heroic defiance. Lee had finally gambled and lost.
Now the Federals had the initiative, and they would not surrender it. The following year, 1864, saw Lee pitted against Lincoln’s last best hope: Ulysses Grant. That the newly minted lieutenant general took as long to defeat the Army of Northern Virginia as he did is a testament to Marse Robert. Wily to the end, Lee negated his opponent’s superior numbers by attacking him in the Wilderness; gave Grant a hot welcome at Spotsylvania by divining his decision to go there; and lured him into a slaughter pen at Cold Harbor. He might well have been able to do much more had his army not been encumbered by the millstone of Richmond, whose defense shaped the coarse of events that blood-soaked summer. By the time he felt desperate enough to consider abandoning the capital altogether, it was too late. Grant, though unable to annihilate his nemesis, had finally managed to fix him in the works of Petersburg.
And so the thing that kept Lee going was the quality that got him into this mess in the first place: honor, a thing of itself, innate, intangible, and unassailable because of its sublime ethereality. He was buttressed by responsibility to his men and the fact that he was fighting on his own Virginia soil, and duty gave him the raison d’être that a crumbling Confederacy could not. He was far from perfect. His most acclaimed successes, from the Seven Days to Second Bull Run to Chancellorsville, all came at a sickening cost in lives. Seemingly unaware of the technological changes that had rendered the battlefield so lethal to massed infantry, he never perfected a fashion of warfare that compensated for the South’s paucity of manpower and kept feeding his dwindling ranks into a quest for decisive victory that never came. And his preference for broad, generalized directives that left so much initiative to his principal subordinates had sometimes led to confusion. Nevertheless, his nation had already begun to fixate on him as an idealized personification of all they were about to lose—the poised and proud representative of Southern gentry. As if to confirm this, the government, in the final January of its existence, named Lee commander in chief of the Confederate armies.
Whether or not he really was all that Southerners claimed, Lee certainly looked the part at Appomattox when he surrendered to Grant. Only after sitting down and patiently, thoroughly seeing to the fate of the men he had led for what seemed an eternity did he allow something else to stir—a quickening rage at having fallen from such heights. Red-faced and wound-up, he paced beneath a tree, interrupted now and then by Federal officers, who had of late been his mortal enemies, coming up to greet the great battle chief with pleasantries that must have struck harder than minié balls.
But the new status quo would require such sacrifices. He was to prove nearly as influential in peace as he was in war, submitting quietly to the new order and urging others to do the same. While he himself helped reinvigorate Washington College by serving as its president until his death in 1870 from heart disease, many of his former subordinates started fanning the flames of his reputation into the myth of the “Lost Cause,” a phenomenon whose endurance spoke volumes about Lee. He remains one of the most esteemed military figures in history—a fate any victorious general would kill for.
MARY, MARY, QUITE CONTRARY
Robert E. Lee came from the social equivalent of an excellent claret with too many cork bits floating in it. One of them, of course, was his father, whose disgraceful downfall and stints in debtor’s prison more than tainted his sterling Revolutionary War record. But there was another smirch on the Lee name: Robert’s half brother Henry, the oldest son of Light Horse Harry. A clever wordsmith who, like Robert, married up, Henry lost his two-year-old daughter to a fall down the stairs of the family manse, Stratford Hall. Anne McCarty Lee, his wife, fell into mourning that evolved gradually into a devastating morphine addiction. With his household and marriage a shambles, Henry did what any dissolute middling patrician would do under the circumstances—he took to sleeping with his teenage sister-in-law, who soon grew large with child.
With relatives like this, it was hardly surprising that Robert, despite his obvious intelligence and good looks, should have trouble in the courting department. Family reputation counted for much in planter society. Nevertheless, he managed to catch the eye of a young lady who was witty, attractive, and rich. Mary Custis’s father did his best to shoo away the impoverished son of a feckless spendthrift, but to no avail. With his own fortune in mind, Custis no doubt recalled the old chestnut about falling apples, trees, and their relative proximity. Mary’s mother, on the other hand, thought they made a good match. Mrs. Custis even did her part to hurry things along when, during one of his visits to Arlington, Robert read Sir Walter Scott aloud until he grew positively weary. (Always a risk with Scott.) Mrs. Custis suggested that Mary take him into the other room and offer him some of the fruitcake on the sideboard (wink, wink). There, concealed from older eyes, the officer worked up the courage to propose and was rewarded with an answer in the positive.
In a whirlwind courtship, Robert E. Lee had pulled off what his fiancée’s adoptive grandfather, George Washington, had himself done: secure land and a future by marrying into wealth. But it came at a price—specifically, his wife. Mary was everything her deliberate, assiduous, and disciplined husband was not. She was tardy, irreverent, sloppy, and a little lazy, all qualities she had inherited from her father, who had risen to become one of Virginia’s most famous dilettantes. She was spoiled and supercilious. Most troubling of all, she found army life and army families a dreadful bore. While Robert adored his children, his wife chafed at the responsibility. All of these differences proved difficult enough without anyone’s getting sick. But then someone got sick. By 1857 it had become terribly obvious that Mary suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, confining her to a wheelchair essentially for the rest of her life. And so Robert E. Lee would live out the rest of his life—when he was able—caring (as he had done for his mother) for his invalided wife.
DEAD AND BURIED
Robert E. Lee never owned Arlington, the gorgeous estate inherited by his wife, Mary. He did, however, restore the grounds and its 250 slaves to profitability after marrying into the Custis clan. Designed by George Hadfield, the English architect who had a hand in designing the national Capitol, the house of the property was a beautiful Greek revival showpiece. It dominated 1,100 acres of pristine property that would ultimately be used against Lee and his wife in ways they could not possibly have foreseen.
Abandoned in the face of war, Arlington was seized when taxes levied against it were not paid by Mary Custis Lee. When it was offered for public sale, the government bought it in January 1864. General Montgomery Meigs, quartermaster general of the Unites States Army, turned the grounds into the greatest possible insult that its onetime owners could imagine: a cemetery for the nation’s war dead. Its first permanent residents arrived because the cemetery at the Soldiers’ Home in Washington had become full. From there, it filled up at a pace that, in large part, was determined by the rate at which its former caretaker, Robert E. Lee, could kill enemy soldiers. And so began America’s national cemetery—as an act of calculated revenge against the man whose military genius supported secessionist rebellion for four bloody years.
Have Gun, Will Traveller
In early 1862, Robert E. Lee paid a fellow officer named Joseph Broun $200 for an extraordinary horse. Soon named “Traveller,” the beast went on to become famous as Lee’s treasured horse. But the general had a few others, as well. During the Maryland campaign in 1862, Lee was holding Traveller by the reins when the animal started at some disturbance nearby. In an attempt to seize the bridle and control his mount, the general fell, breaking one hand and badly spraining the other. Eager to give Lee another horse that might not be so high-strung, Jeb Stuart sent his chief a little sorrel mare named Lucy Long, whom Lee rode until she became pregnant two years later. As for Traveller, he remained the general’s primary horse until Lee’s death. Interestingly, the great warhorse that had carried one of the greatest military leaders of the age through one of the bloodiest conflicts of all time came to a sad and silly end. Shortly after Lee’s death, Traveller was grazing one day when a nail punctured one of his forefeet. The animal got lockjaw and died soon after.
Robert E. Lee believed firmly in reestablishing accord between the North and South after the war. Part of the process of being reinstated as a citizen was signing an oath of allegiance, which Lee eagerly did. The process went no further, however, because the oath was … er, misplaced. Lee died having never reaffirmed his loyalty, at least in a clerical sense. A century after his death, the missing document was discovered with some other papers in the National Archives. And in 1975, citing the general as a “symbol of valor and duty,” President Gerald Ford signed Senate Joint Resolution 23, restoring to Robert Edward Lee all the rights of citizenship. Everyone knows that government wheels grind slowly, but really …