The strong, healthy boy born to “Light Horse Harry” and Ann Carter Lee on January 19, 1807 was the last Lee born at Stratford to survive to maturity. Though he spent fewer than four years there, his later boyhood visits left an impression that he carried throughout his life.
As sometimes happens in distinguished families, one member seems to fall heir to the best qualities of the previous generations and none of the flaws. So it was with Robert Edward Lee. From both the Carters and the Lees he inherited a handsome countenance. From his father came rare physical strength and endurance. The sense of duty that Harry had learned from George Washington was vividly imparted to his son Robert. Even “Light Horse Harry’s” difficulties with money seemed to have produced positive responses in Robert, who throughout his life was meticulous and prudent in all financial matters.
Ann Carter Lee’s gentleness was inherited by Robert, and his loving care of his ailing mother was the mainstay of her life. With his father and elder brothers away, and his mother and sisters in failing health, Robert had become, by age 12, head of the household. On cold afternoons, when his mother was well enough, young Robert would stuff paper in the cracks of the carriage to block the wind and take her driving. Years later, when he left for West Point, Ann Lee wrote to a cousin, “How I will get on without Robert? He is both a son and daughter to me.”
Robert Lee’s choice of a military career was dictated by financial necessity. There was no money left to send him to Harvard, where his older brother Charles Carter studied. Such circumstances led him to an appointment to West Point Military Academy. Robert, who led the Cadet Corps in 1829, graduated second in his class. In four years he received not a single demerit, and he became one of the most popular cadets in his class. When he returned as the Academy’s superintendent years later, he won the same affectionate respect from the cadets for his compassion, sense of fairness and strong moral leadership.
On June 30, 1831, while serving as Second Lieutenant of Engineers at Fort Monroe, Virginia, he married Mary Ann Randolph Custis of Arlington. Mary was the only daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington and the adopted grandson of George Washington. Robert E. Lee shared his father’s reverence for the memory of the General and that bond with the Father of our Country served as an inspiration throughout Lee’s life.
The couple moved into Arlington, the Custis house across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., which would later become Arlington National Cemetery.
At the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846, Robert was ordered to Mexico as a supervisor of road construction. His skills as a cavalryman in reconnaissance, however, soon captured the attention of General Winfield Scott, who came to rely on Robert for his sharp military expertise. It was in Mexico that Lee learned the battlefield tactics that would serve him so well in coming years.
In spite of his flawless performance as an engineer and his brilliance as an officer, promotion came slowly for Robert Lee. His assignments were lonely and difficult, and he found the separation from his family hard to bear. His love of Mary and his ever-increasing brood of children were the center of his life.
The opportunity that won him enduring fame was one he would have preferred not to have taken. The Army of the United States had been his life’s work for 32 years, and he had given it his very best. On April 18, 1861, he was finally offered the reward for his service.
On the eve of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, through Secretary Francis Blair, offered him command of the Union Army. There was little doubt as to Lee’s sentiments. He was utterly opposed to secession and considered slavery evil. His views on the United States were equally clear – “no north, no south, no east, no west,” he wrote, “but the broad Union in all its might and strength past and present.”
Blair’s offer forced Lee to choose between his strong conviction to see the country united in perpetuity and his responsibility to family, friends and his native Virginia. A heart-wrenching decision had to be made. After a long night at Arlington, searching for an answer to Blair’s offer, he finally came downstairs to Mary. “Well Mary,” he said calmly, “the question is settled. Here is my letter of resignation.” He could not, he told her, lift his hand against his own people. He had “endeavored to do what he thought was right,” and replied to Blair that “…though opposed to secession and a deprecating war, I could take no part in the invasion of the Southern States.” He resigned his commission and left his much beloved Arlington to “go back in sorrow to my people and share the misery of my native state.”
On June 1, 1862 Robert Edward Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia in the Confederate capital of Richmond. Not until February 1865 was he named Commander in Chief of all Confederate forces, but the leadership throughout the war was undeniably his. His brilliance as a commander is legendary, and military colleges the world over study his compaigns as models of the science of war. That he held out against an army three times the size and a hundred times better equipped was no miracle. It was the result of leadership by a man of exceptional intelligence, daring, courage and integrity. His men all but worshiped him. He shared their rations, slept in tents as they did, and, most importantly, never asked more of them than he did of himself.
On December 25, 1861, in the midst of war and with Arlington confiscated and occupied by Union troops, the lonely Lee wrote to Mary:
Lee’s legendary command of the Confederate forces came to an end at Appomattox, Virginia in April 1865. “There is nothing left for me to do,” he said, “but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”
With the war now over, Lee set an example to all in his refusal to express bitterness. “Abandon your animosities,” he said, “and make your sons Americans.” He then set out to work for a permanent union of the states.
Though his application to regain his citizenship was misplaced and not acted upon until 1975 – more than a century late – Lee worked tirelessly for a strong peace. With some hesitation he accepted the presidency of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, and there he strove to equip his students with the character and knowledge he knew would be necessary to restore the war-ravaged South. Lexington became his home, and there he died of heart problems on October 12, 1870. After his death, his name was joined with that of his lifelong hero, and Washington College became Washington and Lee University.