Lee Rises to Top Command in the Confederacy

The Memorial Military Murals: Lee and His Generals (Summer), 1920 (oil on canvas glued to plaster walls), Hoffbauer, Charles C.J. (1875-1957) / Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia, USA / acquired through merger with the Confederate Memorial Association / Photo credit: David Stover / Bridgeman Images

June 1, 1862

In the title to his 1974 biography of George Washington, historian James Thomas Flexner bestowed on his subject the epithet that most adequately describes his significance to the birth of the United States: The Indispensable Man. When it comes to the military history of the Confederacy, this very tag best suits Robert E. Lee. By installing Lee as the principal commander of Confederate forces, Jefferson Davis gave the Southern cause a general who remains among the most universally admired of history’s “great captains.” During the war, the people of the South came to idolize him, while those of the North—especially in the Union army—paid him ungrudging respect. A master of battlefield topography and a bold tactical innovator, he created the only strategy that had any chance of producing victory: break the Northern people’s support for the war with a relentless series of quick offensive blows that would force Union leaders to negotiate a peace favorable to the Confederacy. In this purpose, Lee ultimately failed, but when he judged that the time for surrender had finally come, Lee revealed another dimension of the qualities that made him the indispensable man. The force of his character helped ensure that the Confederates, having laid down their arms, did not take them up again for the kind of endless guerrilla struggle into which so many of history’s civil wars inexorably degenerate.

Henry Lee III left the practice of law at the outbreak of the American Revolution, was elected captain of a unit of Virginia dragoons, promoted to major in Washington’s Continental Army, and earned renown as commander of Lee’s Legion, a mixed cavalry-infantry unit, made up of highly mobile light troops, capable of guerrilla warfare as well as the most disciplined mobile warfare. “Light-Horse Harry” Lee—as he came to be called—emerged from the American Revolution as one of its most universally admired military figures, a hero given a gold medal by the Continental Congress, who went on to serve as governor of Virginia and US representative from the state’s 19th district. This was the glorious and gloried father of Robert Edward Lee.

By the time Robert came into the world in 1807, the Lees’ corner of that world was in steep decline. Light-Horse Harry’s plantation house, Stratford Hall, in Westmoreland, was no longer a magnificent showplace, and the house, the surrounding plantation, and the Lee slaves were in hock to myriad creditors. Nothing, it seemed, could stem the outflow of cash. In 1810, the hero of the Revolution was bundled off to debtors’ prison for a full year, and the rest of the family left Stratford for humbler quarters in Alexandria. When it looked as if circumstances could not possibly get worse, they did. On July 27, 1812, Baltimore newspaper editor Alexander Contee Hanson, a vigorous opponent of the War of 1812, was set upon by an angry mob. His friend Light-Horse Harry sprang to the rescue, waded into the melee, and was gravely injured. He tried to recover in the bosom of his family, but could not, and so, in 1813, set sail for the West Indies, where he lived apart from his wife and children until 1818. In that year, he embarked for home, but died, aged sixty-two, on Cumberland Island, Georgia, before he could reach Virginia.

The absence of husband and father had left the family even worse off financially than it had been, and Light-Horse Harry’s death meant that they were quite frankly poor. It fell to Robert to look after his ailing, aging mother. But if he was at all resentful, he never let on. With his bankrupt father gone, first to the West Indies and then to the grave, young Robert filled the void with the legend. Light-Horse Harry became in his imagination the ideal Virginian, and Virginia became Robert’s nation.

Robert E. Lee grew determined both to live up to his father’s legend and to redeem the man’s living memory. He secured nomination to the US Military Academy at West Point in 1825 and, over the next four years, made himself an academy legend. By the end of his plebe year, he was a cadet sergeant, an achievement literally unheard of at the time. By graduation, he stood second in his class but—and of this he was proudest—he had managed to earn not a single demerit in four years. He was an officer without blemish.

The best cadets were always routed into the Corps of Engineers, not only the most demanding army branch but, in an era when the mission of the United States Army was mainly to defend against invasion by sea, arguably the most important. The engineers designed and built seacoast forts, and Lee was assigned to oversee the laying of the foundation of Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island, Georgia, and to work on Fort Calhoun and Fort Monroe—the “Gibraltar of the Chesapeake.” While assigned to Fort Monroe, he began his courtship of Mary Anna Randolph Custis, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Custis Washington’s son, whom George Washington had adopted. They wed in 1831, a marriage of Virginia royalty.

Lee was a truly promising young officer. But there were any number of promising young officers in the American military, who generally struggled financially when there were no wars to fight. West Point graduates of Lee’s vintage typically served for a time before resigning their commissions in order to pursue some more profitable civilian enterprise. For the army at peace could offer very little. Lee was an exception. As an engineer in a time of national expansion, he had much to do. He directed the survey of the Ohio-Michigan state line, and he drew up a successful plan to arrest the Mississippi River’s movement away from the St. Louis levees. By this, he saved the river economy on which the city depended. He went on to other major civil engineering projects, which earned him acclaim and revealed a genius for strategic thinking. It was in 1842, while serving as post engineer at Fort Hamilton, in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, that Captain Lee met Lieutenant Thomas J. Jackson, who, as Stonewall Jackson, was destined to become Lee’s “right arm” in the victory that has been called his military masterpiece, the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863).

Lee could justifiably take great satisfaction in his achievements as an engineer, but, with a heart and mind always dedicated to his father, he longed for glorious combat. Opportunity approached in the spring of 1846 when Major General Winfield Scott named him to his staff during the US-Mexican War (1846–1848). As part of the most ambitious military campaign the US Army had ever attempted up to this point in its history, Lee’s staff service was no cushy rear-echelon job. As an engineer officer, he led topographical reconnaissance in advance of Scott’s army as it invaded Mexico, bound for Mexico City following an amphibious assault (the first in US Army history) on Veracruz. Lee’s mission was to determine the most advantageous routes of inland march and attack, as well as the best schemes for positioning artillery and field fortifications. There were no accurate maps to work from; therefore, there was no substitute for endless riding far in advance of the main columns. The hazard was extreme. Lee embraced it, and throughout the long march from Veracruz to the Mexican capital, it was Robert E. Lee who essentially commanded—and often personally carried out—the most important reconnaissance missions. At Cerro Gordo (April 18, 1847) and Chapultepec (September 12–13, 1847), his battle intelligence enabled Scott to plot overwhelmingly effective flanking attacks executed through terrain so rugged that the Mexican commanders had left them undefended on the assumption that no army could negotiate such ground.

For gallantry, Lee was breveted to the rank of major after Cerro Gordo. He fought at Contreras (August 19–20, 1847) and Churubusco (August 20, 1847) after this and received a brevet to lieutenant colonel. Wounded—though not seriously—at Chapultepec (September 12–13, 1847) in the assault on Mexico City, Lee was brevetted to colonel. It brought as well high praise from fellow Virginian Winfield Scott, who called Lee the “very best soldier I ever saw in the field.” When the Civil War erupted, Scott, as general-in-chief-of the US Army, tapped Lee to assume field command of Union forces. Lee not only turned him down, but resigned his commission, writing to General Scott on April 20, 1861, of his indebtedness to him for “uniform kindness & consideration” and promising to “carry with me to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, & your name & fame,” but expressing his own desire “never … again to draw my sword … [s]ave in the defence of my native State.”

The US-Mexican War gave Lee and a generation of American military officers their first experience of battle against a large opposing army. Lee took more away from the experience than most. He honed an already acute sense of how “the ground”—landscape, topography—shapes battle. This was essential to his tactical genius. He also repeatedly saw that frontal attacks, when victoriously executed, could be overwhelmingly effective. Perhaps he called upon the memory of such attacks when he proposed a frontal infantry assault over nearly a mile of open fields against well-defended Union positions on Cemetery Ridge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 3, 1863). “Pickett’s Charge” would prove catastrophic for the Army of Northern Virginia and, ultimately, the Confederacy.

It is also likely that an extended experience of war during 1846–1848 made the peacetime army unappealing to Lee. He accepted appointment as superintendent of West Point in 1852 and performed brilliantly in the job, but jumped at the opportunity that President Franklin Pierce’s secretary of war, future Confederate president Jefferson Davis, gave him in 1855 to serve as second in command of the 2nd US Cavalry Regiment in Apache and Comanche territory in Texas. His commanding officer was regimental Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, who would become one of the early generals of the Provisional Confederate army.

At between 8,000 and 16,000 officers and men, the pre-Civil War US Army was an intimate band of brothers, and when Lee experienced a family emergency—the death in 1857 of his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis—he was readily granted leave to sort out a complex will and an estate encumbered by massive debts. At this time, Lee contemplated resigning his commission to try to save the estate, Arlington, and care for his wife, who was suffering from severe arthritis. But he could never quite bring himself to leave the army. Then, on October 16, 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown raided the federal arsenal and armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia), taking about sixty townspeople hostage, among them the great-grandnephew of George Washington. Lee was assigned to lead an ad hoc assemblage of Maryland and Virginia militiamen and a Washington-based detachment of US Marines to recover the armory and arsenal and to rescue the hostages. Lee carried out his mission successfully and thus played a role in an incident often seen as a prelude to the Civil War. He himself saw it only as the “attempt of a fanatic or madman” to set off a slave rebellion. But the nation rolled on toward dissolution. On February 1, 1861, shortly after Texas seceded from the Union, Brevet Major General David E. Twiggs, commanding officer of the Department of Texas, summarily surrendered his entire US Army command to Confederate authorities, resigned his commission, and accepted a commission as a general officer in the Confederate army. Now Lee paid attention. He immediately left Arlington for Washington. There he was promoted to full colonel in the regular army and assigned to command the 1st Cavalry on March 28, 1861.

That promotion had come at the urging of Winfield Scott, who also advised President Lincoln of his intention to give Lee the top field command of US Army forces. When Lee turned him down, Scott was both appalled and astonished. He had heard from others that Lee scorned the very idea of secession and thought the notion of a “Confederacy” ludicrous. It is unclear whether Scott knew that Lee had declared that he would “never bear arms against the Union” while simultaneously speculating that it might become “necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty.” Yet Scott subsequently learned that Lee, after turning down his offer of command of Union forces in the field, had also deliberately ignored the offer of a commission in the Confederate army. Accordingly, Scott made a final, desperate attempt to give Lee command in the North. That offer prompted Lee’s resignation, to which Scott responded that it was the “greatest mistake of [Lee’s] life.”

Three days after resigning his US Army commission, Lee accepted, on April 23, command of Virginia state militia forces. A short time later, he was transferred to the Provisional Army of the Confederate States as one of its first five full generals. But his maiden battle, in western Virginia (West Virginia today) was hardly impressive. His subordinates, who were state militia officers, were resistant to his authority, and the people of Virginia’s western counties, who never wanted secession in the first place, were openly hostile. Nevertheless, on September 11, 1861, Lee decided to attack the Union position at Cheat Mountain, which looked down on an important turnpike as well as several mountain passes. Intelligence gathered from Union prisoners revealed that four thousand Union soldiers held the mountain, substantially outnumbering Lee’s own force. The Confederate commander hesitated to attack, quite unaware that the mountain top was actually occupied by no more than 300 Union troops. His delay having lost him the advantage of surprise, Lee skirmished indecisively and then withdrew. He was denounced by the Southern press as “Evacuating Lee” and, even worse, “Granny Lee.” Bumped from field command, he was assigned to organize the coastal defenses in the Carolinas and Georgia before President Jefferson Davis named him his personal military advisor. Davis acknowledged that Lee was unpopular with the press, but he shared the opinion of Lee’s fellow officers that Lee had the makings of a great commander. Accordingly, when Joseph E. Johnston was badly wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines on June 1, 1862, Davis replaced Johnston with Lee as commanding officer of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Johnston, who enthusiastically supported Davis’s choice, was widely admired, but he was committed to the defensive tactic of the strategic retreat. He met Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign—the Union’s first major offensive in southeastern Virginia—by yielding ground while claiming Union casualties. Lee believed this approach was fatal to Confederate morale, and as soon as he took command, he shocked McClellan by offering the fiercest of attacks in each of the so-called Seven Days Battles, which spanned June 25 to July 1, 1862. Lee transformed what McClellan had intended as a war-winning offensive targeting Richmond into a succession of Confederate attacks on the Army of the Potomac.

Contrary to both contemporary popular opinion and enduring myth, Lee was hardly at his tactical best in the Seven Days, but he did reveal himself as an inspiring commander with an ability to extract the utmost aggression from his men. The Battle of Oak Grove (June 25) ended inconclusively and with relatively light casualties on both sides, but it put Lee in position to seize the initiative on the following day at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek (Battle of Mechanicsville, June 26). While Lee suffered a tactical defeat—1,484 casualties versus 361 for the Union—he set up a major strategic triumph by forcing McClellan to withdraw from the Richmond area.

The Battle of Gaines Mill (June 27) on the next day again resulted in heavier losses for Lee (7,993 killed, wounded, missing, or captured) than McClellan (6,837 killed, wounded, missing, or captured), but so unnerved the Union general that he began the retreat of the entire Army of the Potomac all the way back to his supply base on the James River. For his part, Lee was not about to let him go. He engaged portions of the withdrawing Union forces at Garnett’s & Golding’s Farms (June 27–28) before mounting a major attack at the Battle of Savage’s Station (June 29), exacting more than a thousand casualties. By noon on June 30, most of the battered Army of the Potomac had retreated across White Oak Swamp Creek. Lee hit the main body of the army at Glendale (June 30) while his subordinate Stonewall Jackson attacked McClellan’s rearguard (under Major General William B. Franklin) at White Oak Swamp (June 30). By the numbers, both engagements were inconclusive, but the humiliating “optics” were incredibly damaging to the Union and just as incredibly inspiring to the Confederacy. Lee was driving McClellan away, whipping him as a man might whip a dog.

The final battle of the Seven Days, at Malvern Hill (July 1), was evenly matched, pitting 54,000 men of the Army of the Potomac against 55,000 of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee suffered 5,355 casualties to McClellan’s 3,214, but persisted in pursuing McClellan. Concluding that McClellan was unwilling to use his army effectively against Lee, Lincoln ordered him to link up with John Pope’s Army of Virginia to reinforce him at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862).

It was at this battle that Lee revealed the tactical daring absent from his action at the Seven Days. He attacked the Army of Virginia before the slow-moving McClellan arrived in to consolidate with it his Army of the Potomac. In this attack, Lee purposefully broke one of the supposedly inviolable military commandments by dividing his forces in the presence of the enemy. He sent one wing under Stonewall Jackson to attack on August 28. This deceived Pope into believing that he had Jackson exactly where he (Pope) wanted him. The Union general could taste victory. But, in fact, it was Jackson who was holding Pope, so that Longstreet, leading Lee’s other wing, could launch a surprise counterattack on August 30. This attack, 25,000 men brought to bear all at once, was the single greatest mass attack of the Civil War, and it brought about a second Union defeat at Bull Run that was far costlier than the first. Pope lost 14,642 killed, wounded, captured, or missing. Lee lost half that number.

The Second Battle of Bull Run made Robert E. Lee the general to beat. Pope had been fired, and McClellan was recalled to lead the Army of the Potomac against the ever-aggressive Lee, who had decided to take the war to the North by invading Maryland. McClellan fought him at Antietam in that state on September 17, 1862.

At the beginning of the Seven Days, the battle line had been some six miles outside of Richmond. Three months later and thanks to Lee, it was at Antietam, just twenty miles outside of Washington. At the end of the day, McClellan had suffered heavier losses than Lee (12,410 to 10,316 killed, wounded, missing, or captured) but he had forced Lee to withdraw back into Virginia. President Lincoln used this narrow Union victory to launch his Emancipation Proclamation, but, privately, he was bitterly disappointed—heartbroken, really—that McClellan had failed to pursue the retreating Lee in the way that Lee had earlier pursued the retreating McClellan.

Abraham Lincoln removed George McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac and replaced him with Ambrose Burnside—despite Burnside’s own protests that he was not up to commanding a full army. At Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862), Burnside proved his self-appraisal to be correct. Although substantially outnumbered (78,513 to 122,009), Lee dealt Burnside and the Army of the Potomac a catastrophic defeat, inflicting 12,653 casualties for his own losses of 4,201 killed, wounded, or missing.

Lincoln replaced Burnside with Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, who proclaimed, “May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.” Hooker commanded an Army of the Potomac that now mustered nearly 134,000 men, whereas Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia amounted to no more than 60,298. Lopsided though the numbers were, the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863) was Lee’s tactical masterpiece—arguably the tactical masterpiece of the Civil War itself. Once again, Lee divided his forces in the presence of the enemy, dispatching his cavalry to control the roads and bottle up Union reinforcements at Fredericksburg while 26,000 men under Stonewall Jackson surprised Hooker’s flank even as he, Lee, personally commanded a force of 17,000 against Hooker’s front. The result stunned the Union general into utter confusion. Jackson’s surprise attack routed an entire corps and drove the principal portion of Hooker’s army out of its well-prepared defensive positions. By May 2, the Army of the Potomac, though it outnumbered the Army of Northern Virginia two to one, had been sent into headlong retreat.

Yet Lee understood that he was in no position to bask in his triumph, great as it was. Hooker had suffered 17,287 casualties, but he himself had lost 13,303 killed, wounded, captured, or missing—all out of a much smaller force. Hooker’s casualty rate was roughly 13 percent, whereas his own was a staggering 22 percent. Despite the victories he delivered, Lee was convinced that the Confederacy could not endure such attrition much longer. He therefore resolved to once again invade the North. This time, his objective was Pennsylvania. Not only did he want to raid the countryside for much-needed provisions, Lee believed a successful invasion would utterly demoralize the North and erode its will to continue the war while also opening up an avenue for an assault on Washington itself. This, he believed, would cost Lincoln reelection and bring into office a Democrat willing to conclude a negotiated end to the Civil War.

The grim fate of Lee’s aspirations for the Battle of Gettysburg. Defeated badly here, Lee was nevertheless able to withdraw back into Virginia, his army diminished but still very much intact. He would lead it next against his most formidable adversary, Ulysses S. Grant, in the Civil War’s culminating Virginia battles. In many of these engagements, Lee would, in fact, beat Grant. But, unlike the other Union opponents Lee had confronted, Grant responded to defeat not with retreat, but with continued advance toward Richmond. Each advance forced Lee to pit his dwindling Army of Northern Virginia against Grant’s continually reinforced army. The Union general understood and embraced the ultimate calculus of the Civil War, which was that the North could afford to spend more lives than the South and could replenish most of its losses.

Lee’s objective in the final months of the war was to make his own increasingly inevitable defeat so costly to the Union that the people of the North might demand a negotiated settlement after all. Costly he did make it, but, in the end, Robert E. Lee felt compelled to admit defeat. In this admission was perhaps the most profound and enduring significance of his elevation to top command of Confederate forces. For as he had been uncompromising in his quest for victory, so he proved equally uncompromising in his manner of surrender. He secured from Grant the best terms possible, namely the right of his men to return to their homes unmolested and without loss of honor. In return for this, he exercised his character and influence to ensure that the war would in fact end rather than devolve into a long and lawless guerrilla struggle, which is the fate of so many civil conflicts throughout history.