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Robert E. Lee

Biography >> Civil War

Robert E. Lee
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Where did Robert E. Lee grow up?

Robert E. Lee was born on January 19, 1807 in Stratford Hall, Virginia. His father, Henry, was a hero during the American Revolutionary War where he earned the nickname "Light Horse Harry". His mother, Ann Carter, came from a wealthy family.

Despite his family's pedigree, they were not rich. Robert's father had made some bad business deals and lost all of the family's money. When Robert was two years old, his dad went to debtor's prison. A few years later his dad went to the West Indies and never returned.

Becoming a Soldier

Since Robert's family didn't have any money, he saw the military as a great way to get a free education and to have a career. He entered the West Point Military Academy at the age of 18 and graduated in 1829 near the top of his class. After graduating, he joined the Army Corps of Engineers where he would help build forts and bridges for the army.

Getting Married

In 1831 Robert married Mary Custis. Mary came from a famous family and was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. Mary and Robert would have 7 children over the years, including three boys and four girls.

Mexican-American War

Lee's first encounter with combat and war took place during the Mexican-American War. He reported to General Winfield Scott who would later say that Lee was one of the best soldiers he had ever seen in battle. Lee was promoted to colonel for his efforts during the war and had made a name for himself as a military leader.

Harpers Ferry

In 1859, John Brown led his raid at Harpers Ferry. He was protesting slavery in the South and was hoping to start up a revolt among the slaves. Lee was in charge of a group of marines sent in to stop the raid. Once Lee arrived, the marines quickly subdued John Brown and his men. Once again, Lee had made a name for himself.

The Civil War Begins

When the Civil War began in 1861, Lee was offered command of the Union army by President Lincoln. Lee, however, was also loyal to his home state of Virginia and felt he could not fight against his home state. He left the United States Army and became General of the Confederate Army of Virginia.

Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia

Lee took command of one of the most important armies during the Civil War. The Virginia army fought many of the key battles of the eastern front. Lee chose talented officers such as Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and Jeb Stuart. Although the Confederate armies were constantly outnumbered by the Union armies, Lee and his men managed to win many battles through their brilliance and courage.

Lee earned the nickname the Grey Fox. The "grey" was because he wore the grey uniform of the Confederate soldier and rode a grey horse. The "fox" was because he was smart and cunning as a military leader.

Civil War Battles where Lee commanded

Lee commanded during many famous Civil War battles including the Seven Days Battle, the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Battle of Gettysburg, the Battle of Cold Harbor, and the Battle of Appomattox.


Lee fought brilliantly, but eventually the overwhelming numbers of the Union forces had him surrounded. On April 9, 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to General Ulysses S. Grant at the courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia. He received good terms for his soldiers, who were given food and allowed to return home.

After the War

Although Lee could have been tried and hung as a traitor to the United States, he was forgiven by President Lincoln. Lee became president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. He worked there until he died from a stroke in 1870. Lee only wanted peace and healing for the United States after the Civil War.

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