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Robert E. Lee

December 10, 2019 in History

By History.com Editors

Robert E. Lee was a well-born Confederate general who led the South’s attempt at secession during the Civil War. He challenged Union forces during the war’s bloodiest battles, including Antietam and Gettysburg, before surrendering to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in 1865 at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, marking the end of the devastating conflict that nearly split the United States.

Robert E. Lee (TV-PG; 2:27)

Who Was Robert E. Lee?

Lee was born in Stratford Hall, a plantation in Virginia, on January 19, 1807, to a wealthy and socially prominent family. His mother, Anne Hill Carter, also grew up on a plantation and his father, Colonel Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, was descended from colonists and become a Revolutionary War leader and three-term governor of Virginia.

But the family hit hard times when Lee’s father made a series of bad investments that left him in debtors’ prison. He fled to the West Indies and died in 1818 while trying to return to Virginia when Lee was barely a teen.

With little money for his education, the Lee went to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for a military education. He graduated second in his class in 1829 — and the following month he would lose his mother.

Robert E. Lee’s Children

After graduation, Lee’s military career quickly took off as he chose a position with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

A year later, he began courting a childhood connection, Mary Custis Washington. Given his father’s diminished reputation, Lee had to propose twice to win approval to wed Mary, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington and the step-great-granddaughter of President George Washington.

The pair married in 1831; Lee and his wife would have seven children, including three sons — George, William and Robert — who followed him into the military to fight for the Confederate States during the Civil War.

As the couple were establishing their family, Lee frequently travelled with the military on engineer projects. He first distinguished himself in battle during the Mexican-American War under General Winfield Scott in the battles of Veracruz, Churubusco, and Chapultepec. Scott once declared that Lee was “the very best soldier that I ever saw in the …read more


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