Robert Edward Lee;10 Facts You Must Know About His Life

General Robert Edward.He is one of the leading and largely controversial faces of American history. He was a capable soldier and a principled man. Thanks to the high position that the rank of general brought him, he had to be able not only to decide, but also to accept the consequences. Robert Edward Lee (1807–1870), commander-in-chief of the Southern troops in the final stages of the North-South War (1861–1865), knew this well. He also had a contradictory relationship to the issue of slavery.

General Robert Edward

Robert E. Lee was born a “military child” in Virginia on January 19, 1807, the son of Major General and Governor Henry Lee III. and his wife Anne Hill Carter Lee.

“His father was a cavalry general in the War of Independence; however, the family later struggled with financial problems, so he was left with a military career as a path to education and social status, “Jiří Hutečka from the Historical Institute of the University of Hradec Králové, a historian of war and military history who told the general’s personality. Leeho.

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Henry Lee III. he died when little Robert was only 11 years old. The standard of living of the family, to which the brothers Henry Lee IV also belonged. and Robert Henry Lee, deteriorated so much that it fell from the tops of the social rungs to the bottom. Nevertheless, Robert’s mother did not give up and supported her son in her studies.

An error named West Point?

“Robert’s decision to eventually start his studies at the prestigious West Point was perhaps somewhat happy. He probably wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and prove that he can be successful, “historian Michaela Košťálová remarked for Novinky.

“Nevertheless, today there are interpretations according to which RE Lee allegedly regretted his decision to enter military school – and probably in his entire military life – and just before his death he had to call the decision to graduate from military school a big mistake,” she added. historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor, who also devoted herself to this aspect of the general’s life.

According to Lee, slavery was a moral evil, but also a work of Providence, and it was not up to the people to judge this institution or try to abolish it.

Jiří Hutečka, historian

In any case, graduating from West Point in 1829 made Lee a professional soldier. He later joined the engineering officer at Fort Pulaski, Georgia, and was given the first small tasks to solve. Thanks to his technical talent, it was mainly the use of his person in planning military forts or other facilities.

He worked briefly in many places, in Fort Monroe and near Missouri and Mississippi. Later, in the war with Mexico (1846–1848), where, according to Hutečka, he gained a decent reputation, he served as an aide to General Winfield Scott. In 1847 he received the rank of major and at the end of the Battle of Cerro Gordo he was promoted to the military rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1852 he became rector of the West Point Academy. Three years later, he gained the position of commander of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in the fight against the Apaches and Comanches.

Colored portrait of General Robert E. Lee


His military career went up steeply and his private life also proved successful. As early as 1831, he married Mary Anna Custis, the great-great-granddaughter of President George Washington. He gave birth to a total of seven children with her. The oldest descendant was William Henry Fitzhugh Lee (born 1832) and the youngest Mildred Childe Lee (born 1846).

A slave for three years. In fact, against his will

One of the difficult decisions he had to deal with was the issue of slavery. In 1857, an extensive inheritance came from his wife, which included, among other things, over sixty slaves. In the end, he decided to keep the slaves that he originally intended to release, and try to work with them somehow.

Hutka reminded that Lee’s family never owned slaves – they were too poor for that. However, they were owned by the Custis family, ie his wife’s family, and he inherited them after the death of his father-in-law in 1857, together with the family home in Arlington (now in Washington, now the National Cemetery on the site).

“Obviously he was not happy because he did not understand the plantations, but for three years he became a slave, which quite logically led to disciplining the slaves, letting them whip for disobedience (a common punishment not only for slaves but also in the army) and selling them. In principle, however, he probably acknowledged when he finally gave most of them freedom on the basis of his father-in-law’s last will, “the historian Hutečka described for Novinky.

“We know his view of slavery from a letter to his wife in 1856, and Lee is actually a typical inhabitant of the American South (but also of the North – he was quite a typical child of his time): slavery was a moral evil, but also a work of Providence, and was not it is up to the people to judge this institution or try to abolish it, “the historian explained.

According to him, Lee believed that “God’s intention is to civilize slaves, and therefore they are better off slavery than in Africa.” “The process of civilization, for example, consisted of education, which, however, rubbed a bit, as the education of slaves was gradually banned by all the states of the South for fear of rebellion. However, Lee did not address this paradox in his thoughts, “remarked an expert from the University of Hradec Králové.


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However, Lee was convinced that once this intention was fulfilled, slavery would cease on its own. According to him, trying to abolish them was, however, a crime against God and a political crime, which only divides society. He therefore rejected abolitionism (abolitionism means a movement seeking to repeal a law or provision; it refers mainly to the Anglo-American movement, whose main goal was the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the 19th century) .

Lee with his men


In addition, in 1859, Lee was more or less coincidental as the “intervention commander” of military troops involved in the liquidation of John Brown’s radical abolitionist detachment, which occupied the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in hopes of provoking a slave uprising. Brown was arrested and the court had him hanged.

“For Lee, who was a social conservative, it was logical, because Brown was a dangerous lunatic for him and a violator of the order of things – given by Providence,” Hutečka points to a suitable concrete example of the warlord’s contemporary thinking.

Union or Confederation?

When the United States began to disintegrate in December 1860 after the election of Abraham Lincoln, it was a tragedy for Lee, because in his life he was loyal to two things: his family and his homeland. And now he had to choose because his family was firmly attached to Virginia, so when this state withdrew from the Union (North) in response to the first armed conflict between the federal government and the rebel states, Lee resigned his rank and function on April 18, 1861. at that time at the Army Staff in Washington) and entered the service of Virginia, then the Confederacy (South), where Virginia entered.


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When a war broke out, known as the War of the North against the South, broke out first, Lee intended to remain loyal to the Union Army, but the condition was that the state of Virginia would remain on the side of the federal government. He remained in command of the Confederate troops until the famous battle of Appomattox, after which he signed a capitulation on April 9, 1865.

The decision of 1861 to “transfer” was shocking to most of its surroundings, Ivan Brož wrote in the publication Stars Against the Stars, American Civil War 1861–1865. According to Hutečka, it was a relatively common dilemma, solved by a number of officers and about a quarter of them did the same. For the most part, they followed the same logic of loyalty to the family – family ties were stronger in the agrarian society of the South than in the North, and were often the only certainty for officers living elsewhere in the United States. On the other hand, there were dozens of those who did not succumb to social pressure and remained loyal to the uniform.

For most officers, however, it was literally “Sophia’s choice,” as the military was a priori apolitical — they were unprepared for something like this (to choose between the halves of the country in a civil war), and they resented it.

One of the scenes from the war of the North against the South


This was followed by the most famous part of Lee’s career, but initially quite infamous, according to Hutečka: a staff officer, then an unsuccessful field commander in defense of West Virginia, then again a staff officer of Confederate President Jefferson Davis …

But when, by coincidence, he became commander of the army defending the nearly besieged Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, the “savior” of the South was born in 1862. He then commanded virtually the entire war in the Army of Northern Virginia, ie one of several Confederate armies, which, however, operated on the most media-covered battlefield between the two capitals, so that its actions and successes were constantly in the “spotlight”.

“He became the commander of the entire Confederate army barely half a year before the end of the war,” Hutečka warned, adding that people often did not know.

Experts still dispute how good the commander was. Hutečka therefore offers several facts:

(a) his soldiers generally respected him almost to adore him, even though they suffered considerable losses under his command;

  1. b) his opponents respected him, especially those who knew him personally or by hearsay from the pre-war army;
  2. c) Lee eventually lost the war on his battlefield (his army ended up besieged in Richmond after three years); although he had a number of defensive successes in the meantime, he never managed to achieve such a victory that the North would give up the war.

General Lee signs the surrender on April 9, 1865 after the Battle of Appomattox.


So he himself declared at the end of the war that he had lost only because of the “overwhelming predominance” of the enemy, but this is only partially true, according to Huteckka. “The South lost the war elsewhere, but its aggressive strategy, which led to heavy losses, may have hastened the defeat in the end – so it was certainly not successful,” he said.

After the war, Lee retired, became rector of Washington College, Lexington (now Washington and Lee University), and died there five years after the war, on October 12, 1870, and died of a stroke.

Sculptures tear down?

At the end of his life, Lee refused to comment on politics. He argued that reconciliation and investment in education were the only meaningful policies for the South. In private, he continued to reject “radical politics” as a voting right for former slaves, “because they are not civilized enough, they succumb to the lure of demagogues, and it angers the white population and eventually turns against African Americans; so for their good it is better to leave them in the state of incomplete citizens “, said the Czech historian.

After his death, the Confederates’ advocates (often his former officers) quickly took over his memory and made him a symbol of the “struggle of the South for freedom,” a morally perfect “spotless knight,” the “best soldier of his time,” who certainly did not fight for slavery and succumbed only. due to the overwhelming dominance of the industrial North.

Equestrian statue of Generals in Charlottesville, Virginia


“At the same time, Lee was somehow digestible for the entire United States, so as a symbol he covered up the whole process of reconciliation, culminating in the 1990s. However, it was a reconciliation where the Union accepted the Southern interpretation of history, including the result of racial segregation and the deprivation of the black population of civil rights. Lee eventually became the national hero of the entire United States – his birthday was (somewhere is still) an official holiday in many states, his statues are everywhere possible (although he has never been there), he is one of the three figures on Stone Mountain, his statue represents ( together with G. Washington) Virginia in the Capitol, they named after him several ships, a tank and a nuclear submarine, “he named Hutečka.

According to Hutavka, it is necessary to realize that most of his sculptures are the product of the years 1890–1950, when they were supposed to symbolize not necessarily immediate commemoration (these are maximally on battlefields), but the permanence of the Southern interpretation of the war. “And the more this interpretation was under the pressure of social change, the more the statues were built, like in our country the statues of Joseph II. in the German-speaking regions more than a hundred years after the emperor’s death, “he likened.

A national hero who turned against his own country

Lee’s connection to slavery then makes him an easy target for today’s political debates. Lee owned slaves, supported slavery at least passively, and defended a state that enshrined racial slavery in the constitution. “On the other hand, it can be understood that it has a different meaning for local patriots, but those meanings cannot be separated – one could be an American patriot, a local patriot, a standard racist and believe that he is fighting for his family’s freedom against the US government,” Hutečka described.

“A bigger paradox is the willingness of American society, sometimes so obsessed with patriotism beyond the grave, to celebrate for a hundred years as a national hero and a ‘perfect American’ officer who turned against his own country and inflicted considerable losses on it. “One thing is simple pardon and forgiveness, another thing is the statues at the seat of the US Congress,” he continued.


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