General Robert E. Lee, the Man…
Descended from several of Virginia’s First Families, General Robert E. Lee was a well-regarded officer of the United States Army before the American Civil War. Born in 1807 to Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee in Stratford Hall, Virginia, Robert Edward Lee seemed destined for military greatness. His decision to fight for the Confederacy was emblematic of the wrenching choices faced by Americans as the nation divided.
By the end of the American Civil War, General Lee was 58, a husband, married 34 years to Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee (the witty, artistic great-granddaughter of Martha Washington), and a father of seven children, ages 19 to 33, to whom he was powerfully attached.
In fact, I have become attached to General Lee in my own way. It appears that General Lee’s third child William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, 28, married my second cousin (6X removed), Ms. Mary Tabb Bolling, just two years after the war ended and during the postbellum/reconstruction period.
General Lee had tied his anchor to the Custis-Lee Mansion and the family seat at Arlington, (known as the “Custis-Lee Mansion,” the “Arlington House,” and now the “Robert E. Lee Memorial”) with its splendid grounds and historical associations. Unfortunately, during the war, the federal government confiscated the lands and the property because the Lees failed to show up in person and pay property taxes levied against it. The property was offered for public sale Jan. 11, 1864, and was purchased by a tax commissioner for “government use, for war, military, charitable and educational purposes.”
It was on June 15, 1864, when Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, who commanded the garrison at Arlington House, appropriated the grounds for use as a military cemetery. Today, Arlington National Cemetery is the most famous cemetery in the country and the final resting place for many of our nation’s greatest heroes, including more than 300,000 veterans of every American conflict, from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Just a short 5 years later, on October 12, 1870, Robert died at age 63, most likely from pneumonia at his home in Lexington, Virginia. Three years later Robert’s wife passed at age 66. Neither Robert E. Lee nor his wife, Mary Anna, ever attempted to publicly recover control of Arlington House. They were buried at Washington University (later renamed Washington and Lee University) where Lee had served as president. The couple never returned to the home George Washington Parke Custis had built and treasured. However, Mary Anna Lee did visit Arlington just a few months before her death in 1873. Unable to get out of the carriage, one of her former slaves, brought her a drink of water from the well. 1“I rode out to my dear old home but so changed it seemed but a dream of the past—I could not have realized it was Arlington but for the few old oaks they had spared and the trees planted by the General and myself which are raising their tall branches to the Heaven which seems to smile on the desecration around them.”
General Robert E. Lee, the Surrender…
One hundred and fifty years ago, on April 7, 1865, with General Robert E. Lee’s army surrounded, his men weak and exhausted, he began exchanging a series of notes with Union leader, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. The Battle of Appomattox Court House fought on the morning of April 9, 1865, was one of the last battles of the American Civil War. It was the final engagement of Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia before it surrendered to the Union Army.
Lee, abandoned the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, after the ten-month Siege of Petersburg. Even at the end of the campaign, on April 2, 1865, Lee evacuated more than 50,000 men out of Richmond and Petersburg, while Grant’s combined armies counted at least 110,000 men by that time. Although precise figures are hard to come by, the best estimates suggest 42,000 Union casualties and 28,000 Confederate casualties, in total. Lee and his men retreated west, hoping to join his army with the Confederate forces in North Carolina. However, Union forces pursued and cut off the Confederate retreat at the village of Appomattox Court House. Lee launched an attack to break through the Union force to his front, assuming the Union force consisted entirely of cavalry. When he realized that the cavalry was backed up by two corps of Union infantry, he had no choice but to surrender. After four years of Civil War, approximately 630,000 deaths and over 1 million casualties, the two men agreed to meet on April 9, 1865, at the house of Wilmer McLean in the village of Appomattox Courthouse.
2The contrast between the two commanders was striking, and could not fail to attract marked attention as they sat ten feet apart facing each other. General Grant, then nearly forty-three years of age, was five feet eight inches in height, with shoulders slightly stooped. His hair and full beard were a nut-brown, without a trace of gray in them. He had on a single-breasted blouse, made of dark-blue flannel, unbuttoned in front, and showing a waistcoat underneath. He wore an ordinary pair of top-boots, with his trousers inside, and was without spurs. The boots and portions of his clothes were spattered with mud. He had no sword, and a pair of shoulder-straps was all there was about him to designate his rank. In fact, aside from these, his uniform was that of a private soldier.
Lee, on the other hand, age 58, was fully six feet in height, and quite erect for one of his age, for he was Grant’s senior by about sixteen years. His hair and full beard were silver-gray, and quite thick, except that the hair had become a little thin on the front. He wore a new uniform of Confederate gray, buttoned up to the throat, and at his side, he carried a long sword of exceedingly fine workmanship, the hilt studded with jewels. His top-boots were comparatively new and seemed to have on them some ornamental stitching of red silk. Like his uniform, they were singularly clean, and but little travel-stained. On the boots were handsome spurs, with large rowels. A felt hat, which in color matched pretty closely that of his uniform, and a pair of long buckskin gauntlets lay beside him on the table. The meeting lasted about 2-1/2 hours and at its close, the bloodiest conflict in the nation’s history was nearing its end. General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, at the home of Wilmer and Virginia McLean in the rural town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
- Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant
- Lt. Col. Ely Parker
- Lt. Col. Orville E. Babcock
- Maj. Gen. Edward O. C. Ord
- Lt. Col. Horace Porter
- Capt. Robert T. Lincoln
- Lt. Col. Theodore S. Bowers
- Maj. Gen. Phillip H. Sheridan
- Brig. Gen. John Rawlins
- Brig. Gen. Rufus Ingalls
- Lt. Col. Adam Badeau
- Brig. Gen. George H. Sharpe
- Brig. Gen. Michael Morgan
- Brig. Gen. Seth Williams
General Lee, the Sad Departure from Miltary Service…
2“At a little before 4 o’clock General Lee shook hands with General Grant, bowed to the other officers, and with Colonel Marshall left the room. One after another we followed and passed out to the porch. Lee signaled to his orderly to bring up his horse, and while the animal was being bridled the general stood on the lowest step and gazed sadly in the direction of the valley beyond where his army laid – now an army of prisoners. He smote his hands together a number of times in an absent sort of way; seemed not to see the group of Union officers in the yard who rose respectfully at his approach, and appeared unconscious of everything about him. All appreciated the sadness that overwhelmed him, and he had the personal sympathy of everyone who beheld him at this supreme moment of trial. The approach of his horse seemed to recall him from his reverie, and he at once mounted. General Grant now stepped down from the porch, and, moving toward him, saluted him by raising his hat. He was followed in this act of courtesy by all our officers present; Lee raised his hat respectfully, and rode off to break the sad news to the brave fellows whom he had so long commanded.”
1″Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial: Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee,” http://www.nps.gov/arho/learn/historyculture/mary-lee.htm
2“Surrender at Appomattox, 1865,” EyeWitness to History, http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (1997).