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Great American Generals – Robert E. Lee

Few episodes in history are more painful to Americans than the Civil War, fought between the North and the South. This biography, Great American Generals – Robert E. Lee, by Ian Hogg, takes the reader through the life of one of the greatest heroes of that war, Robert E. Lee. It is a thorough, in depth record of the life of Lee and begins with a detailed account of his family history and his birth, through his college years, military experience and his work in later life to his death on October 12, 1870.

The first few pages set the scene by listing a substantial amount of facts about the names and backgrounds of his arents Harry and Ann and Lee’s wife, Mary Custis, with some reference to his father’s army career and political life. After Lee’s early years, the reader will learn of his schooling at the Military Academy, West Point, followed by his life in the Army before and after the Civil War. The biography ends in the latter pages with an account of his work after his military career came to an end, and finally, with his death after a prolonged period of ill-health, thought to be stress induced.

Author Ian Hogg is a prolific writer in the field of defense and military technology. He is a weapons expert, having written many books on all ypes of rifles, shotguns and small arms, such as Modern Rifles, Shotguns and Pistols, and Modern Small Arms. He is an acknowledged expert on infantry weapons and is thought to be the world’s leading expert on this and artillery strategies. He is a well known author of military history, and works as a weapons evaluator in addition to his writing. Robert E. Lee was born in Stratford, Virginia on January 19, 1807.

His father, Henry Lee, had achieved fame with Washington’s army as “Lighthorse Harry,”and it was a fame that rested not only on his cavalry exploits but upon sound strategic and tactical ability. A significant portion of his fame was redited to him for beating off a surprise British attack at Spread Eagle Tavern in January, 1778. Unfortunately Harry was egotistical and had a high opinion of his own abilities. Although he achieved the rank of lieutenant-colonel, he felt that he deserved more. When the war ended and he had not advanced in rank he resigned from the army to pursue a career in politics.

Henry decided to run for the position of governor. He was elected Governor of Virginia for three terms. Retiring, as was then customary in Virginia, on the expiration of his third term, Henry Lee was enough in the public eye to be considered as a possible successor o Washington. He was, however, a poor manager of his affairs, and was constantly dodging his creditors, providing very little of substance for his family. He was a waster, with no thought for their welfare. A man with no sense of responsibility to his affairs, Henry Lee eventually ended up in jail for a year for non-payment of his debts.

Upon his release, he spent every waking moment writing his memoirs, with no regard for his family at all. Lee’s mother was Ann Carter Lee, daughter of Charles Carter. She was an invalid, but possessed a strong and beautiful character, and Robert grew up with a keen sense of honor and responsibility. Robert was named after his mother’s brothers, Edward and Robert Carter. Lee’s father, Henry, was separated from the family when Robert was only four years old. Lee’s mother left Henry due to his lack of provision for them, and Lee assumed the responsibility of the household at a very early age.

Henry subsequently died when Lee was only eleven, but Lee’s struggle to maintain the household without the presence of a father, and with little money, taught him valuable lessons in self-discipline, lessons which supported him well in his military career. Since there was no money for college, Robert entered the U. S. Military Academy in 1825 to pursue a career in the military. He was fortunate in becoming a Cadet at the Institution at a time when the Superintendent was Major Sylvanus Thayer, the man who started West Point on its way to fame as a military training school. He was the second to graduate in a class of 46.

Upon graduation, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Engineering Corps, a division of the Army which at that time received only the best Cadets. Unfortunately his pleasure and success diminished when he returned home to Arlington to find his mother in the last stages of her illness, and he iligently nursed her there until she died in July of 1829. Soon after Lee received orders saying that he was to report to Cockspur Island to help with the construction of Fort Pulaski. While there he corresponded with Mary Custis, the daughter of Martha Washington’s grandson.

She was also daughter of the wealthy George Washington Parke Custus, who upon his death left her two beautiful Virginia estates, Arlington and Whitehouse. In 1831, although against Mr. Custis’s wishes, he married Mary Custus. The first place the Lees went after their marriage was Fort Monroe. Mary Custis despised Fort Monroe. During a Christmas visit back to Arlington, she made the decision to remain there. In the Spring, Robert rode back to ask her to return, which she did. By this time she was pregnant and gave birth to their first child, George Washington Parke Custis Lee.

The Lees had four daughters and three sons. All three of their sons served in the Confederate Army. Lee’s wife never adjusted to the rigors of army posts and she and the children lived at Arlington until the war between the states, when their home fell into the hands of federal forces. Arlington was taken by the U. S. Government and was never restored to the Lee family, although one time the amily had sued to get it back and was granted an indemnity. On the outbreak of the Mexican War, in 1846, Lee was appointed to General Winfield Scott’s personal staff.

He proceeded to Brazos on January 16, 1847. The General was deep in preparations for the battle at Vera Cruz. This was to be Lee’s first experience under actual fire. Because of his brilliant leadership and skill in strategy, he won the praise of General Scott. Scott called Lee “the greatest military genius in America”, and “the best soldier I ever saw in the field. ” Lee was there to see the surrender of the Mexicans on March 29th. He survived many more encounters with the enemy in the war with Mexico. He arrived back in Washington on June 29, 1848, having been away for one year and ten months.

When Lee entered the war, he was a captain. He emerged with the rank of Colonel. His next duty was in Baltimore where he supervised the construction of Fort Carroll. This was to be his last engineering project because his next stop, in August 1852, was The United States Military Academy. He became Superintendent at West Point in 1852. In his three years of service there, Lee established some highly successful procedures which contributed to the eputation of the Academy. On April 12, 1855, Lee was sent to Louisville, Kentucky to take command of the 2nd. Cavalry.

As Colonel of Cavalry, Lee spent most of the next six years in Texas. In 1859, while visiting Arlington, he received a note from Colonel Drinkard ordering him to report to the Secretary of War immediately. At Harper’s Ferry trains had been stopped; firing had been heard; rumor had it that many strangers had arrived and were inciting slaves to rioting. It was reported to Lee that the leader of the gang was called John Brown, a notorious antislavery fanatic from Kansas, who had been unable to rally the slaves to ebellion and was finally besieged in a fire-house.

Lee was to lead the United States Marines, to suppress John Brown’s Raid at Harper’s Ferry. He asked Brown for his surrender, anticipating that this would not happen. When Brown refused to surrender, Lee ordered the door of the firehouse, in which Brown’s band had taken refuge, to be battered down. The troops had strict orders to attack only with bayonets, not to fire a single shot, in case any of the hostages would be wounded. The whole operation was over in three minutes. In the beginning of the war between the states, Lee found himself facing the most difficult decision of his life.

He believed in the abolition of slavery, but not by force. He believed in a united nation, but not one that could be maintained only by swords and bayonets. When President Lincoln asked him to take command of the Federal troops in the field, Lee replied that he could not take part in an invasion of his native state. He offered his resignation and within a few days, he was commissioned to General in the Confederate Army. He served as military advisor to Jefferson Davis, as Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and then as General-in-chief of all Confederate Armies.

The history of Lee’s conduct in the Confederate campaign is a story of a eroic struggle against overwhelming odds. In the first two years of the war, the South made considerable headway, successfully resisting General McClellan’s attempt to take Richmond. But there were never enough men, food, or guns. The transportation problem became progressively worse, and the Armies were continually at the mercy of political plunderers. Against the superior forces of the Union, Lee pitted all the strategy of a master soldier and he was able to deliver shattering blows at Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorville.

All of this was to come to an end with the arrival of the battle at Gettysburg. This was to be the turning point of the whole war. On July 1st, Lee rode towards Gettysburg, hearing the sound of gunfire in the distance. A few days later, having sustained tremendous casualties, Lee was planning his retreat. With the defeat of Lee’s army at Gettysburg, however, in July, 1863, the tide turned against the south. That was the last time Lee was able to gain an offensive position.

On April 9, 1865, realizing that further resistance was a waste of time, he surrendered his near starving, depleted army to General Ulysses S.Grant, the Union commander in chief, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. He penned a farewell address to his men and set off the next day to Richmond, where his family had been living since they had abandoned Arlington. His home confiscated, his family impoverished, and his heart heavy, with the burden of defeated South, Lee turned to the task of reconciliation. He applied immediately for pardon and restoration to citizenship, feeling that this example might lead other Confederates to do the same. He tried every way to heal the breach between the North and the South.

Positions of great honor and remuneration were offered to Lee, both in his own country and abroad, but he had no desire to enter into politically ontroversial activities. In the Summer of 1865 he was offered the Presidency of Washington College (renamed Washington & Lee University after his death), in Lexington, VA. The college was virtually in ruins, but Lee accepted the position after he was ensured his connection with the college would not injure it in any way. Lee’s friends and relatives were shocked at the idea that Lee would accept a position at such a small school.

He had received offers from many bigger and wealthier places. Lee, on the other hand, saw far beyond the title and looked on this as an opportunity to help rebuild the South by educating it’s youth. Lee truly felt his great purpose in life was to help make a united country and to this end he set about to educate Southern youth into a renewed spirit of loyalty. Lee accepted the post and headed for the college campus in Lexington. Once there, Lee found that as well as being President of the college, he was also Dean, Bursar, Registrar, Head Gardener, and general factotum.

His salary was $125 per month, and he had one secretary to assist him. Nonetheless, Lee set to his task and began writing to other institutions begging for money. Once the President’s house was ready, Lee’s wife and daughters joined him there. Lee’s sons were busy attempting to salvage the family estates, although Arlington was gone forever, forfeited for nonpayment of taxes during the war, when Union authorities insisted that delinquent taxpayers had to make payment in person, and it was by this time surrounded by a military cemetery – as it still is (pg. 5). Under Lee’s guidance, Washington College prospered.

The student body increased to four-hundred. The curriculum was widened, new buildings were gradually added, and as the fame of the college spread, students came from all over the United States. As the months went by, Lee’s health began to fail. He was treated fro heumatism, lumbago, and other complaints, but the plain fact was his heart was wearing out. In the Spring of 1869, Lee visited Baltimore in an effort to raise money for a railroad project.

From there he went on to Washington, where he visited his old friend, General Grant, who was now President of the United States. When Lee returned from Washington, he began to doubt his ability to continue as President of the college. He stated that the job needed a fitter man than he. His talk of resignation was dismissed, and the faculty, early in 1870, suggested that he should go south for a vacation to help regain his health. In the Summer of 1870, it was unusually hot, and Lee tired easily. He was no longer able to ride horse.

On September 28, it rained and Lee had to attend a church vestryman’s meeting, where he sat in his wet clothes and listened to the minister complain about his wages. When Lee finally returned home, he entered his house, stood silent, and then collapsed in a chair. His wife promptly sent for a doctor. The doctors conferred and sent Lee to bed. For the next two days Lee slept most of the time. After that, he seemed to improve and began to eat. But when he was offered medicine, he refused saying “it was no use”. For the next wo weeks he stayed in bed.

On October 10, Lee’s pulse and breathing sped up and he suffered shivering spells. On the following day, Lee became delirious, and his mind wandered to the past. He occasionally called out some long forgotten names. “Tell Hill he must come up,” he cried. His wife sat holding his hand the whole night, until just after 9:00 am of October 12, 1870, Lee sat up, cried out “strike the tent”, fell back in bed and died. He was buried beneath the college chapel, and the entire nation mourned his passing. By his courage in war and dignity in defeat, he had won the admiration and esteem of Northerners and Southerners alike.

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