Robert E. Lee, the Greatest Confederate General

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The American Civil War

By Gary Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Robert E. Lee was born in one of the oldest and most respected families in Virginia or even the United States, for that matter. But he did not grow up in privileged circumstances because his father was a terrible manager of money. Similarly, his fortune in the Civil War also swung from one side to another.

A black and white photograph of Robert E. Lee.
Robert E. Lee was the most successful general of the Confederate army. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Robert E. Lee was born into one of the oldest and most respected families in Virginia. He had two ancestors who signed the Declaration of Independence. His father had been a major military figure during the War for Independence and had led cavalry very effectively.

‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee, the Father of Robert E. Lee

‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee had been governor of Virginia after the American Revolution. He was the man who gave the famous eulogy for George Washington where he called him “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Robert E. Lee could not have been better connected, both through his father and through his mother, who was tied in to the great Carter clan in Virginia. But, although he had this tremendous family tree to look back on, he did not grow up in privileged circumstances because his father was a terrible manager of money. He took great risks, involved himself in all kinds of speculations, and, in fact, spent time in debtors’ prison when Lee was a little boy.

Harry Lee fled the United States when Lee was a little boy, leaving his son Robert to be reared by his mother, who was essentially an invalid.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Early Life of Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee grew up in some ways as the man of the house. That was how his mother spoke of him and thought of him. He went off to West Point, which was free education, after all. He did very well there; he graduated second in his class. He served in a number of engineering posts very well, very effectively, in the 1830s and 1840s.

Portrait of a young Robert E. Lee at the age of 31.
Robert E. Lee compiled a dazzling record as a staff officer during the war with Mexico. (Image: William Edward West/Public domain)

He compiled a dazzling record as a staff officer during the war with Mexico. He convinced Winfield Scott by his exploits that he was perhaps the best officer in the United States Army. That was how Scott described Lee after the war with Mexico. He had served on Scott’s staff there.

Later on, in the 1850s, he became superintendent at West Point and then was a lieutenant colonel in one of the cavalry regiments created in the 1850s. In short, he had a very impressive résumé as a result of his work at West Point in the Mexican War and in the post-Mexican War army.

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Robert E. Lee’s Views on Slavery

It can often be read that Lee was antislavery. Well, he was not antislavery. He was a man of very conventional views for one of his class and time. He thought it would be well if slavery ended at some point, but he said that was in God’s hands, not in man’s hands. And Lee also, for the moment anyway, thought that slavery was the best condition for black people to be in. So the notion that he was antislavery, simply, is not right.

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Robert E. Lee in the Early Parts of the Civil War

In 1861, Winfield Scott recommended that Lee be given command of the main Union army outside Washington, the one that McDowell ended up commanding. Lincoln agreed with him; the offer was made to Lee. But when Robert E. Lee knew that Virginia was going to secede in mid-April, he decided that he could not take that command. So, in the end, he cast his lot first with his state and eventually with the Confederacy when Virginia joined the Confederacy.

His early wartime career was not really distinguished. He helped muster Virginia forces very early in the war, but when he went into Confederate service his first two assignments did not prove to be particularly successful. He went off to western Virginia and presided over a dismal campaign in the fall of 1861 that added absolutely nothing to his reputation, and, in fact, tarnished it considerably.

Then in the winter of 1861–1862 and on into the early spring, Robert E. Lee commanded along the South Atlantic coast, where he helped put in place a good defensive system. But here, he gained a reputation as a man who was more interested in entrenching and building fortifications than in taking the war to the enemy and smiting the enemy.

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The Precipitous Fall in Robert E. Lee’s Reputation

What the Confederate people wanted early in the war and pretty much straight through to the end was military leadership that gave evidence of forward movement, of trying to smite the enemy, of taking the war to the enemy and not just waiting for the enemy to come to them. Robert E. Lee did not show any of that in this phase of the war, and his reputation, which had been very high initially because of Winfield Scott’s lavish praise, dropped precipitately in late 1861 and early 1862.

By the time he was named as Joseph E. Johnston’s replacement by Jefferson Davis, many of the Confederate people were very unhappy with the choice of Lee.

An Appointment in Adversity: Robert E. Lee

A portrait of Robert E. Lee in army uniform.
Robert E. Lee’s reputation was at an all time low by the time he was appointed as a replacement for Joseph E. Johnston.(Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Robert E. Lee faced a tremendously difficult situation when he took command. In many ways, the most intimidating part of this situation lay not in the military sphere but in the civilian sphere. Confederate morale was in a terrible state in early June 1962 because so many bad things had been happening to their armies: in the west, along the Mississippi River, in Tennessee, in northern Mississippi, and now in Virginia with McClellan coming so close to the Confederate capital.

Only Jackson’s little valley campaign had broken that dark spell for the Confederate people, but that was not nearly enough to offset all of this other news. The Confederate people needed victories, and they especially needed a victory in Richmond. Lee had to spend time reorganizing the army outside Richmond and putting into its ranks some units that were coming in from different parts of the South. So he faced an organizational problem as well when he first came into command.

Organizing the Army

He also had to coordinate with Stonewall Jackson’s troops in the valley—about what exactly should be done with those troops. In the end, the decision was made to bring them to Richmond. That was what he spent most of June doing, getting his army in shape, an army that would grow up to 90,000 men—the largest army the Confederacy ever fielded. What Robert E. Lee decided to do with Stonewall Jackson’s troops, what he decided to do overall, would become apparent in the Seven Days campaign.

Robert E. Lee’s Strategy in War

Lee had no doubt about what he wanted to do. The people who doubted his audacity completely misread him. There could not have been a more extreme example of misunderstanding the character of a soldier because Lee immediately decided that he should go on the offensive. And that was what he did throughout his career as a Confederate soldier.

His inclination always was to take the offensive, always was to deny the enemy the ability to dictate the action. Robert E. Lee was never comfortable reacting to what the enemy did. He always wanted to be in the position of dictating the action. Sometimes it led him to take risks that were too great and placed his army in great peril, but that was his military personality. He was not comfortable on the defensive.

He believed it was important for the Confederates to maintain the initiative because the Union had so much more of everything. If they simply sat down and waited, he reasoned, the Union had the resources to pin them down and eventually overwhelm them. So the way to counteract that and to lift morale across the Confederacy was to counterpunch and try to defeat the Federals in the field, and that is what he did.

Common Questions about Robert E. Lee, the Greatest Confederate General

Q: Why was Confederate General Robert E. Lee such an effective commander during the Civil War?

Robert E. Lee’s exemplary military credentials and aggressive war strategy made him a very effective commander during the Civil War.

Q: What are some accomplishments of Robert E. Lee?

Robert E. Lee had a distinguished army career. He was also considered a national war hero for defeating many Mexican armies.

Q: How many Confederate soldiers were there?

It is estimated that 750,000 to 1 million soldiers had fought in the Confederate Army, nearly half of the Union Army.

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