Robert Edward Lee was an American general who was commander of the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. In the time since his death, General Lee’s legacy continues to prove divisive and contradictory.
On one hand, he is regarded as having been an effective and principled strategist who worked relentlessly to reunify the country after the bloodshed of the American Civil War.
On the other hand, though he privately remarked that slavery was a ‘moral and political evil’, he never outwardly condemned it. In fact, Lee married into one of the biggest slave-owning families in Virginia, where he did not free the enslaved people, but instead actively encouraged cruelty towards them and wrote that God alone would be responsible for their emancipation.
Here are 10 facts about one of the United States’ most famous and polarising historical figures.
1. Lee was born into an aristocratic Virginian family
The Lee family was synonymous with power in the colony of Virginia. Robert Lee’s war hero father, ‘Light Horse’ Harry Lee, fought alongside, and was best friends with, George Washington during the Revolutionary War (1776-83). Lee even delivered the eulogy at his funeral.
But the Lee family wasn’t without its problems: Robert E. Lee’s father fell into financial difficulties, and even went to debtors’ prison. Lee’s mother, Anne Lee, was often supported by relative William Henry Fitzhugh, who was responsible for ensuring that Lee attended United States Military School at West Point.
2. He excelled at school
Lee was a model student at West Point military school, and graduated second in his class behind Charles Mason, who went on to become Chief Justice of the Iowa Territorial Supreme Court. The focus of the course was engineering.
Lee did not incur any demerits during the four-year course, and was nicknamed the ‘Marble Model’ because of his drive, focus, tall height, and good looks.
3. He married the great-granddaughter of First Lady Martha Washington
Lee courted his distant cousin and childhood sweetheart Mary Anna Randolph Custis in 1829, shortly after he had finished his schooling. She was the only daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington.
Lee and Custis’ letters to one another were understated, since Mary’s mother often read them. Mary’s father initially refused Lee’s proposal of marriage, on account of his father’s disgraced circumstances. However, the two were wed a few years later, and went on to have a 39-year marriage that bore three sons and four daughters.
4. He fought in the Mexican-American War
Lee fought in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) as one of General Winfield Scott’s chief aides. He was instrumental in several American victories through his personal reconnaissance as a staff officer, which allowed him to discover routes that the Mexicans hadn’t defended because they thought it was impossible to pass through the terrain.
General Scott later wrote that Lee was “the very best soldier I ever saw in the field”.
5. He supressed a slave revolt in only an hour
John Brown was a white abolitionist who helped runaway slaves and launched attacks on slaveholders. Brown attempted to start an armed slave revolt in 1859. Along with 21 men in his party, he attacked and captured the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.
He was defeated by a platoon of US Marines led by Lee in just an hour.
John Brown was later hanged for his crimes, which led to him becoming a martyr and figurehead for those who also shared his views. In response to the death sentence, Ralph Waldo Emerson stated that “[John Brown] will make the gallows glorious like the Cross.”
It has been argued that John Brown achieved more for the abolitionist cause through his death and subsequent martyrdom than through anything he did while alive, with historian Stephen Oates stating that ‘he was a catalyst of the Civil War… he set fire to the fuse that led to the blow up.’
6. Lee declined the offer of a Union leadership post
At the beginning of the American Civil War, seven southern states seceded and started a rebellion against the North. The day after Lee’s home state Virginia seceded, his former mentor, General Winfield Scott, offered him a post to lead the Union forces against the South. He declined, stating that he felt it was wrong to fight against his home state of Virginia.
Indeed, though he felt that slavery in principle was a bad thing, he blamed the ongoing conflict on abolitionists, and accepted the pro-slavery policies of the Confederacy. Ultimately, he chose to fight as a Confederate to defend his homeland.
7. Lee never explicitly spoke out against slavery
Though Lee is often remembered as being anti-slavery, he never explicitly spoke out against it, unlike other white southerners. He actively denounced abolitionists, stating that “the systematic and progressive efforts of certain people of the North [wants] to interfere with and change the domestic institutions of the South”.
Lee even argued that slavery was part of a natural order. In a letter to his wife in 1856, he described slavery as a ‘moral and political evil’, but primarily for the adverse impact it had upon white people.
“[Slavery poses] a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, and while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, and I hope will prepare and lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”
Upon the death of his father-in-law in 1857, Lee inherited Arlington House, and many of the enslaved people there had been led to believe that they would be freed at the time of said death.
Lee, however, retained the slaves and forced them to work harder to repair the failing estate; indeed, he was so harsh that it nearly led to a slave revolt. In 1859, three of the enslaved people escaped, and when recaptured, Lee instructed that they be whipped particularly harshly.
8. He became President of Washington College
Lee took up a post as President of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Virginia, and served from 1865 until his death. His name allowed for large-scale fund-raising, which transformed the school into a leading Southern college.
Lee was well-liked by the students, and introduced a hierarchical, rewards-based system like that at West Point. He stated, “we have but one rule here, and it is that every student be a gentleman.” He also recruited students from the North as a way of encouraging reconciliation.
9. Lee was never pardoned or had his citizenship restored during his lifetime
After the war, Lee was not arrested or punished, but he did lose the right to vote as well as some property. In 1865, President Andrew Johnson issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Pardon for those who had participated in the rebellion against the United States. Fourteen classes were excepted, though, with members having to make special application to the President.
Lee signed his amnesty oath as required by President Johnson the same day he became President of Washington College, but he was not pardoned and his citizenship was not restored during his lifetime.
10. Lee’s pre-war family home was converted into Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington House, formerly known as the Curtis-Lee Mansion, was seized by Union forces during the war and converted into Arlington National Cemetery. Across its 639 acres, the nation’s dead, beginning with the American Civil War, have been buried there. Notable people buried there include President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy.