Builders of our Country Vol. II - G. Southworth

Robert E. Lee


While reading of the courage and wisdom of the men who fought for the Union, one must not forget that there were two sides. Among the men who fought for the South were some of the bravest soldiers and truest men in all history. Numbers of them believed that slavery was right; that the negroes were created to be slaves, and that only as slaves could they be taken care of. Others knew in their hearts that slavery was wrong. But they thought that it could not be blotted out in a single day. They felt that the negro slaves could not be turned loose as free men without homes or means to care for themselves. One of the men who believed in this way was Robert E. Lee, and it is his story that I am going to tell.

Between the Rappahannock and the Potomac rivers in Virginia lies the county of Westmoreland. Here, in the midst of broad lawns and mighty trees stood stately Stratford, the home of "Light-Horse Harry Lee," a brave cavalry commander of Washington's, during the Revolution. And here, in 1807, "Light-Horse Harry Lee's" son, Robert E. Lee, was born.

A few years later the father died. The elder sons were away, and it was Robert who took the tenderest care of his delicate mother. As he grew older, Robert decided, like his father, to be a soldier. He obtained an appointment to West Point and entered in 1825. At West Point he stood high in his class. Hard study, perfect drill, good conduct, all helped to make his cadet life a success. He was graduated second in his class and was assigned to the engineer corps of the army.

On the Virginia bank of the Potomac near Washington stands Arlington, a beautiful old house with broad porticoes. In Lee's youth this was the home of George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted son of George Washington.

One June evening, two years after Robert Lee had left West Point, Mr. Custis's great house was aglow with a hundred lights, and strains of wedding music floated out across the lawn. Before the altar stood the bride and groom, Mary Custis and Robert E. Lee. It was through this marriage that Lee later came into possession of Arlington.

From the time of his marriage until the outbreak of the Mexican War, Lee remained an army engineer. In 1847 he was with the American soldiers encamped before the City of Vera Cruz, Mexico. After one of the battles of this war he wrote to Custis, the eldest of his little sons, "I thought of you, my dear Custis, in the battle and wondered, when the musket balls and grape were whistling over my head in a perfect shower, where I could put you, if with me, to be safe....You have no idea of what a horrible sight a battlefield is."

During the Mexican War Lee did gallant service. The war over, he continued his work as engineer by fortifying the vicinity of Baltimore. The year 1852 saw him made superintendent of the military academy at West Point, from which he had been graduated twenty-three years before. In 1855 Congress formed two new regiments of cavalry. As Lieutenant Colonel of one of these regiments, Lee was sent to Texas, where he was stationed until that state seceded from the Union.

When home on a short vacation in 1859, Lee received orders from Washington to go to Harper's Ferry and capture John Brown and his band of men. There happened to be visiting at Arlington, on the day when Lee received the order, a young cavalry lieutenant named J. E. B. Stuart. Ever bold and ready for adventure, he begged Lee to take him along to Harper's Ferry. This dashing youth a few years later became Lee's trusted cavalry commander, "Jeb" Stuart, celebrated for his big plumed hat and his brave spirit.


In the lives of many men there comes a time when they must choose between two things, both of which they dearly love. That time had now come to Robert E. Lee. During the beautiful days at Arlington, in the spring of 1861, his soul struggled with the choice between loyalty to the Government under which he had fought and loyalty to the South. In April, President Lincoln offered him the command of the Union army that was being prepared to invade the South—to invade his own state, his father's state, his home. Lee refused the offer and two days later sent in his resignation from the United States army.

To his sister in Baltimore he wrote, "I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home." Having taken his stand, Lee went from Washington to Richmond, leaving his beautiful Arlington to fall into the hands of the Northern army. In Richmond he was made Commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces.

Before long Mr. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, came to Richmond; and that city was made the capital of the Southern Government. All was bustle in the new capital. The South was busy collecting guns and ammunition. Nothing was ready for war. Everything had to be done. Even the soldiers had to be made from raw recruits. General Lee knew that Virginia would be the great battlefield for the two armies. There were two moves to be made: to defend Richmond, and to try to make a counter attack upon Washington.

Robert E. Lee

On July 21st, the Union troops attacked General Beauregard at Manassas, or Bull Run. Beauregard's men were beginning to fall back when General Jackson advanced upon the center of the Union line and drove the troops back to Washington.

In this case defeat really helped the North more than victory helped the South. The North saw that war was on in deadly earnest and that serious preparations must be made. The South, however, grew over confident through its first victory.

In 1862 General Lee was made Commander-in-chief, under Jefferson Davis, of all the armies of the Confederacy; and in June he took command of the troops defending Richmond. Already the invading army under General McClellan had crept so close that the roar of its cannon could be heard in the city. Lee planned to attack McClellan's army and drive it away.

Jefferson Davis

Looking about for a man who would have the courage and quickness to go out and explore the enemy's right, he chose "Jeb" Stuart, the dashing young cavalryman who lead helped him at Harper's Ferry. Lee made no mistake in his choice. Within forty-eight hours Stuart had ridden entirely around McClellan's army and was back in Richmond, besides leaving torn up railroads and destroyed provisions in the enemy's rear.

From June 25th to July 1st, Lee and McClellan fought what are known as the "Seven Days' Battles." By these battles Lee succeeded in forcing McClellan to retreat, though in the last, at Malvern Hill, thousands of the brave Confederates lost their lives.

About two months later the Northern general, Pope, led his army against Richmond. Lee and Jackson advanced to meet him and won the second battle of Manassas, or Bull Run. Pope fell back to Washington, defeated, and gave up his command.

Then followed Lee's advance across the Potomac and his retreat after the terrible battle of Antietam.

Late in 1862 General Burnside took charge of the Northern army and pushed toward the Rappahannock. No sooner had Lee discovered Burnside's move than he and his army took possession of the Heights near Fredericksburg, through which Burnside would pass on his way to Richmond. At dawn one December morning, when Burnside's men tried to throw their pontoon bridges across the river, Confederate guns boomed out the signal which called Lee's men to arms. Instantly the riflemen began to pick off the bridge builders. The Union army was delayed on the river bank for many hours; and when finally they did cross, they found Lee well prepared and the Confederates stationed in the best positions.

A pontoon bridge


The battle was begun on the morning of the 13th. All day long the Confederate soldiers, many of them barefoot, stood in the December snow and created havoc among the enemy. Only once did General Meade, later the victor of Gettysburg, break through a gap in Jackson's lines; and then he was quickly driven back. By nighttime Burnside's army had been beaten, and Burnside, with the men that were left, recrossed the river.

In the spring of 1863 "fighting Joe Hooker" was in command of the Union forces in Virginia. At the head of a splendid army of one hundred and thirty thousand men, he felt sure of defeating Lee, who had less than half that number. For this purpose he marched toward Chancellorsville, to the west of Fredericksburg, where Lee's army was still encamped. But Lee did not wait for Hooker to carry out his plan. With Stonewall Jackson, Lee moved promptly forward and confronted Hooker's main body in a tangled forest, only a few miles from Chancellorsville. Here a two-days' battle took place. The Confederates won the fight, but their victory cost the life of Stonewall Jackson.

In June, 1863, came Lee's daring ivasion of Pennsylvania. And in July the South received the double blow of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Lee's army was compelled to retreat to Virginia, and from this time on Lee was constantly worried about his ragged, hungry men. At Richmond his wife and daughters with flying needles were knitting socks for the soldiers. The General wrote to Mrs. Lee, "Tell the girls to send all they can. I wish they could make some shoes too. We have thousands of barefooted men."


You remember that in the spring of 1864 General Grant was put at the head of the Union army and led the Army of the Potomac into Virginia. Then followed the terrible Wilderness campaign in which the ranks of the Confederates grew steadily thinner, and the men grew steadily weaker from lack of food and clothing.

Yet even in the Wilderness there were victories for the Confederates. At Cold Harbor they held back the Union lines with frightful slaughter. It was here that a hungry soldier had his only cracker shot from his hand. "The next time I'll put my cracker in a safe place down by the breastworks where it won't get hurt, poor thing," he said.

In spite of much hard fighting, "On to Richmond!" was still Grant's cry. He knew that if he could take Petersburg to the south of Richmond, it would be an easy matter to capture Richmond at last. For over nine long months Lee bravely defended Petersburg, his men ever growing fewer and weaker, and arms and ammunition becoming scarcer. Between Grant and Sherman the workshops had been destroyed, and there was no way of getting new supplies.

On the first Sunday morning in April, 1865, a boy came into the church where Jefferson Davis was listening to the sermon and handed him a telegram. It was from Lee. "I can no longer defend Petersburg," it said. "You must give up hope of saving Richmond."



The next day, as Grant rode through the deserted streets of Petersburg, Lee was leading his army along the banks of the Appomattox. Grant pursued Lee to Appomattox Court House. Though General Lee felt that he must save the remainder of his men for their wives and children at home, he declared, "I would rather die a thousand deaths than surrender."

There were five houses at the place called Appomattox Court House. The largest was a square brick house; and here, on April 9, 1865, General Grant and General Lee met to arrange the terms of the surrender.

After the meeting Lee rode up to break the news of his surrender to his brave troops. They crowded about him eager to shake his hand, to touch his horse; and tears ran down their cheeks as they looked upon their beloved leader. "Men," he said, "we have fought through the war together. I have done my best for you. My heart is too full to say more."

The war over, the trustees of Washington College in Virginia begged Lee to become its President. For five years he directed the affairs of the College, beloved by the students as he had been by his soldiers. On a September day in 1870, after attending a meeting of the vestrymen of his church, he was stricken with an illness from which two weeks later he died.

From far and near the old Confederate soldiers gathered to escort their leader to his last resting place. Behind the hearse walked Lee's riderless horse, Traveler, his trappings all in black.

In Richmond there now stands a statue of Lee mounted on Traveler. It is a tribute to a great soldier and a true gentleman.