January 19 marked 207 years since the birth of Robert E. Lee. Known primarily as the general who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia during America’s Civil War, he is revered by some for his sterling character and military genius, while being denounced by others as, at the least, a slave-owning traitor.

Lee never wanted to see the south secede and was set against it. He thought the idea of the Confederacy was ridiculous. He thought secession would lead to a long war and ultimate disaster for a nation he loved and in whose Army he had served his entire adult life. As most people know, he was offered the command of the Union Army when the war broke out, but declined.

The surrender at Appomattox.

The surrender at Appomattox.


At that time, Virginia had not yet seceded, and Lee wanted no part in a war. He actually wanted to sit out any conflict. Lee said he would not raise a sword against his country except in defense of his native state, Virginia. When Virginia did secede, Lee realized that an invasion from the north was coming and accepted the position of leading Virginia’s state militia. It wasn’t until later that Virginia’s forces were merged with those of the Confederacy, making Lee a Confederate general.

Why did Lee stay loyal to his state but not his country?

Lee’s father was “Light Horse” Harry Lee, a Revolutionary War cavalry commander under General Washington and a true hero. But after the Revolution, Harry Lee’s fortunes declined until he was thrown into debtor’s prison and then died after being savaged by a mob angry over his not supporting the War of 1812. The Lee family was one of the most prominent in Virginia and for young Robert to not only face a family disgrace, but poverty, must have been humiliating. Lee’s mother kept her family going by accepting the charity of other family members and when it came time for Robert to attend college, only the free tuition of West Point made an education possible.

In 1861, Lee, then, had the choice of further disgracing his family and giving up his life in Virginia by joining in an attack on his state, or maintaining loyalty to family and for him, his country. In those days, one’s state was much more independent than now, and most people thought of themselves as citizens of a given state before America as a whole.

Lee was also close friends of the Custis family, the descendents of Martha Washington. Lee spent a lot of time at their Arlington mansion where he must have been constantly reminded of their distinguished ancestor by marriage, George. Lee probably modeled himself after Washington and in fact, even President Woodrow Wilson said Lee was Washington reborn. Washington, of course, led a revolution against an oppressive government and Lee’s father was one of the Revolutionaries. For Lee, then, rebelling against an oppressive government was not only an American tradition, it was a family one as well. And Lee did, like most Southerners, regard the Federal government as oppressive. In his mind, and those of his compatriots, they were not traitors. They were following in the footsteps of Washington.

Being poor, Lee’s family did not own slaves. When he married the great-great granddaughter of Martha Washington, he inherited her slaves along with a provision in his father-in-law’s will that they be freed within five years. However, Lee also inherited through his wife several estates that were in deep debt and a state of neglect. Virginia law stipulated that slaves could not be emancipated unless they were funded in an occupation outside of the state, and Lee had no money for that. Lee did free the slaves in 1862 before the end of the five year period. Lee regarded slavery as an evil and his wife was part of an organization that wanted to free them and send them back to Africa. (Lincoln favored that idea as well.)

One of Lee’s greatest contributions, even if not consciously intended, was actually ending slavery. When the Civil War started the objective was to save the union and there was no intention to free the slaves. Lincoln’s government wanted to return to the pre-war status quo. If the war had ended quickly, it may have taken many years for slavery to be abolished. However, while Confederate forces lost battle after battle in the West, Lee proved a military genius and won battle after battle in the East, prolonging the war until Lincoln had to create a justification for continuing the war despite the endless slaughter. Lee’s victories forced the Union into conducting a moral crusade.

Lee had yet another major, if unplanned, contribution to America. During the war with Mexico (1846-1848) Lee served under General Winfield Scott as an engineer and scout. In the drive that led American troops from Vera Cruz on the coast to Mexico City, the Mexicans kept throwing up strongly fortified positions manned by superior numbers of troops. Lee proved instrumental in finding ways around the flanks of the enemy, even in seemingly impassible terrain. That allowed the Americans to win victory after victory.

Scott called Lee the best soldier he had ever seen and Lee’s reconnaissance through dangerous lava fields at night as the finest example of courage and soldiering. Because of Lee’s efforts, the Americans were able to win the war and as a result, Mexico signed over territories that became most of the United States from Texas west to California.
In retrospect, Lee was one of America’s finest men, noted not only for his engineering skills and military genius, but also as a man who embodied a sense of nobility in his character and honor in his conduct.

–Thomas Wolke, Civil War Talk