SUPA History 101
11 January 2013
Robert E. Lee: The Savior or Destroyer of the South?
Robert E. Lee, the most renowned general of the Civil War, was both a mastermind of battlefield strategy and a true gentleman. His leadership skills and sharp mind allowed him to become the most successful general in the South. Although Robert E. Lee was a man whose life was marked by distinction and courage, he was also marked by arrogance and failure.
“Lee was born the fourth child of Colonel Henry Lee and Ann Hill Carter on January 19, 1807. Lee's father, also known as ‘Light-Horse Harry,’ had been a cavalry leader during the Revolutionary War. Henry Lee had also served as governor of Virginia.” (PBS) Having been predisposed to the military through his father, Robert E. Lee decided to join the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating second in his class in 1829. Lee’s first sight of war came in 1846 when he served as captain under the orders of General Winfield Scott during the Mexican War. “Later, Scott would write about Lee's remarkable performance in that war, calling him ‘the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.’ In October of 1859, Lee was called upon to stop John Brown's attempted slave insurrection at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. It took Lee only an hour to put an end to Brown's raid.” (PBS)
During the initial outbreak of the Civil War, Lee was already a respected military leader, gaining the attention of both Northern and Southern leaders. “Such early successes made Lee a leading candidate to command Union forces against the South once it decided to secede. Reluctant to engage in a war against the South, Lee turned down an offer of command of the Union forces” (PBS) “But Lee's commitment to the Army was superseded by his commitment to Virginia.” (Bio.com) During the Virginia Secession Convention in 1861, in which Virginia joined the other Southern states in secession, Lee decided to join sides with his home state and fight against the Union. “He resigned from the army he had served for 36 years, and accepted the command of Virginia's forces.” (PBS)
Lee proved himself worthy of leading Confederate forces with two important victories at Richmond and Second Manassas in 1862. He had also earned great respect due to his “deft generalship” (PBS) and strong character. General Wolseley said of him, “Gen. Lee was one of the few men who ever seriously impressed and awed me with their inherent greatness. Forty years has come and gone since our last meeting and yet the majesty of his manly bearing, the genial winning grace, the sweetness of his smile and the impressive dignity of his old fashioned style of dress come back to me among the most cherished of my recollections. His greatness made me humble and I never felt my own insignificance more keenly then I did in his presence. He was then about 50 years of age, with hair and beard nearly white. Tall, extremely handsome and strongly built, very soldier-like in bearing, he looked a thoroughbred gentleman. Care had, however, already wrinkled his brow and there came at moments a look of sadness into his clear, honest and speaking dark brown eyes that indicated how much his overwhelming national responsibilities had already told upon him. He was indeed a beautiful character and of him it might truthfully be written ‘in righteousness did he judge and make war.’” (Wyeth) It seemed, at the time, that Robert E. Lee could be the savior for the Confederate cause.
“Despite his remarkable success in delaying the inevitable, he made several mistakes that were costly to the Confederacy in lives, material, and ultimately in the South’s effort to become an independent country. His first was at the Battle of Antietam, where Lee’s ignorance of the lay of the land and flow of the Potomac River ‘brought disaster to the Confederate cause.’” (Smothers) Lee went against the better judgment of his lower generals, and dove head-first into a battle he...