January 19, 2012 - Robert E. Lee's Birthday

A great commander, general, strategist...

...who won a lot of battles but is linked in our mind with the losing side of a war.

Born on this day in 1807, Lee was the son of an officer who fought in the Revolutionary War. He became a top graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and served the U.S. Army with distinction for 32 years. He fought in the Mexican-American War and led the militia and U.S. Marines who ended the Harper's Ferry rebellion.

Before Virginia seceded from the Union, President Lincoln and the commanding general of the Union Army, Winfield Scott, wanted Lee in a top command post for the Union Army. In the meantime, the Confederate States also offered him a command post for the South. Lee said that such secession was “revolution” and a betrayal of the country's founding fathers; he thought that “dissolution of the Union” would be a “calamity” and that a Civil War would be long and bloody. He even said that he would never fight against the Union.

But when Virginia seceded, he thought long and hard and finally decided that he owed more loyalty to his state than to his country. So he did take over, after all, the command of the Confederate Army.

I didn't realize that 40% of the officers from Virginia chose the Union side, including some of Lee's cousins. Also surprising to me was that Lee's wife favored the Union; his whole family, other than one daughter, was against secession and was surprised by Lee's decision to fight on behalf of the Confederacy.

Gettysburg was a huge defeat for Lee and the
Confederacy. Many see it as the turning point
of the American Civil War.
Learn more about the U.S. Civil War
Some students created this website you can explore. Be sure to click “bar graphs” to compare the resources of the North and South. Can you see why Robert E. Lee's victories were called Phyrrhic victories—victories that have such a huge cost to the winner that they ultimately lead to defeat? When Lee lost so many soldiers to “win” a battle, he couldn't as easily replace the soldiers, like the Union army could. 

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