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Robert E. Lee: a Hero and a Worthy General

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“Do your duty in all things. You cannot wish for more, you should never wish to do less.” In all aspects of his life, Robert E. Lee superseded all expectations of what it is to be a true American hero. During his service in the Mexican War, his dedication to our country and respect for our soldiers was uncontested by any other American general. Lee was also balanced in his life and dedicated much of his time to writing letters to his family showing them that he still thought they were valuable in his life even though he wasn’t able to always be with them. Even though during the Civil War Lee’s motives as to fighting for the South were questioned he fought fairly and always wanted to be sure his reasons were clear; even in conceding defeat he treated others with a respect that is scarcely found in generals of today. Robert E. Lee was an American hero, a man of great integrity, and the best general of the Civil War whose great achievements far overshadow anything that could be said against him.

Lee’s military career began with the start of the Mexican-American War. Lee had just graduated from West Point with excellent grades and not a single demerit on his college record. He started as an engineer serving under the commanding general of the United States military Winfield Scott setting up key artillery points and finding strategic troop routes. Scott was very impressed with Lee’s work especially during the battle of Contreras when Lee did the unthinkable and crossed the Pedregal over sharp dangerous terrain at night with almost no light to guide his path after seven of Scotts men had failed in trying this same task. This act not only secured the victory for the United States army but proved his unfaliable integrity in being able to follow through with what he said he would do, even though he could have easily just given up just like the other U.S. scouts. This brave action also gained Lee the recognition of Scott who later said:

“But the gallant and indefatigable Captain Lee, of the engineers, who has been constantly with the operating forces, is just in from Shields, Smith, Cadwallader, etc., to report, and to request that a powerful diversion be made against the centre of the intrenched camp to-morrow morning”

Winfield Scott is easily one of the most influential characters in Lee’s military career and in some ways could be considered Lee’s military hero. Lee admired Scott greatly and in his resignation to Scott he said:

“I shall carry with me to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, & your name & fame will always be dear to me. Save in the defence of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.

Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness & prosperity & believe me most truly yours”

Lee’s recognition by the public started with Winfield Scott because at that time he was one of the most prestigious generals the United States had and he spoke very highly of Lee causing the public interest in this young engineer to spike.

Scott not only added to Lee’s popularity but was also one of Lee’s biggest educators in the skill of war. Lee was a very avid follower of Scott who learned a lot by just simply watching him and applying them with much success. Lee adopted many traits from Scott, the need to delegate responsibility, the need to fight with audacity, and to lead a trained staff.[3] Lee is also very popular for his flank attack which Scott used often and throughout the battles of the civil war we see Lee using this same tactic time and time again. Lee’s enforcement of these necessary principles is what gave him such a head start during the Civil War.

Choosing sides for the Civil War was by far one of the most difficult choices Robert E. Lee ever had to make. He was torn between the decision to preserve the union he loved or to protect his home state of Virginia at all costs. “Save in the defence of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.”[4] Lee was first approached by a representative of Lincolns by the name of Blair who asked Lee to command the troops in the defense of Washington D.C. Lee, refuses the offer on the spot and then he goes straight to Winfield Scott and resigns his commission to the United States Military.

“Since my interview with you on the 18th instant I have felt that I ought not longer to retain my commission in the Army. I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance.”[5]

The way Lee handled his resignation, the fact that he turned down his promotion and then went to resign shows how Lee was so very dedicated to his home state of Virginia. Lee grew in Virginia and had lived there his entire life with either his parents and siblings or his wife and children. Lee saw that the conflict between the north and south would end in war and although he was against the separation of the union and although he was against separating the union he saw the Civil War as a prime opportunity to prove himself in the field of military.

In April of 1861 Fort Sumter is attacked by the Confederate States and the Civil War begins. Lee starts out as Jefferson Davis’ head military advisor in Richmond Virginia not 100 miles from the Union capital in Washington D.C. On October 22 of 1861 General Joseph Johnston, a former West Point classmate of Lee’s and like Lee he was one of seven children.[6] Lee was then promoted to General of the Army of Virginia to defend his home state. During the first few months as general, Lee was very passive, this caused a lot of popular disapproval from the people of the southern states and they coined him “Granny Lee”[7] because of his perceived weakness. Lee finally proved them all wrong during the seven days battle against union general George McClellan. McClellan was nearing the end of his peninsula campaign of which the main goal is to conquer the Confederate capital of Richmond Virginia. This was one of the first of Lee’s assignments: the defense of Richmond and where he proved all of the “Granny Lee” southerners wrong.

The Seven Days War was by far the most humiliating Union defeat in all of the Civil War. General McClellan was right outside of the confederate capital and could have ended it all, but he was too late. General Lee employed a flanking technique that he had learned from Scott during the Mexican War and sent his troops to flank the Union soldiers to take them by surprise. By the end of the fighting the results were clear, although Lee took a major risk in having his troops leave Richmond to fight McClellan, it far paid off. McClellan’s troops were taken by surprise and suffered a horrible defeat at the hands of the Confederate soldiers and were forced to retreat giving Lee the perfect opportunity to invade the north.[8]

It is a bold move but Lee ultimately decides that in order to win the war he needed to bring the war to the north to lower the citizen’s morale causing their support of the war to falter. Throughout his campaign Lee absolutely crushes the Union forces, until finally in the battle of Antietam Lee’s battle plans are found by the union forces and brought to George McClellan, and Lee is forced back. After Antietam, Lee finds a hard time regaining ground with the scarce supplies of the south and is forced to attack a shoemaking town called Gettysburg where once again the Confederates suffer a defeat marking the final battle of the Civil War in the northern states.[9]

Lee is then chased by Grant, the new head general of the Union Military, who then goes on a wilderness campaign against General Lee. Grant is on a mission of attrition at this point where his sole objective is to kill Confederate troops and quickly win the war. Lee is able to hold off Grant for a while, but eventually the lack of troops proves too much for Lee to deal with.[10]

April 10, 1865 General Lee surrenders to Grant at Appomattox courthouse in Virginia. Although the defeat was hard Lee still managed to maintain an admirable amount of respect for Grant and dignity for himself and his troops.

“I need not tell the survivors of so many hard fought battles who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them, but feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss which would have attended the continuation of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God may extend to you His blessing and protection. With an increasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration of myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”

This was one of the hardest moments in Lee’s entire life; he loved his men and even after struggling with a lot of stress and even a stroke he would still fight on to lead his men. Lee would often be seen visibly remorseful after suffering a large amount of casualties after a battle. Lee also respected his men and when Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s right man, died, Lee said “He may have lost his left arm, but I have lost my right.”

After the surrender at Appomattox Lee was allowed to keep all of his military equipment and his battle horse: Traveler as long as he promised to never again fight against the United States. His citizenship and some property was taken from him and after two appeals to have it restored, he regained citizenship many years after he had already died. Lee was very disappointed in the Confederates defeat and would later say that joining the military was the biggest mistake of his life. This shows just how much the Civil War meant to Lee. If he thinks the biggest mistake of his life is the largest aspect of it, Lee shows us that he may have thought his entire life a waste. In the end regardless of how Lee felt about the Civil War, in fighting he fought with dignity and fairness, and in surrender he had nothing but the utmost respect for his conquerors. It is by far Robert E. Lee’s integrity and his excellence as a general that makes him an American hero and one of the most famous faces of the Civil War.

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Robert E. Lee: A Hero And A Worthy General. (2018, December 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 28, 2021, from
“Robert E. Lee: A Hero And A Worthy General.” GradesFixer, 11 Dec. 2018,
Robert E. Lee: A Hero And A Worthy General. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 Nov. 2021].
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