Lee, Robert Edward (1807–1870)

By: Carl Coke Rister

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: June 16, 2022

Robert Edward Lee, army officer and commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War, spent several crucial years of his career in Texas. Lee was born on January 19, 1807, at Stratford Hall, Westmoreland County, Virginia, the son of Gen. Henry and Ann (Carter) Lee. He graduated second in his class at the United States Military Academy in 1829. On June 30, 1831, while stationed at Fort Monroe he married Mary Custis of Arlington, Virginia; they became the parents of seven children. Lee was quite devoted to his family, and as often as military duty would permit, he spent much time at home. He had a wide variety of assignments—working in the chief engineer's office, Washington, D.C., 1834–37; supervising construction on the St. Louis harbor, 1837; and serving with his regiment at Fort Hamilton, New York, 1841–46, with Gen. John E. Wool's army from San Antonio to Buena Vista, 1846–47, and with Gen. Winfield Scott's army from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, 1847. As Scott's chief of staff during the Mexican War, Lee won three brevets—major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel—all because of conspicuous gallantry in the field. After the Mexican War Lee directed the building of Fort Carroll, near Baltimore, Maryland. From September 1, 1852, until March 31, 1855, he was superintendent of the United States Military Academy. On March 3, 1855, Congress had authorized two new regiments of infantry and two of cavalry to help protect the 8,000-mile western frontier. Against 11,000 troops were 30,000 Indians in widely dispersed raiding bands. Texas had a frontier of more than 1,200 miles, with only 2,886 United States officers and enlisted men to defend it. Lee was with Albert Sidney Johnston's Second Cavalry regiment in Texas from March 1856 to October 1857 and again from February 1860 to February 1861. Lee took command of the regiment at Louisville, Kentucky, on April 20, 1855, since Johnston was elsewhere at that time, and shortly thereafter moved it to Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Missouri, where the recruits were put through intensive training. After several months of court martial duty, Lee left for Texas. Soon after his arrival at San Antonio on March 27, 1856, he was assigned to command the two squadrons of the Second Cavalry at Camp Cooper on the Comanche reservation in present Shackelford County twenty-five miles north of Albany. On April 9 he arrived at his post, which for the next nineteen months he called "my Texas home." Camp Cooper was a lonely station. Rattlesnakes and wolves ranging about the post and neighboring hostile Indians were ever present reminders of the frontier. But Lee adapted himself to his new work of supervising routine post life, of exploring the adjacent region for a new post site, and of keeping a watchful eye on the Indians. Also, he attended court-martial sessions at Fort Ringgold, Fort Brown, and at Indianola. Moreover, in June 1856, with four squadrons of cavalry from Camp Cooper and forts Mason and Chadbourne, he led a 1,600-mile expedition out to the foothills of the Llano Estacado and returned, scouting the headwaters of the Colorado, Brazos, and Wichita rivers. A brush with the Indians resulted in the capture of three Comanche prisoners. The expedition consumed forty days. On July 23, through the blazing heat of a dry summer, the troopers returned to their home post, having scouted completely valleys and canyons of nearby rivers and creeks. Lee presently heard of other Indian raids, but before he could organize a second expedition, he was called to San Antonio to take command of the regiment, since Johnston had been sent to Washington. At San Antonio Lee's duties were more pleasing, but he did not remain long. On October 21 he also went to Washington to administer the estate of his deceased father-in-law. In October 1859 Lee commanded a detachment of marines which captured John Brown and his abolitionist followers. Lee remained with his family until February 13, 1860, and then returned to San Antonio to assume command of his regiment.

For the next several months Lee, who opposed secession, had little time to watch the gathering clouds of civil war. On March 15 he left San Antonio for Fort Ringgold and Fort Brown to pursue Juan N. Cortina. Although he was unable to trap so slippery a foe, he succeeded in securing a promise from Mexican officials that they would effect the arrest. Eight months later he sought the seclusion of his regimental headquarters at Fort Mason; but on February 13, 1861, General Scott ordered his return to Washington to assume command of the Union Army. Instead, Lee determined that he could not fight against his beloved state of Virginia and resigned his commission in the United States Army. Following an inauspicious campaign in western Virginia and a brief stint as military advisor to Jefferson Davis, Lee succeeded Gen. Joseph E. Johnston to the command of the Confederate Army before Richmond, on June 1, 1862. Again and again his military genius brought victory to the South—at Seven Days (June 25-July 1, 1962), at Bull Run (August 29, 1862), along Antietam Creek (September 14–17, 1862); at Fredericksburg (December 13, 1862); and at Chancellorsville (May 2–4, 1863). After the battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863), Lee's star of fortune passed its zenith. He left Northern territory for the last time. Gen. U. S. Grant drove Lee's troops through the Virginia wilderness, captured Richmond, and then on April 9, 1865, forced his surrender at Appomattox. Lee returned to civil life. In September 1865 he accepted the presidency of Washington College, at Lexington, Virginia. He died on October 12, 1870.

Francis Raymond Adams, Jr., An Annotated Edition of the Personal Letters of Robert E. Lee, April 1855-April 1861 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maryland, 1955). Thomas C. Connelly, The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977). Douglas Southall Freeman, R. E. Lee: A Biography (4 vols., New York: Scribner, 1934–35). Karen Kitzman Jackson, "Robert E. Lee's Texas," Texas Highways, January 1992. R. E. Lee, Jr., Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1904; rpt., Wilmington, North Carolina: Broadfoot, 1988). Robert E. Lee, Robert E. Lee on the Rio Grande, ed. John H. Jenkins (Austin: Jenkins, 1988). Carl Coke Rister, Robert E. Lee in Texas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1946).

Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas
  • Civil War

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Carl Coke Rister, “Lee, Robert Edward,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 29, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/lee-robert-edward.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 16, 2022

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