1807 - October 12, 1870
Robert E. Lee was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia in 1807. His father was Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. In 1825, Lee entered West Point, where he distinguished himself by ranking second in his class. Lee graduated in 1829 as a second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers.
In 1831 Lee married Mary Custis, daughter of a wealthy Virginia planter, with whom he would have seven children. The Lees would later inherit “Arlington House,” her father’s imposing residence overlooking Washington, D.C., a landmark in present-day Arlington National Cemetery.
At the beginning of the U.S.-Mexico War, Captain Lee served under Gen. John E. Wool in Northern Mexico. Prior to the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847, Lee conducted valuable reconnaissance missions to ascertain the location of Santa Anna’s army. After the battle, Lee was transferred to the command of General Winfield Scott, who had been assigned to lead an invasion of central Mexico. During the siege of Vera Cruz, which began on March 9, 1847, Lee superintended the construction of artillery batteries. After Mexican forces in the city capitulated, he joined Scott’s personal staff when the army began its march toward Mexico City.
Lee continued to perform important reconnaissance missions for U.S. forces. Shortly before the Battle of Cerro Gordo, he penetrated so far behind enemy lines that he was forced to seek refuge beneath a fallen tree near a spring while Mexican soldiers filled their canteens. The next day Lee continued his reconnaissance while supervising a work party that built a trail through a ravine.
On the first day of fighting at Cerro Gordo, Lee led U.S. troops to drive a Mexican force from a hill called Atalaya. After U.S. troops occupied Atalaya, he had three cannons placed on its peak. The next day, Lee took his men around the mountain to the Jalapa road, to cut off the retreat of Santa Anna’s army. At the height of the battle, Lee rescued a wounded Mexican drummer boy trapped beneath the body of a dying soldier, and then ordered them both to be taken to a field hospital. He then rejoined his men, who broke through a Mexican battery to reach the Jalapa Road.
Winfield Scott held Lee in high esteem. In his official report of the Battle of Cerro Gordo, the general wrote: “I am compelled to make special mention of Capt. R. E. Lee, Engineers. This officer greatly distinguished himself at the siege of Vera Cruz; was again indefatigable during these operations in reconnaissance, as daring as laborious, and of the utmost value. Nor was he less conspicuous in planning batteries and in conducting columns to their stations.”
In mid-August 1847, the U.S. army reached San Agustin, a small village on the outskirts of Mexico City. Unsure which road offered the least resistance, Scott sent Lee on a reconnaissance that revealed the best route was a trail that lay along the edge of a rugged, three-mile wide lava bed called the Pedregal. On August 19, while superintending a work party sent to widen the road, to make it passable for wagons and artillery, Lee skirmished with troops commanded by General Valencia, whose army was camped at Contreras, west of the Pedregal. When Gen. Persifor Smith decided to attack Valencia, Lee crossed the Pedregal on foot during the night to inform Scott. Lee then guided the reinforcements across the lava bed’s craggy terrain. After the battles of Contreras (Padierna) and Churubusco, Scott promoted Lee to the brevet rank of Lieutenant Colonel and called his actions at the Pedregal “the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual, in my knowledge, pending the campaign.”
The following month, before the Battle of Chapultepec, Lee directed the construction of artillery batteries. He also went on several more reconnaissance missions for Scott and was present in Mexico City’s grand plaza when the U.S. army entered on September 14.
In 1848, General Scott brought charges against both General Pillow and General Worth, who had earlier preferred charges against him. During a court of inquiry in the case of Pillow, Lee testified as a witness for the prosecution.
Between the end of the U.S.-Mexico War and the Civil War, Lee served three years as superintendent of West Point and on the frontier in Texas.
When the Civil War began in 1861, then Colonel Lee was offered command of the Union Army but he refused, saying he could not fight against his native Virginia. Four years after leading the main body of Confederate troops, the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee surrendered to fellow U.S.-Mexico War veteran Ulysses S. Grant.
Following the war, Lee became President of Washington University (now Washington & Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, where he died on October 12, 1870.
Freeman, Douglas Southall, R. E. Lee: A Biography (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934.