History of Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee was the general of the war. What George Washington was to the American War of Independence, Lee was to the War for Southern Independence. But Robert E. Lee had no Admiral de Grasse, no French fleet blasting through the Federal blockade of Virginia’s coasts, no general Rochambeau marching at his side with an army of French regulars. He fought no half-hearted English generals who half-sympathized with the enemy and who were kept short of men by a cost-conscious Parliament. His enemy was vastly more powerful, its tenacity beyond compare, its willingness to embrace total war, a shock. And so Lee suffered what George Washington did not: ultimate defeat.

He gave birth not to a new country, but to memories of a Lost Cause. His country—his Virginia, the state of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, George Mason, John Marshall, and Patrick Henry—was put under federal military occupation and subjected to martial law that deprived many Virginians of their civil rights; his house, seized by the Federal government, was turned into a national graveyard.


As the epitome of the defeated Confederacy, after a war more sanguinary and bitter than any in American history, one might assume that Lee would be a hated figure: reviled in the North as the slaughterer-inchief of the boys in blue, repudiated in the South as the man who failed.

But of course, that was not the verdict then or now. In the South, Robert E. Lee became an icon, a gleaming image of all that was right with the Lost Cause, a man whose deeply rooted love of his state, Christian piety, and chivalrous conduct validated a Southern ideal. In the North, too, Lee was seen as a noble adversary, a hero, in fact, for all Americans. Theodore Roosevelt, son of a Northern father and a Southern mother, said that Lee was “without any exception the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking peoples have brought forth.”

The George Washington of the Confederacy

Jefferson Davis might have been the Confederacy’s first, and only, president, but it was Robert E. Lee who was the true father of his country, the Confederate States of America—even though he had wished the day of secession had never come.

Lee’s identification with Washington was strong. His father, “Light Horse Harry” Lee had served under Washington and had famously eulogized him in 1799 as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”—words that were used to introduce Robert E. Lee himself in the Virginia House of Delegates as commander of the state’s military forces after secession. One of his first Confederate staff officers was John A. Washington, a nephew of George Washington. Earlier, at Harpers Ferry, he rescued George Washington’s cousin, Lewis W. Washington, from the clutches of John Brown.

Lee had been born a mere eight years after Washington’s death and had married into Washington’s family. His wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, was the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis who had been raised, almost from birth, by George Washington as his own son at Mount Vernon (Custis’s grandmother was a Washington, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington). Arlington House, which became Lee’s family home, had been the estate of Custis and was filled with mementoes of the first president. Lee’s eldest son was named George Washington Custis Lee.

The stoic Washington was Lee’s model of what it meant to be a leader, a soldier, an American, and a Virginian. Like Washington, Robert E. Lee had been born a gentleman, but in circumstances where he quickly learned the necessity of hard work, discipline, and frugality. He shared his class’s and his people’s Episcopalian convictions, and with that came a belief that, in the fullness of time, slavery would pass away. Washington had freed his slaves upon his death. Custis’s will mandated that his slaves would be emancipated five years after his death. And Lee’s wife dutifully taught the family’s slaves how to read and write, and the women how to sew. She wanted to prepare them for their freedom. As Virginians, and as conservatives, they felt that this was the way manumission should be achieved—through the free consent of the masters, and with proper preparation of their slaves; not by force, not at the barrel of a gun, and not by a social or political revolution. For them, the intemperate hectoring of the abolitionists, the agitational propaganda of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which bore no relation to their personal experience of slavery), and the threatened insurrection of John Brown was all uninformed and dangerous radicalism.

Rober E. Lee considered himself a Union man; he deprecated secession as revolution, something no conservative could countenance willingly. “I must say that I am one of those dull creatures that cannot see the good of secession.” But he understood that it was an extremity to which abolitionists were forcing the South. Of the northern abolitionists, Lee wrote, “Their object is both unlawful & entirely foreign” and their goal of emancipating the slaves “can only be achieved by them through the agency of a civil & servile war.” Lee’s assessment proved accurate, and it makes one suspect that Lee’s other prediction might have been proven right as well: that if the northern abolitionists had only let the South be, Providence would have taken its course and slavery eventually and peaceably would have met its natural end in emancipation. Every other Western, Christian slave-holding society in the nineteenth century followed precisely that path.

Lee had deep roots in Virginia, going back to 1641 on his paternal side and even farther back on this mother’s, Ann Hill Carter’s, side. Her father, Charles “King” Carter was the largest landholder in the state. Robert E. Lee’s father, “Light Horse Harry” Lee was an adventurer, who, like many adventurers, was less gifted with money and financial acumen than he was with a sword. And just as he had once lopped off the heads of deserters (sending one bleeding specimen to a horrified George Washington), his family found him lopping off the family fortune in a series of bad investments. Nevertheless, he was a man of honor. In 1812, he stood against a mob attacking the newspaper of a friend of his. He and his friend were Federalists; the mob, Jeffersonian Republicans. The mob beat him nearly to death. He never fully recovered, and after a self-imposed exile in the West Indies, he died in 1818.

What this meant for Robert E. Lee was that while he venerated his father, he hardly knew him; while he had been born to moneyed and storied families, his widowed mother had little money and no land of her own. The result was not felt as a tragedy by the young Robert E. Lee, who was by all accounts a happy lad and a conscientious, active, and thoughtful boy.

His character was stamped, from the beginning, by a natural poise. He received a classical education, excelling in mathematics, and had a love of order. From his mother he received a deep and sincere Christian piety practiced within the denominational confines of Virginia’s ruling class, the Episcopal Church. He was handsome—indeed, at one point he was considered the handsomest man in the army—and with a powerful physique. But most of all, he seemed gifted with intelligence, dignity, charm, good humor, and a character apparently unstained in thought and deed. He attended West Point and graduated second in his class as a corps adjutant (the highest rank a cadet could receive) without a single demerit.

Action in Mexico

He was commissioned an officer of engineers—the branch of the service that attracted the most talented cadets—and until the age of forty that was the career to which he applied himself. But when Congress declared war on Mexico in 1846, Lee put aside his work in the engineering department—building forts, diverting rivers, and constructing dams—and reported to Texas and then onwards to Mexico. Engineers—aside from their other skills, such as laying roads and erecting bridges—were thought to be particularly well suited to reconnaissance duties.

Robert E. Lee joined General John E. Wool in San Antonio for the march into Mexico. He collected tools for laying roads and building bridges, but the greatest service he performed was scouting out enemy positions, sometimes covering up to sixty miles a day on horseback. In January 1847, he received orders to join General Winfield Scott for his amphibious operation against Vera Cruz—the largest amphibious invasion before World War II. Once ashore, Lee was set the task of planting Scott’s artillery for maximum effect; he sat in on General Scott’s councils of war; and he saw his first action, during which his main concern—aside from fulfilling his duty—was that his brother, Smith Lee, a naval officer ashore with the batteries, not be injured. He wasn’t. In Lee’s words, “He preserved his usual cheerfulness, and I could see his white teeth through all the smoke and din of the fire.”

For himself, Robert E. Lee took the stress of campaigning and combat easily. But he was always troubled by the effect of war on others, especially civilians. He grieved for his dead comrades, “the fine fellows,” but even more for the Mexican civilians who had been caught in the city: “My heart bled for the inhabitants . . .it was terrible to think of the women and children.”

On the march from Vera Cruz, Lee was quickly winning the notice of General Scott as “the indefatigable Lee.” In one striking instance of his indefatigability—a word that often described the dutiful Virginia captain— Robert E. Lee was on reconnaissance with a scout who fled when Mexican voices came near. Lee dove under a log and there he was stuck most of the day— silent, motionless, impervious to dirt, bugs, and discomfort—while Mexican soldiers sat on his hiding place. His revenge came when he resumed his scouting and blazed a path for the American army to flank the enemy and smash him into flight at Cerro Gordo. In his after-battle dispatch, General Scott wrote, “I am impelled to make special mention of the services of Captain Robert E. Lee, engineers. This officer, greatly distinguished in the siege of Vera Cruz, was again indefatigable, during these operations, in reconnaissance as daring as laborious, and of the greatest value. Nor was he less conspicuous in planting batteries, and in conducting columns to their stations under the heavy fire of the enemy.”

Lee was eager for the clash of combat. Beneath his calm, gentle exterior, he had a soldier’s aggression. He wrote that his horse, Creole, “stepped over the dead men with such care as if she feared to hurt them, but when I started with the dragoons in the pursuit, she was as fierce as possible, and I could barely hold her.” Creole sounds much like Robert E. Lee himself.

Still, however hot-blooded Lee could be in the chase and in a fight, he remained a Christian soldier. He wrote to his son Custis, “You have no idea what a horrible sight a battlefield is.” He told him how he had come across a dying Mexican soldier sprawled across a wounded boy—the boy coming to his attention through the crying of a Mexican girl. “Her large black eyes were streaming with tears, her hands crossed over her breast; her hair in one long plait behind reached her waist, her shoulders and arms bare, and without stockings or shoes. Her plaintive tone of ‘Millie gracias, Signor,’ as I had the dying man lifted off the boy and both carried to the hospital still lingers in my ear.”

Robert E. Lee’s most famous feat in the Mexican War was guiding American troops into action through the pedregal, a bed of lava five miles wide, apparently impassable, that blocked the American advance to Mexico City. Roads ran along either side of it, but these were easily and heavily defended. Undaunted, Lee penetrated the volcanic rock field and not only found a passage but led three brigades through it and into action against the enemy’s rear, delivering victory at the battle of Contreras. He then retraced his route to Scott’s headquarters and guided troops to a flank attack in the battle of Churubusco, chasing the Mexicans from the field. The battles punctuated nearly forty consecutive hours of wakeful action by Lee.

In his after-battle report, General Persifor Smith noted that Lee’s “reconnaissances, though carried far beyond the bounds of prudence, were conducted with so much skill that their fruits were of the utmost value, the soundness of his judgment and personal daring being equally conspicuous.” General Winfield Scott thought Lee’s performance “the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual to my knowledge.” He referred to the “gallant, indefatigable Captain Lee” who was “as distinguished for felicitous execution as for science and daring.” General Scott had by now, in the words of General Erasmus D. Keyes, an “almost idolatrous fancy for Lee, whose military ability he estimated far beyond that of any other officer in the army.” Indeed, Scott would later call Robert E. Lee “the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.”

Winfield Scott was the finest military intellect of his time, and Lee’s experience on his staff was invaluable. But such was Scott’s admiration for Lee that he pushed Lee to the point of collapse. In the assault on Chapultepec, before the occupation of Mexico City, Scott had Lee directing artillery, scouting enemy positions, and bringing him battlefield reports to the point that Robert E. Lee was in action for nearly sixty straight hours before a flesh wound and sheer exhaustion forced him from his saddle. But after a brief rest, he was well enough the next morning to ride into Mexico City with the conquering heroes of the American army.

Peace at West Point, bandits in Texas, slaves at Arlington

The war was over, and Robert E. Lee, who had hoped “to perform what little service I can to my country,” had certainly done that. He was soon back to administrative and engineering duties, which were trifling enough compared to war. They had the benefit, however, of freeing him to live at home with his family for long periods of time—a freedom he relished, though adventure lurked if he wanted it. In 1849, Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis met with a group of Cuban rebels and recommended that they consider Robert E. Lee as a possible commander for their army. Lee politely declined the offer.

Robert E. Lee tried to decline his appointment as Superintendent of West Point in 1852 as well (he had, in 1839, turned down a teaching appointment at the military academy) thinking himself unsuited to the task. Construction, he understood; military tactics, certainly; but shaping young officers—well, that seemed a daunting challenge, especially when one of the young cadets was his own son Custis Lee.

As it was, he acquitted himself dutifully and well (as might be expected), and renewed his own military education by making frequent use of the West Point library, studying the campaigns of Napoleon. He did, however, receive this telling criticism from then secretary of war Jefferson Davis, who wrote that he “was surprised to see so many gray hairs on his head, he confessed that the cadets did exceeding worry him, and then it was perceptible that his sympathy with young people was rather an impediment than a qualification for the superintendency.” In 1855, Jefferson Davis won approval for two new cavalry regiments to patrol the West and fight Indians; he chose Robert E. Lee to serve as lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Cavalry. Lee wrote to his wife’s cousin, who lived with the Lees at Arlington House, “The change from my present confined and sedentary life, to one more free and active, will certainly be more agreeable to my feelings and serviceable to my health. But my happiness can never be advanced by my separation from my wife, children and friends.”

Instead of fighting the Comanche in Texas, Lee found himself traveling in Louisville and Washington, D.C., going through the bureaucratic rigamarole of raising the new regiment. This was not the “free and active” service Lee had hoped for, even if it had the unexpected benefit of allowing him to spend December 1855 at Arlington House. His father-in-law put him to work. George Washington Parke Custis was an inattentive and lackadaisical landowner. His estate had run to seed, and confronted with debts he could not pay he turned to Lee, a paragon of responsibility, to set his financial affairs in order. Lee began untangling the paperwork of bills, but then was recalled to military duties in Texas.

His life among the Comanche required more diplomacy than martial prowess, and Lee found the Indians a bore, “the whole race is extremely uninteresting,” he remarked in a letter to his wife. Indeed, he spent more of his time traveling to sit on distant courts-martial than he did fighting Indians or pursuing Mexican bandits. In 1857, George Washington Parke Custis died, and the army kindly granted Lee a two-year’s leave to put the Arlington House estate back in order. This meant renovating buildings and fields that had fallen into rot, managing the estate’s 150 slaves (a task that he found disagreeable), retiring Custis’s enormous debts (about $10,000 worth), coming up with the money Custis willed but did not adequately provide for Lee’s daughters ($40,000 worth, which Robert E. Lee achieved through land sales), and freeing all of Custis’s slaves within the mandated five-year period, which, as war intervened, meant that Lee’s slaves were freed (in 1862) before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. It was a huge task, which required Lee to request that his leave be extended (it was) through the fall of 1859. What interrupted it was John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

The Crisis of Robert E. Lee

After the election of Lincoln and the secession of the states of the lower South, Robert E. Lee remained in favor of the Union, but a voluntary union, not one held together by swords and bayonets against the will of the Southern states. Though offered command of the Federal armies, he refused to wage war against the South. He believed the American way of resolving political disputes was through discussion, persuasion, and compromise, not through war—a stance that made him an enemy of the Lincoln administration.

For Lee the soldier, paradoxically, the key principle at issue was avoiding the use of force. Lee believed the people of the South should be allowed full liberty of conscience and free will—that was their right as Americans. To that end, he would take up arms only in defense of his native land and its right to determine its own destiny.

It should always be remembered that a civil war, a war of brother against brother, of neighbor against neighbor, is not what the South wanted; it was the Federals who required it in order to bend the South to accept a Union of which it no longer wished to be a part. However painful it was to resign from his service to the United States, Lee believed his ultimate duty was to Virginia and to his people.

Robert E.Lee’s initial service to the cause of the Confederacy was deskbound. He had to raise, train, and equip an army. It was an extraordinary achievement that he did so—and in short order. He found talented officers for command, used cadets from the Virginia Military Institute to train civilians, and in a matter of about two months had 40,000 troops readied for the defense of Virginia.

Life behind a desk was not what Robert E. Lee sought, but Jefferson Davis kept him there as his chief military adviser. The few brief forays when he was allowed into the field at the beginning of the war were certainly inglorious. In western Virginia there was a damp squib of a campaign, distinguished more by the bickering of his subordinate (or insubordinate) generals than by any effective action against the enemy. In the Carolinas, he was returned to his training as an engineer, supervising the construction of coastal defenses. His only reward was earning the unflattering nicknames of “Granny Lee” and “the King of Spades” (apparently fonder of the pick and shovel than the bayonet).

Others knew him better. General Winfield Scott told Lincoln that Robert E. Lee was worth 50,000 men to the Confederacy. Field Marshal Viscount Garnet Wolseley—who ended his career as commander in chief of the British army—noted that “I have met many of the great men of my time, but Lee alone impressed me with the feeling that I was in the presence of a man who was cast in a grander mold, and made of a different and of finer metal than other men.” Lee, Wolseley wrote, “knew what an army should be, and how it should be organized, both in a purely military as well as in an administrative sense.”

At the Battle of First Manassas, Lee’s finer metal, his knowing what an army should be, proved itself, as the army he put into the field brought the Confederates their first major victory (though he remained, to his frustration, in Richmond). He also identified the genius of Stonewall Jackson and guided his star through the Shenandoah Valley.

Then, on 1 June 1862, came the summons: with Joseph E. Johnston wounded at the battle of Seven Pines, Lee, by order of Jefferson Davis, rode onto the battlefield as the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia (the new name Lee gave his army). He remained a battlefield commander until the end of the war.

The one word that best captures Robert E. Lee’s essence as a military commander is audacity—but another would be faith. It was his trust in Providence that left him calm in the most perilous circumstances. Lee was a Christian gentleman who practiced a strict self-control and devotion to duty, who did everything he could to avoid or soothe personal conflicts, but when war was upon him, he was as daring a commander as could be found, repeatedly dividing his already outnumbered and ill-supplied forces and striking with an aggressiveness that chased Federal soldiers from the field.

In a succession of stunning blows, he drove the Federals from Richmond during the Seven Days, forced a second Federal skedaddle from Manassas, eviscerated the Federal Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg, and routed the Union forces at Chancellorsville. Even at Sharpsburg—where McClellan had captured Lee’s plans and outnumbered him better than two to one—the gallant Virginian wrought a tactical victory that ended McClellan’s military career.

At Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee came closer to smashing the Union army than is generally supposed. Lee remained convinced that if Pickett’s charge had been supported as he had planned it to be—in other words, if his orders had been properly carried out—the Confederates would have taken Seminary Ridge. Even during the slow dissolution of the Confederacy that followed, it was Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia that remained the rock that Federal waves could erode but not destroy.

During the siege of Petersburg, as Shelby Foote noted, “Lee’s veterans fought less . . . for a cause than they did for a tradition . . . .[A] tradition [now] not so much of victory as of undefeat. . . .Mainly, though, Lee’s veterans fought for Lee, or at any rate for the pride they felt when they watched him ride among them.”

The pride Lee’s veterans felt for Lee was a pride that Americans of the South and the North felt for him after the war. His sterling character shone forth so brightly, even in defeat, that Lee, whose citizenship had never been restored, who could not vote himself, who could in fact have been tried for treason and executed, whose proud Virginia was now under the Reconstruction occupation as Military District Number One with an imposed military governor, was suggested by a Northern newspaper as a possible presidential candidate. The New York Herald urged the Democratic Party that if it had any hope of defeating the Republican Ulysses S. Grant, it should “nominate General Robert E. Lee . . . making no palaver or apology. He is a better soldier than any of those they have thought upon and a greater man. He is one in whom the military genius of this nation finds its fullest development. Here the inequality will be in favor of the Democrats for this soldier, with a handful of men whom he moulded into an army, baffled our greater Northern armies for four years, and when opposed by Grant was only worn down by that solid strategy of stupidity that accomplishes its object by mere weight.”

That was the opinion then and later. At Appomattox, Union Colonel Charles S. Wainwright wrote, “The Army of Northern Virginia under Lee . . . today. . . has surrendered. During three long and hard-fought campaigns it has withstood every effort of the Army of the Potomac; now at the commencement of the fourth, it is obliged to succumb without even one great pitched battle. Could the war have been closed with such a battle as Gettysburg, it would have been more glorious for us . . . .As it is, the rebellion has been worn out rather than suppressed.”

General Grant was of a somewhat similar mind, later writing, “my own feelings, which had been jubilant on receipt of his letter [Lee’s note agreeing to discuss terms of surrender], were sad and depressed. I felt like anything but rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought.”

Though a reluctant secessionist, Robert E. Lee understood the cause for which he fought, and it was by no means an ignoble one, as witness a letter he wrote to Lord Acton, the great classical liberal statesman, in 1866. Acton had initiated the correspondence, writing to Lee about his admiration for the Confederacy. “I saw in State Rights,” Acton wrote, “the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction of but as the redemption of Democracy. . . .Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.”

Lee replied, “I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, not only essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of a free government . . . whereas the consolidation of the states into one vast republic sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.” He outlined his understanding of how the founders had opposed such a consolidation and how secession had been acknowledged as a presumed constitutional right in the past. But, he said, “I will not weary you with such unprofitable discussion. Unprofitable because the judgment of reason has been displaced by the arbitrament of war.” During the crisis of 1861, Robert E. Lee had been on the side of judgment and reason.

He believed his state had done the same: “The South has contended only for the supremacy of the constitution, and the just administration of the laws made in pursuance to it. Virginia to the last made great efforts to save the union, and urged harmony and compromise.”

“Who then,” he asks, “is responsible for the war?” He does not answer the question, but the implication is clear—and the institution of slavery does not cloud it. “Although the South would have preferred any honourable compromise to the fratricidal war which has taken place, she now accepts in good faith its constitutional results, and receives without reserve the amendment which has already been made to the constitution for the extinction of slavery. That is an event that has been long sought, though in a different way, and by none has it been more earnestly desired than by citizens of Virginia.”

Lee’s thoughts, at war’s end, were on the preservation of order and civilization, on reconciliation and recovery. At Appomattox, Edward Porter Alexander, the young artillery officer who had directed the batteries at Gettysburg, now a thirty-year-old general, was “wound up to a pitch of feeling I could scarcely control” and recommended that the army should “scatter like rabbits and partridges in the woods” and fight a guerilla war. Lee shook his head and replied: “Suppose I should take your suggestion and order the army to disperse and make their way to their homes. The men would have no rations and they would be under no discipline. They are already demoralized by four years of war. They would have to plunder and rob to procure subsistence. The country would be full of lawless bands in every part, and a state of society would ensue from which it would take the country years to recover. Then the enemy’s cavalry would pursue in the hopes of catching the principal officers, and wherever they went there would be fresh rapine and destruction.”

Somewhat humorously Lee added, “And as for myself, while you young men might afford to go to bushwhacking, the only proper and dignified course for me would be to surrender myself and take the consequences of my actions.”

Alexander wrote, in remembrance of this conversation, “I had not a single word to say in reply. He had answered my suggestion from a plane so far above it that I was ashamed of having made it.”

Instead of becoming a guerilla leader, Lee counseled Jefferson Davis that a “partisan war may be continued, and hostilities protracted, causing individual suffering and the devastation of the country, but I see no prospect by that means of achieving a separate independence . . . .To save useless effusions of blood, I would recommend measures be taken for suspension of hostilities and the restoration of peace.”

Lee devoted himself not only to the restoration of peace, but to the rebuilding of the South, spending the last five years of his life as president of Washington College, in Lexington, Virginia, now Washington and Lee University, where his legacy lives on in the school’s honor code, in Lee chapel, and in the young men (and more recently women) who have graduated from the school to become leaders in the South and in the United States.

Robert E. Lee could have fled, as the Confederate naval officer (and VMI graduate and founder of oceanography) Matthew Fontaine Maury invited him to do, to a Confederate colony in Mexico, but as in 1861, Lee wrote, “The thought of abandoning the country and all that must be left in it is abhorrent to my feelings, and I prefer to struggle for its restoration and share its fate, rather than give up all as lost.”

For Robert E. Lee, all was never lost, because God ultimately decided events. Trusting, then, to conscience, formed by the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer as well as “the consciousness of duty faithfully performed,” Lee rested his hopes in the Confederate motto, Deo vindice. He died a beloved Virginian, Southerner, and American in 1870.


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