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General Robert E. Lee and the Battle of the Wilderness Essay

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American military history is filled with names of leaders that even the most casual student can easily recite- Washington and Grant come to mind as two quick and easy examples. There are names which have been relegated to the footnotes of history, however, even for all of their greatness. Among these is the Confederate military leader, General Robert E. Lee. Not only did Lee possess a brilliant military mind and an incomparable level of greatness in battle, but he was also a leader who generated both loyalty and admiration in those whom he led- a scarce combination to be sure.

Additionally, many people do not realize that Lee believed in the freedom of his beloved state of Virginia so heavily that he stepped down from his great career as a United States army officer to serve the newly formed Confederate States of America , placing his home, family, fortune and very life on the line. It is because of the fabulous achievements, abilities and charisma of Robert E. Lee that this research was created. In this research, the military and personal journey of Lee from the Battle of the Wilderness to the surrender of his beloved Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse in April, 1865 .

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Lastly, Lee’s phenomenal career following the Civil War will also be discussed, ultimately proving the point that not only should Robert E. Lee be remembered as a great military leader, but also as a skilled and highly intelligent individual who put his fears aside and followed his convictions right to their ultimate conclusion. Robert E. Lee stands as a symbol of perseverance under intense pressure, leadership literally under fire, and the ability to reach new levels of greatness in the face of adversity. Lee’s Brief Biography

Although the purpose of this paper is not to place every aspect of Robert E. Lee’s biography under a microscope, it is important to have at least a basic understanding of the facts of his life to be able to discuss the man that he would eventually become. Robert Edward Lee was born at Stratford, Virginia, January 19th 1807. He went to school in Alexandria, later to be a student and graduate of West Point Military Academy. He entered the military academy in 1825; he later graduated in 1829 without a single demerit and with second honors.

Graduating from the military academy without a single demerit is something that still to this day had not been achieved . Interestingly, Lee came from a proud military heritage; Lee’s father was General Henry Lee also known as Light Horse Harry of the American Revolution, passing away when Lee was eleven years old and instilling in him a sense of independence and a fighting spirit that carried him throughout his life and career and made him the man that we talk about to this day .

During his youth it is said that Lee was remarkable in personal appearance, possessing a handsome face and superb figure, and a manner that won respect by dignity. Lee’s Views on Slavery It is easy, and incorrect, to simply say that because Robert E. Lee ultimately led the Confederate Army, and the Confederacy supported the institution of slavery that Lee was a wholesale advocate of slavery and was a supporter of the oppression of African Americans as property for wealthy white landowners. This, however, is highly inaccurate once the relevant facts about Lee are reviewed and presented.

Taking a look at how Lee felt about slavery can in reality be seen as a paradox; on the one hand, Lee truly felt that slavery was something that was evil, describing it as something which was as much a danger to the white man as it was to the slave as early as the 1850s when the issue of slavery began to cause divisions between Northern and Southern United States and would ultimately split the nation in two, sparking the Civil War itself. This morality on the part of Lee was closely tied to his Christian ideals.

A man of a deep religious faith, Lee in fact agreed with the Southern clergy members who broke with the popular Southern pro-slavery stance and spoke out against the evils of slavery as an institution. However, it should be noted that Lee held an additional opinion about slavery that was somewhat unique from those of his counterparts. Lee also felt that African-Americans in fact were given a better life in the United States than they had in their native land and that slavery, for these slaves, was in fact a way to lead them to a more dignified existence, as they would learn the manners and customs of people living in a developed society.

Lee’s Decision to Join the Confederacy “Save in the defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword” . It was with these simple words that Robert E. Lee resigned from the United States Army to join the Army of the Confederate States of America. Make no mistake, however- this was not an easy decision for Lee to make; rather, it was one that required him to closely take an inventory of his conscience, consider the consequences of his decision, and determine where it was, in the midst of a Civil War that was soon to come, where he could be of the best service and to do what he felt was the most good.

After thinking all of this over, Lee chose to join the Confederacy, not in a pursuit of personal glory, but rather for the reason that his love for his state of Virginia was stronger than his desire to remain loyal to the United States of America, knowing that in such a role, he would be ordered as a soldier to wage war on his own native homeland- a possibility that it would seem Lee found to be personally repulsive. Lee’s Experiences in the First Half of the Civil War

As a leader of the newly formed Confederate Army, Robert E. Lee reflected back on his West Point training in order to develop a battle plan for the many fights that would soon be coming his way- the offensive was the way to go , for by constantly attacking, the enemy could possibly be destroyed outright, or at the very least forced to such a level of submission that overtaking the army would be a much easier task. Judging from Lee’s early record of performance, it would seem that this was an effective course of action.

The first major battle between the United States and Confederates States came at Manassas, Virginia, on July 21, 1861 when the two armies clashed in a heavy battle, with the fear that if the Confederates won the battle that they would in turn take over the US capital city of Washington, DC, making the war just a quick affair and loss for the US. While Lee and his Confederates did in fact carry the day at Manassas, the takeover of Washington DC never materialized. However, the Confederacy did in fact win many significant battles throughout the first 2 years of the war, but at a heavy cost.

Many of the best soldiers the South had to offer had been killed or too injured to fight anymore, and since the majority of the battles were fought in the South, the Confederacy’s soldiers and civilians alike were in effect being starved out of existence- food and water supplies were being decimated by both armies, infrastructure was being destroyed, and the South could not maintain the industrial complex it needed to produce weapons and other supplies needed to win a war, nor was the money available to do so, since much of the South’s lucrative foreign trade was prevented by US blockades of Southern ships which carried cotton, tobacco and other goods to Europe. The Wilderness Campaign By the last year of the war, 1864, for all of Lee’s victories and advances, including a bold advance into the North during the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign , he had not crushed the Union Army, which seemed to only grow stronger with each battle. A Civil War battle which many consider to be one of Lee’s finest moments came in the Battle of the Wilderness which pitted Lee against Ulysses S. Grant in their first confrontation on May 5-6, 1864.

Lee’s troops outnumbered Grant’s by nearly 2 to 1; for Lee, this was truly the point where his army would either deliver the death blow to the US troops or face an uncertain future . Grant sought to overtake the Confederate capital of Richmond and win the war for the US once and for all. Through a series of battles which gave small victories to both sides, neither side won a decisive victory, but this was a critical battle for the Confederacy, because even though it was not an actual loss for Lee and his troops, the casualties that were incurred, combined with the loss of morale and the failure to destroy the enemy, started the end for the Army of Northern Virginia. From the Wilderness to Appomattox

After the Battle of the Wilderness, the fortunes of Lee and his Confederacy began to turn against them. Ultimately, Grant would in fact overtake Richmond and other pivotal tactical victories, like William T. Sherman’s conquering of the vital Southern city of Atlanta hastened the demise of the Confederacy . On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee rode his faithful horse, Traveler to Appomattox Court House in his beloved Virginia and signed the surrender documents that ended the Civil War for Lee and his troops, as well as his newly created nation. As a tribute to Lee’s greatness, however, he was down, but far from out in terms of his ability to contribute to humanity. The last act of the drama of Robert E.

Lee’s life, as we will soon see, was not one of tragedy, but one of resilience and achievement for a man who literally gave until the end of his life. Lee After the Civil War Following the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was allowed to return to his native Virginia as a paroled prisoner of war. Rather than using his fame as a means of only making money, he decided to use his prestige to better use, assuming the presidency of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, rebuilding the school in the aftermath of the war. By this time, it was said by many that Lee’s fame filled the world, making the equivalent of any modern day celebrity.

Having suffered from heart disease for at least a decade before his death, Lee died on October 12, 1870 and was laid to rest in Lexington , the site of his last great victory of sorts. Upon Lee’s death, the South, and indeed the world, mourned a man who never gave up, stuck to his convictions and put everything on the line to validate his beliefs. Therefore, in retrospect, it is fair to say that Lee was one of America’s first superheroes. Conclusion General Robert E. Lee was not only one of the greatest military figures in history, he is also seen today as one of history’s greatest leaders. He is what not only soldiers look for in leaders, but what it seems most leaders want to be.

His soldiers followed him so strongly that battle with their General leading the front was just overwhelming. It is fair and accurate, in light of the research, that Lee was destined for great things from the day he was born, much like a great king or monarch. His academic prowess was an early indication of the greatness to come, and it seems that from the beginning, he was on a path to greatness. It has also been seen that Lee has been unfairly misunderstood throughout history for his choice of leading the Confederate army. His outlook on slavery was different than others in his native Virginia, but his conviction that freedom of government is critical led him to do what he did.

One can only speculate what would have happened not only in the Battle of the Wilderness, but also the outcome of the Civil War if certain circumstances of the battle turned out differently, but at any rate, Lee emerged as the man of character and ability that he had always been, even in the darkest days of the Confederacy and his own physical ailments. In this paper you have been introduced to a man, father, son, and one of the most respected and greatest Generals that ever lived. Lee’s decision to lead the Confederate army may be another misunderstood moment in history but he did it because of what he believed in. Lee is truly an example of the strength of the human spirit and a symbol of the true fighting spirit. Works Cited Alexander, Edward Porter. 1989.

Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander. Ed. Gary W. Gallagher. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. Billings, John D. , Charles W. Reed, and William L. Shea. 1993. Hardtack and Coffee, Or, the Unwritten Story of Army Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Chesebrough, David B. 1996. Clergy Dissent in the Old South, 1830-1865. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. Eisenschiml, Otto, and Ralph Newman. 1947. The American Iliad: The Epic Story of the Civil War as Narrated by Eyewitnesses and Contemporaries. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. Fleche, Andre. 2005.

“Shoulder to Shoulder as Comrades Tried”: Black and White Union Veterans and Civil War Memory. Civil War History 51, no. 2: 175+. Gallagher, Gary W. , ed. 1996. Lee the Soldier. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. Gallagher, Gary W. , ed. 1998. The Spotsylvania Campaign: Military Campaigns of the Civil War. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. Gallagher, Gary W. 1999. An Old-Fashioned Soldier in a Modern War? Robert E. Lee as Confederate General. Civil War History 45, no. 4: 295. Gallagher, Gary W. , ed. 2001. Lee & His Army in Confederate History. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. Hess, Earl J. 2002.

Lee’s Tar Heels: The Pettigrew-Kirkland-Macrae Brigade. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. Hess, Earl J. 2005. Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. Lee, Robert E. 1924. Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page. Wakelyn, Jon L. , ed. 1996. Southern Pamphlets on Secession, November 1860-April 1861. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. Wright, Mike. 1996. What They Didn’t Teach You about the Civil War. Novato, CA: Presidio Press. Why the Civil War Came. Ed. (1996) Gabor S. Boritt. New York: Oxford University Press.

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