General Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) has continuously ranked as the leading iconic figure of the Confederacy. A son of Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, Robert graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1829, ranking second in a class of forty six—and without a single demerit. His prewar record as an officer was distinguished by numerous engineering projects, service in the Mexican War, and nearly three years as commandant at West Point. In March and April 1861, Lee was offered command of the principal Union Army. Yet, after Virginia seceded on April 17, he determined that “to lift my hand against my own State and people is impossible.” After resigning from the U.S. Army, he assumed command of Virginia’s forces on April 23. Lee’s genius as a military tactician came to the fore after he was given command of the Army of Northern Virginia in June 1862. Despite being consistently outnumbered by the enemy, he led his forces in a series of remarkable victories that included Second Manassas (Second Bull Run), Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. The Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 marked Lee’s last major campaign on Northern soil. Remaining thereafter in Virginia, he mounted skillful defenses against the Union’s unrelenting Overland Campaign and the siege of Petersburg (spring 1864–spring 1865). After Petersburg and Richmond fell, Lee was finally compelled to surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Later that year, Lee accepted the presidency of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, a position he retained until his death on October 12, 1870.
- "To draw my sword"April 20, 1861Robert E. Lee (1807 - 1870) to Roger Jones April 20, 1861. Custis-Lee Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress