Biographical Notes
Robert Edward Lee

Robert E. Lee's father was Henry Lee, III, known as "Light Horse Harry" in honor of his colorful service as a cavalry commander during the Revolutionary War. Robert's mother was Ann Hill Carter, the daughter of a wealthy Virginia family. Henry and Ann were married in 1793 at the Carter family estate of Shirley just outside of Richmond, Virginia. Henry was governor of Virginia at the time. Robert was the couple's fifth child, born on January 19, 1807. At the time of Robert's birth the family was in desperate financial straits due to Henry's gross mismanagement of their assets. When Robert was two years old his father was imprisoned for failure to pay his debts. Fortunately, Ann had a modest income which derived from the Carter family. When Henry was released from jail in 1810 Ann moved her children and herself to Alexandria, Virginia. With the outbreak of war with Great Britain in 1812 Henry was involved in an altercation in Baltimore between pro-war and anti-war elements. He was badly hurt and suffered from his injuries for the rest of his life. In 1813, when Robert was six years old, Henry emigrated to Barbados in the West Indies. In 1818 he decided to return to Virginia, but his health failed while in transit and he sought shelter in Dungeness, Georgia at the home of his old comrade in arms, Nathanael Greene. Greene was dead, but his daughter and her husband nursed him during the last few days of his life. Henry Lee died on March 25, 1818. The life of Robert E. Lee's father was a complicated mixture of good and not so good.

Robert was educated in northern Virginia, first at Eastern View School and then at the Alexandria Academy. He studied the classics and early on demonstrated an interest in, and aptitude for, mathematics. His mother had numerous relatives in the area including her sister, Mary. Mary had married George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington's grandson and adopted son of George Washington after he married Martha. The well-to-do Custis family lived in Arlington, across the river from Washington D.C. and Ann's family visited them often. In February 1824, arranged through family connections, Robert was able to call on John C. Calhoun, then Secretary of War, and request an appointment to the Military Academy at West Point. His request was granted effective July 1825. The Superintendent of the Academy was the legendary Lieutenant Colonel Sylvanus Thayer. Thayer was an engineering officer and the academy was under the supervision of the Army's Corps of Engineers. Robert did well in his studies and in his military training. He completed four years at the academy without incurring a single demerit and always ranked at or near the top of his class in all of his studies. In his third year he was appointed cadet adjutant, the highest cadet rank in the corps. He maximized his scores in artillery and tactics and did particularly well in all of the courses related to engineering. He graduated second in the class of 1829, was selected for the prestigious Corps of Engineers, and was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant.

Lee's mother died shortly after his graduation from West Point and her estate was divided between her children. Robert's portion consisted of some land and a few slaves. He sold most of the slaves and held on to the land. Throughout his lifetime he handled his money carefully and invested it wisely. On August 11, 1829, he received orders to report to his first assignment - Cockspur Island in the Savannah River, twelve miles from Savannah, Georgia. His commanding officer was Major Samuel Babcock and their assignment was to prepare the island for the construction of a large fortification (Fort Pulaski). In 1830, while on leave in Virginia, Robert asked Mary Custis to marry him. Mary's mother readily gave her blessing, but her father was concerned that Robert's chosen profession would not make it possible to support his daughter in the manner to which she had been accustomed. Lee returned to Cockspur Island in November 1830, Babcock resigned from the army, and in January 1831, Captain Joseph K.F. Mansfield, was assigned in his place. In May 1831, Lee was reassigned to Old Point, Virginia, where he worked on the construction of Fort Monroe under the command of Captain Andrew Talcott. Robert and Mary were married at Arlington on June 30, 1831. In August, the couple took up residence in a small apartment in Fort Monroe. On August 31, 1831, a group of black slaves led by Nat Turner killed more than 55 white people in Southampton County about 60 miles from Fort Monroe. The rebellion was put down quickly, but Turner was not captured until the end of October. Lee was not involved, but in private correspondence he argued against over-reaction.

Lee did well at Fort Monroe and was promoted to second lieutenant on May 17, 1832, effective as of July 1, 1829. On September 16, 1832, the couple's first child was born - George Washington Custis Lee. During Lee's assignment to Fort Monroe his wife spent long periods at her family home in Arlington where she enjoyed a more comfortable lifestyle made possible by a plethora of slaves. Robert still owned a few slaves, but was not comfortable with what was euphemistically called the "peculiar Institution." At one point several years later he wrote that "slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country." On a separate occasion he also wrote that "blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically. The painful discipline that they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, and I hope will prepare and lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise merciful providence." Lee's indictment of slavery was unusual in the South of his day, but his feelings about black people were shared by the majority of people of European extraction living in the United States, North or South, at the time. It is important to note that his position on the issue did not extend to any feeling that slavery should be abolished in the southern states. In November 1834, Lee was transferred to Washington D.C. where he assumed a junior position on Brigadier General Charles Gratiot's staff. Gratiot was the commander of the Corps of Engineers and Lee was given an opportunity to meet many of the most important men in government at the time. He spent a good deal of time on Capitol Hill lobbying for the Engineering Department's various projects. During this assignment he and Mary lived at Arlington with the Custis family.

In the summer of 1835 Lee rejoined his old commander, Andrew Talcott, on a survey of the border between Ohio and Michigan. While Lee was off on the survey trip, Mary gave birth to their second child, Mary, but took ill with a series of ailments soon thereafter. She would suffer poor health for the rest of her life. Gratiot liked Lee and on September 21, 1836, Lee was promoted to first lieutenant. On May 30, 1837, the Lee's third child was born - William Henry Fitzhugh Lee. Two weeks after his son's birth, Lee was assigned to the task of improving navigation on the Mississippi River above the mouth of the Ohio River and in the vicinity of St. Louis, Missouri. It was an important assignment and Lee handled it capably. In 1838 Lee's family joined him in St. Louis where they rented a home owned by William Clark (Lewis and Clark). Lee was promoted to captain on July 7, 1838. At the end of the year, General Gratiot was dismissed from the army on charges of fraud involving the alleged use of public funds for private gain. Lee believed that Gratiot had been unjustly charged, but could do nothing to assist his former patron. In May 1839, Mary and the children returned to Arlington. On June 18, 1839, their fourth child was born - Ann Carter Lee. Funds for the work on the Mississippi were not forthcoming from Congress and so Lee spent most of the winter on leave at Arlington. In the spring and summer of 1840, he worked in the Engineer Corps headquarters in Washington D.C. awaiting Congressional funding for the Mississippi project.