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Robert E. Lee was a significant figure in history and his actions impacted history in many ways. Lee is considered to be among other things, a great solider. He was also an ideal strategist and his decisions did lead to implications that can be seen today. Perhaps the most significant of his actions was choosing to support the Confederates. For example, had he decided to side with the North, the Civil War might have lasted less than a year. In addition, Lee's actions had a ripple effect on the Emancipation Proclamation as well as the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. His life is a constant reminder of how individuals can shape history.
Robert E. Lee was born on January 19, 1807 in Virginia. Lee wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and serve in the military and due to financial reasons, ended up joining West Point in 1825. There he proved himself "by his scholarship and by his proficiency in military exercises" (Gale) and graduated in 1829. He spent the next years of his life as a second lieutenant of engineers. Here he exhibited a "fine presence with social graces, exemplary conduct, energy, and ability" (Gale). He served at Fort Pulaski, Cockspur Island, Georgia, and Fort Monroe, Virginia. He married Mary Ann Randolph Custis on June 30, 1831. Together, they had seven children.
In 1834, Lee served as an assistant to the chief engineer's office in Washington. In addition, he assisted in the operation of the Ohio-Michigan boundary line. In 1838, he became first lieutenant of engineers in 1836, followed by being promoted to captain in 1838. Ten years later, he was responsible for constructing Fort Carroll in Baltimore. Three years later, he was promoted to superintendent at West Point. It is important to note that this promotion was "much against his wishes" (Gale). He accepted it gracefully, however, and while serving, became a strategist unequaled.
It is interesting to consider how the Civil War might have turned out differently had Lee decided to support the North. Perhaps the war would not have lasted as long and certainly the losses suffered by both sides would not have been as great.
Lee had no sympathy for those who wished to secede from the Union. Lee was a Whig and the "political and economic arguments for Southern independence did not weigh" (Gale). Lee was not the most educated man when it came to the Constitution and the laws associated with it. The primary concern for him was whether his allegiance would fall to his state or to the Union. This was a most difficult choice for him to make.
Lee was one of the most promising officers in the United States Army and General-in-Chief Winsfield Scott wanted Lee to step up to the position of Field commander in the Union Army. He could not do it and instead resigned from the army when the convention at Virginia voted for secession. Of the decision he said, "I must side either with or against my section... I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children'" (Murrin 514). It is as if he knew there fight would long and difficult as he is reported to have written, "I foresee that the country will have to pass through a terrible ordeal... A necessary expiation perhaps for our national sins'" (514). While Lee's loyalty was with Virginia, he did not want to fight in this war. However, "he considered that his sword was at the command of his native state" (Gale). When he was chosen to lead, he devoted everything he had to winning. Had he devoted such energy to the Union, the war may have seen a drastically different outcome.
Even after many soldiers deserted the Confederate force, Lee and Jackson proceeded with a determination that cannot be matched.
Despite the low number of soldiers, both men divided up their troops and marched westward toward Chancellorsville with a positive spirit. They discovered Union soldiers relaxing, playing cards, smoking and laughing. (Norton 422) This was an incredible victory for the Confederates but it was followed by two painful defeats, which resulted in a turning point in the war. Lee knew that Vicksburg could not fall. He was aware that Grant had a strategic plan to seize Vicksburg and proposed a Confederate invasion from the north to prevent this from occurring. In July 1863, Lee ordered his men to assault the Union soldiers fortifying Vicksburg. In General James Longstreet's opinion, this was a grave error.
Never the less, Lee's men pushed through the enemy line, many to meet their death. Lee had to withdraw his troops just a few days later after losing around 4,000 men while an estimated 24,000 were wounded and missing. Lee felt entirely responsible for the loss and offered to resign from duty. It is reported that President Davis responded by telling Lee that finding another leader like Lee was "an impossibility'" (Davis qtd. In Norton 423).
It seemed as though his fate was decided.
Other impacts related to Lee and his actions can be seen in history as well. The battle at Antietam is considered to be a pivotal point in the Civil War. Through an incredible twist of fate, two Union soldiers stumbled upon a copy of Lee's battle plans. This was all that McClellan needed to defeat Lee at Antietam. The battle of Antietam is also considered on of the most "decisive engagements of world history" (Bailey 468). It was a victory that Lincoln desperately needed to initiate the Emancipation Proclamation. This new measure would spell out freedom for many slaves.
It is also interesting to consider Lee's actions regarding Gettysburg. Some believe that if he had not moved on Gettysburg, the Confederates might have stood a chance in winning the war. Gettysburg is known as the greatest battle in American history. (Murrin 557) While Lee was advised by James Longstreet not to move on Gettysburg, he believed his army was "invincible" (559). He did not want to move south for fear that the action would be perceived as an act of retreat. Instead, he moved his men to the Union stating, "The enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there'" (Lee qtd. In Murrin 559). Longstreet led his men there under protest and they fought with everything they had and while there were small victories, Union forces were still very strong. Lee was determined not to give up the fight and even commanded an attack at Cemetery Ridge under the leadership of George Pickett. This battle is commonly referred to as "Picket's Charge" (559) and it rendered a devastating loss. Had Lee avoided this move, things might have turned out differently for the Confederates.
In 1863, while Grant remained in Virginia and Sherman in Georgia, things did not look good for the Confederates. Lee attacked Grant's offensives at the Potomac and his actions have been described as some of the "most confused, frenzied fighting the war had yet seen" (567). While both sides suffered huge losses, the confederates claimed victory in this battle. It was the incredible loss at Petersburg and Richmond that forced Lee to realize that the end of the war was close at hand. It was this loss that forced Lee to surrender. Thousands of Confederate soldiers were freed under the conditions that they never fight against the Union ever again. Lee was also a respectable man. He was a Christian that exhibited many noble characteristics including humility, faith, and kindness. He believed that God was involved with the daily life of man and it is for this reason that "he accepted defeat without repining" (Gale). This defeat, however, it may have appeared in the eyes of Confederates was the beginning of freedom in many ways. Freedom, as history has taught us,…[continue]
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