Death of Robert E. Lee 

U.S. #788 pictures Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Lee’s birthplace, Stratford Hall.
U.S. #788 pictures Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Lee’s birthplace, Stratford Hall.

On October 12, 1870, Confederate General Robert E. Lee died in Lexington, Virginia.

Descended from one of Virginia’s first families, Robert E. Lee was born on January 19, 1807, in Stratford Hall, Virginia. He was the son of Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee.

Lee’s father’s unfortunate financial choices and early death left his widow with several children and little money. However, a relative helped secure Robert’s appointment to West Point, where he graduated second in his class without incurring any demerits during his four years of study.

U.S. #1049 was issued as part of the Liberty series.
U.S. #1049 was issued as part of the Liberty series.

In June 1829, Lee was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers and sent to build a fort in the Savannah River. This assignment was followed by a stint at Fort Monroe, Virginia. During the summer of 1829, Lee began courting Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter, Mary Custis, who had also captured the attention of Sam Houston (who would eventually become a southern governor opposed to secession). Robert and Mary were wed on June 30, 1831, at Custis’ home at Arlington House.

Lee continued his military career and was often stationed at remote outposts. Although she had been raised in an affluent household with servants, Mary chose to accompany her husband much of the time. Eventually, she was forced to remain at Arlington due to the birth of seven children and her declining health.

Lee distinguished himself during the Mexican-American War, where he was one of Winfield Scott’s chief aides and met Ulysses S. Grant. After the war, Lee was stationed closer to home and was appointed Superintendent of West Point in 1852.

U.S. #2975b pictures Lee and his horse, Traveller.
U.S. #2975b pictures Lee and his horse, Traveller.

As the slavery debate heated up, President James Buchanan gave Lee command of a detachment to suppress abolitionist John Brown and retake the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Lee described Brown as a “fanatic or madman.”

When Texas seceded in February 1861, General David E. Twiggs surrendered all American forces under his command, which included Lee, to the Texans. Lee returned to the capital and was appointed Colonel of the First Regiment of Cavalry, an order that was signed by Lincoln. He was promoted to colonel on March 28, turning down an offer to command the Confederate Army. However, Lincoln’s call for troops to put down the rebellion was the catalyst for Virginia’s secession, and Lee’s first duty was to his state.

As dawn approached on April 20, 1861, Robert E. Lee penned a letter to a relative. “I have been unable to make up my mind to raise my hand against my native state, my relations, my children, and my home.” Moments earlier, Lee had sent a letter to the War Department announcing his resignation and ending a distinguished 32-year U.S. military career.

Lee’s decision was astounding. His ancestors included some of the nation’s greatest patriots. A day earlier, as events unfolded following the attack on Fort Sumter, Lee had been offered command of the volunteers defending the nation’s capital.

As war became certain, the Lee clan was forced to take sides. Lee’s wife and sister were devout Unionists, while his daughter believed firmly in secession. The general’s brothers remained faithful to their military oaths, as did his cousins.

Item #20033 – Commemorative cover marking Lee’s 178th birthday.
Item #20033 – Commemorative cover marking Lee’s 178th birthday.

After resigning from the US Army on April 20, Lee took command of the Virginia state forces three days later. Fearing for his wife’s safety – Arlington House was directly across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital – Lee convinced Mary to vacate their home. Federal troops quickly seized the mansion. Mary would return for a brief visit several years later, but Robert E. Lee never saw his home again.

Lee was named one of the Confederate Army’s first five full generals. Soon after, he was defeated at the Battle of Cheat Mountain and widely credited with causing the loss. After General Joseph E. Johnston’s wounding at the Battle of Seven Pines, Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia. His aggressive tactics unnerved Union General George McClellan, leading to a string of decisive Union defeats and a turnaround in public opinion.

A string of Confederate victories followed – Chancellorsville, Cold Harbor, Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, The Wilderness, Seven Days Battles, and Second Manassas. Lee fought McClellan to a draw at Antietam. But by 1863, the Confederate fronts were crumbling in the West. His invasion of Pennsylvania, which was partly to seize urgently needed supplies for his desperate troops, ended with a crushing defeat at Gettysburg.

U.S. #1408 – Georgia’s Stone Mountain Memorial honors Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.
U.S. #1408 – Georgia’s Stone Mountain Memorial honors Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.

Although Lee was a brilliant tactician and a daring battlefield commander, the tide had turned on the Confederacy and its disadvantages were too large to overcome. With his forces plagued by disease, desertion, and casualties, Lee abandoned Richmond on April 2, 1865. He hoped to move southwest and join Johnston’s troops in North Carolina. But his forces were soon surrounded by Ulysses S. Grant’s at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered.

Following the war, Lee wasn’t arrested or even punished, though he did lose some property and the right to vote. He supported Reconstruction but opposed some of the measures taken against the South. Though they’d lost the war, Lee was still a popular figure in the South. And after accepting an invitation to visit President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House in 1869, he was a symbol of the reconciliation between North and South. Lee hoped to retire to a farm and live a quiet a life, but he was too famous.

U.S. #982 was issued for the 200th anniversary of Washington and Lee University.
U.S. #982 was issued for the 200th anniversary of Washington and Lee University.

In 1865, Lee was made president of Washington College, and remained in that role until his death. Under Lee’s direction, the university offered the first college courses in business and journalism in the United States. He invited students from the North to aid in reconciliation and was well liked by staff and students alike. The school was later renamed Washington and Lee University to honor him as well as our first president.

In September 1870, Lee suffered a stroke. Two weeks later, he died on October 12, 1870 in Lexington, Virginia. He was buried underneath Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University.

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      1. He was NOT a traitor. America was torn in two with one side protesting the
        increasing power of a Federal government over the States and the other side
        wanting to keep the union together. Lee did not want to fight against his
        State. He may not have agreed with the Confederate States seceding from
        the Union but since they did he went with his state. It is always said that History
        is written by the winners.

        1. I know, I know, Kenneth. Lee took the high road. Lee was a true hero and completely unblemished by slavery. The Southerners are the true victims in this story.

        2. Again to repeat myself for about the fifth or sixth time, the South did not fight because, of ” the increasing power of a Federal government over the state.” That myth was made up years later. The South seceded and brought on the Civil War to protect slavery. Regarding Lee, when he told Chief of the Army, General Winfield Scott, that he would resign his commission and volunteer his services to the Confederacy, Scott replied that Lee was making the greatest mistake of his life. Lee had a choice, and he made the wrong one. If Lee and other moderate leaders in the
          south had stepped forward and resisted the fire-eaters pushing for secession, things might have turned out differently.

  1. I do believe that the Lee’s family properties outside of Washington became the Arlington National Cemetery.

    1. You are correct, Arlington House is right in the middle of the cemetery. This came to be a cemetery to punish Lee, so he could never return home again.

  2. Easy to judge after the fact, and after defeat (the victors in any war usually are the ones who write the history – and that history is never favorable to the defeated). Prior to the Civil War, a great many Americans gave greater allegiance to their States (before their allegiance to the Federal government). The Southern States decided to secede from the Union; and were prevented from doing so by force of arms. Did you know that in the early 1800’s there was a very strong movement among the New England States to secede from the Union? Those States were Federalist States (the Federalist party). They strongly opposed the anti-Federalists (the Republican party, of Jefferson and Monroe – NOT the same as the Republican Party of today – the Republican party of the early 1800’s became the Democratic party of today over time. The principle reason that the New England States did NOT secede from the Union was because they could not persuade New York State to join them in doing so. There was a North/South split in the early 1800’s (Federalist North, Republican South) strong enough to almost have led the North to secede at that early date. [The Federalist party, the party of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington was primarily Northern, and favored a strong central government, a central bank, and government support for urban manufacturing and mercantile interests; The Republican party, the party of Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe was primarily Southern, and favored a weak central government, and government support of rural, agrarian interests, and was opposed to a central bank, manufacturing and mercantile interests. (“Big government vs Small government”) There essentially is little new or different between party politics of that day and today – only a matter of degree, largely. Who is a Patriot, and who is a Traitor? ‘Depends on which side you are (or were) on. One man’s traitor is another man’s freedom fighter?

  3. My mother told me that my grandfather, who was a stamp collector, was angered when US #788 was issued. That’s not surprising – his father had served in the union army. Making war on the United States is, according to the constitution, treason. I’m inclined to cut Lee some slack – he was an honorable man & when continuing the war became pointless he surrendered & urged reconciliation. I have far less sympathy with Jefferson Davis.

    1. Look at it from the point of view of the Southern States. They said they joined
      the U.S. voluntarily and they were leaving voluntarily, so according
      to them it wasn’t treason.

      1. The Union was cemented together by the U.S. Constitution which was a contract between the states. One party to the contract can’t break the contract without the acquiescence of the other parties.

  4. Lee took an oath and he broke it. That damn war that took so many lives is on the heads of Lee and the slave owners who stuffed their pockets with blood money.

  5. Robert E. Lee was definitely one of many leaders of our nation in the mid-19th Century. When several Southern States chose to leave the Union, Lee resigned his commission as an officer in the U.S. Army to become a citizen rather than become its commander, which was offered to him by Gen. Winfield Scott. This was before Virginia seceded to become a part of the Confederacy. He then accepted a commission in the Army of Virginia and subsequently the Confederate Army after Virginia’s secession. Six weeks after the surrender at Appomattox the federal government charged Lee with treason, which violated the terms of parole granted to soldiers of the Confederate Army. U.S. Grant interceded on Lee’s behalf against the government and urged Lee to accept an invitation to become president of Washington College and be a leader in building the New South. His work at transforming Washington College from a classical educational institution to an elective university was widely noted by the nation’s education community and by the time of his death he was recognized as one of our country’s leading educators. Whether he should have resigned from the army and cast his fate with Virginia is a question worthy of discussion and debate, but the decision in no way impugns his character as an honorable man and a leader of people. He was a good father, a devoted husband, questioned the prudence of secession, and there is no record of him having been a slave owner. At Grant’s encouragement Lee applied for U.S. citizenship a few months after Appomattox, which was finally granted in 1976 after his application was mysteriously lost and then found at the National Archives one hundred years later.

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