Robert E. Lee Jr.

Robert E. Lee Jr. (1843–1914)

Robert E. Lee Jr. was a soldier, farmer, and biographer of his father, Robert E. Lee. Born at Arlington, the Lee family plantation, Lee did not seek a military education but instead attended the University of Virginia. With the start of the American Civil War (1861–1865), however, he joined the Confederate army and rose to the rank of captain. He fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, including the Seven Days' Battles (1862), the Chancellorsville Campaign (1863), and the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (1864). His letters home document the daily life of a soldier and the rise and fall of Confederate morale. After the war, Lee stayed out of politics and instead struggled to succeed as a farmer at Romancoke, the King William County estate he inherited from his grandfather. He also sold insurance in Washington, D.C. In 1904, he achieved fame as the author of the Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee, a collection of his father's letters as well as anecdotes drawn from family accounts. It was published to widespread acclaim and has been frequently reprinted. Lee died in 1914. MORE...

 

Early Years

Robert Edward Lee Jr. was born on October 27, 1843, at Arlington, the Lee family plantation in Alexandria County (later Arlington County). Rob Lee, as he was known to family and friends, was the sixth of seven children and the youngest of three boys. His mother, Mary Randolph Custis Lee, was the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted grandson of George Washington. His father, Robert E. Lee, was a U.S. Army officer and the son of Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee. As a young man, Lee Jr. endured his father's long absences. In the Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee (1904), he wrote that his earliest memory of his father was of the elder Lee returning home from service in the Mexican War (1846–1848) after an absence of nearly two years. In a story that is by turns humorous and sad, Lee Jr. writes that his father didn't recognize him and kissed Lee's playmate by accident.

Lee received an excellent education. He first attended school in Baltimore, while his father was serving at Fort Carroll, then moved with the family to West Point, New York, where the elder Lee served as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy. He remembered his father helping him with Latin and teaching him how to ride a horse. "I saw but little of my father after we left West Point," Lee wrote, noting that in 1855 the elder Lee was made lieutenant colonel of the newly established 2nd U.S. Cavalry. He was ordered to Saint Louis in preparation for duty fighting Comanche Indians in Texas. The family returned to Arlington.

Rather than seek a military education, Lee Jr. attended the University of Virginia from 1860 to 1861, undergoing a spiritual conversion there. "How are you getting along with your God," he wrote his sister Mildred Childe Lee on January 10, 1861. "O! my sister neglect not him. I have suffered much from neglecting him."

Civil War

When war broke out, Lee—not yet eighteen years old—was, according to his Recollections and Letters, "wild to go," but he had to wait until he was of military age. In April 1861, he joined the South Guards, an ad-hoc unit of student soldiers at the University of Virginia. The Guards marched to Winchester before Governor Henry A. Wise ordered them back to Charlottesville. On March 28, 1862, Lee enlisted as a private in the Rockbridge Artillery that, with five Virginia infantry regiments, formed the Stonewall Brigade, under the command of Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. He experienced his first fighting in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Although it was a victory for Confederate troops, the First Conscription Act, passed on April 16, 1862, and the reorganization of the army that followed dampened morale and increased desertion. "The whole army seems very much dissatisfied," Lee wrote to his father on April 23, 1862. He noted there were "a good many desertions among the militia & the valley men who refuse to leave their homes behind them." Lee himself was not discouraged, and he looked down upon men of wavering patriotism.

On May 23, 1862, at the Battle of Front Royal, part of the Valley Campaign, Confederates routed a much smaller force of Union troops under Colonel John Reese Kenly. Lee wrote of overrunning Union camps and the men helping themselves to bacon, sugar, coffee, and other luxuries. He wrote his father that he made a "hearty meal" of "bread & butter ginger cakes & sugar wh[ich] helped me out, for I was nearly starved." Victory, however, did not erase the harsh realities of war. Lee saw one of his friends badly wounded in the face at Front Royal. As for himself, he was exhausted. "I think I have been through as hard a time as I ever will see in this war," he told his father. The hard fighting, though, energized him. "I am now as hearty as a buck feeling better than I ever did in my life," he reassured the general.

Lee did not see his father again until the Seven Days' Battles, fought near Richmond from June 25 to July 1, 1862. By then, the elder Lee had taken command of the Army of Northern Virginia and was fighting to drive Union general George B. McClellan from the outskirts of the Confederate capital. General Lee had the help of Jackson's Valley veterans, but in his Recollections and Letters Lee Jr. wrote that by then, "short rations, the bad water, and the great heat, had begun to tell on us, and I was pretty well worn out." The Stonewall Brigade excelled in the Valley but did little of note during the Seven Days' Battles.

On October 20, his twenty-three-year-old sister Anne Carter Lee died of typhoid fever in North Carolina. "It is a sad blow to us all," Lee wrote his mother, before falling upon his religious beliefs for comfort; "but God in his mercy Knows what is best for us all." About the same time Lee Jr. was commissioned a lieutenant aide-de-camp, serving as a staff officer to his brother William Henry Fitzhugh "Rooney" Lee, who led a cavalry regiment. He fought with the regiment at the Battle of Fredericksburg, in December 1862, and then at Chancellorsville the following spring. Rooney Lee was captured in June 1863, and Lee Jr. left the regiment's staff and worked instead for the ordnance department in Richmond.

After the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863) he returned to service with the 13th Virginia Cavalry, commanded by John Randolph Chambliss in a division led by Lee's brother Rooney. His subsequent letters home document the army's morale. On July 30, 1863, he wrote to his mother that "the men & officers are in very good spirits & very desirous of establishing their fame firmly, which they think has been a little shaken at Gettysburg." The next spring, as the new Union general-in-chief, Ulysses S. Grant, began a renewed push toward Richmond, morale was still high in the Army of Northern Virginia. In a letter to his sister, Eleanor Agnes Lee, dated July 15, 1864, he wrote that soldiers got plenty to eat and that he was impatient to "turn our horses out on the fine grass in Maryland & Pennsylvania." By that summer, Grant's advance had stalled in front of Petersburg. Stationed on the extreme right of the Confederate line, Lee was slightly wounded in the autumn, but again he recovered. By 1865, his outlook on the war and his likelihood to survive it had grown darker. "I don't know whether I shall ever see you again," he wrote his sister Mildred Lee on February 16, 1865.

In the final days of the war, on April 2 or 3, Lee Jr. had a horse shot from under him, causing him to be cut off from the rest of the army. In his Recollections and Letters, he recalled being "surprised" when he heard of the news of his father's surrender at Appomattox. "To say that I was surprised does not express my feelings," he wrote. "I had never heard the word 'surrender' mentioned, nor even suggested, in connection with our general or our army." Joining a group of cavalrymen led by Thomas Lafayette Rosser, he followed the remnants of Confederate president Jefferson Davis's government to Greensboro, North Carolina. That was as far as he made it. He eventually returned to Richmond and was paroled there on May 25, 1865.

Postwar Years

In the will of his grandfather George Washington Parke Custis, who died in 1857, Lee had inherited one of Custis's three properties, Romancoke, a rundown plantation of about 4,000 acres in King William County, about 40 miles east of Richmond. He set himself up there after the war as a bachelor farmer. A letter from his father, dated March 12, 1868, suggests that he struggled with the intricacies of farm management and looked to the elder Lee for advice. About his son's labor shortage, the former general suggested Germans, Dutch, and other white men, but argued that Lee Jr. "will never prosper with the blacks … whose sympathies are antagonistic to yours." The racial upheaval of the period notwithstanding, Lee Jr. took little interest in politics and his views of African Americans were typical of the time in their condescension.

After a long courtship, Lee married Charlotte Taylor "Lottie" Haxall on November 16, 1871, in Orange County. A friend of the Lee family, she died of tuberculosis on September 22, 1872. Lee's father died in 1870, his mother and sister Eleanor Agnes both in 1873. Lee sought comfort in his family and, in 1875, departed for England with his sister Mildred, staying for a year. Either late in 1890 or early in 1891 he moved from Romancoke to Washington, D.C., where he worked in the insurance business. On March 8, 1894, in Washington, Lee married Juliet Carter, the daughter of Lee's second cousin Colonel Thomas Henry Carter, of King William County. The couple had two daughters.

Lee had loved his famous father and felt unworthy of being his son. In a letter to his mother, dated December 12, 1870, and a few months after the elder Lee's death, he lamented his own "selfishness & weakness" and felt he had "done so little for him, tried so little to follow in his footsteps." The publication, in 1904, of the Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee might be seen as an attempt to assuage this guilt. The book included transcriptions of General Lee's letters, recollections of his spoken words, and anecdotes drawn from Lee Jr.'s memories and those of his older siblings. The book was well received and remains essential reading for Lee scholars.

Later Years

Lee and his family eventually returned to Romancoke. In 1909, the Englishman Gerald Smythe, an honorary member of the R. E. Lee Camp of the United Confederate Veterans, visited him there. Lee "had a profound admiration for the 'plain' men who went into the ranks of the Confederate armies," Smythe wrote in Confederate Veteran magazine, "such as small farmers and their sons, professors and students at the military institutes and universities, professional men of the three learned classes." Despite the fact that Lee was General Lee's son, Smythe believed—correctly—that Lee had not had it easy in the army.

After a prolonged illness Lee died on October 14, 1914, at Nordley, a home he had built in Upperville. He was buried with his family in Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University in Lexington.

Major Work

  • The Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee (1904)

Time Line

  • October 27, 1843 - Robert E. Lee Jr. is born at Arlington, the Lee family plantation in Alexandria County (later Arlington County).
  • 1860–1861 - Robert E. Lee Jr. attends the University of Virginia.
  • April 1861 - Robert E. Lee Jr. joins the Southern Guards, an ad-hoc unit of student soldiers at the University of Virginia.
  • March 28, 1862 - Robert E. Lee Jr. enlists as a private in the Rockbridge Artillery that, with five Virginia infantry regiments, forms the Stonewall Brigade.
  • May 23, 1862 - Robert E. Lee Jr. participates in the Battle of Front Royal, part of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign.
  • June–December 1862 - Robert E. Lee Jr. participates in the Seven Days' Battles, Second Battle of Bull Run, the Battle of Antietam, and the Battle of Fredericksburg.
  • October 20, 1862 - Anne Carter Lee, the daughter of Mary Anna Randolph Custis and Robert E. Lee, dies at Jones's Spring, North Carolina. Though painfully handicapped, her mother travels to be with her and is there at her death.
  • May 1–6, 1863 - Robert E. Lee Jr. participates in the Chancellorsville Campaign.
  • June 26, 1863 - General William Henry Fitzhugh "Rooney" Lee, son of Mary Randolph Custis Lee and Robert E. Lee, is wounded at the Battle of Brandy Station, then captured and imprisoned by Union forces.
  • March 1864 - General William Henry Fitzhugh "Rooney" Lee is released from a Union prison, having been well treated.
  • June 15, 1864–April 3, 1865 - Robert E. Lee Jr. participates in the siege of Petersburg.
  • April 2 or 3, 1865 - Robert E. Lee Jr. has a horse shot from under him, causing him to be cut off from the Army of Northern Virginia, then retreating west from Petersburg.
  • Spring 1865 - Robert E. Lee Jr. takes up farming at Romancoke, the King William County estate he inherited from his grandfather George Washington Parke Custis.
  • May 25 ,1865 - Robert E. Lee Jr. is paroled by Union forces in Richmond.
  • November 16, 1871 - Robert E. Lee Jr. and Charlotte Taylor "Lottie" Haxall marry in Orange County.
  • September 22, 1872 - Charlotte Taylor "Lottie" Haxall, the wife of Robert E. Lee Jr., dies of tuberculosis.
  • 1875 - After the deaths of his mother and sister, Robert E. Lee Jr. travels to Europe with his sister Mildred.
  • March 8, 1894 - Robert E. Lee Jr. and Juliet Carter, the daughter of Lee's second cousin Colonel Thomas Henry Carter, of King William County, marry. It is Lee's second marriage.
  • 1904 - The Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee by Robert E. Lee Jr. is published.
  • October 14, 1914 - Robert E. Lee Jr. dies in at Nordley, a home he built in Upperville. He is buried with his family in Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University in Lexington.

References

Further Reading
Lee, Robert E. Jr. The Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee. New York: Konecky and Konecky, 1992 [1904].
McCabe, Gordon. Captain Robert E. Lee. Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1915.
Nagel, Paul C. The Lees of Virginia: Seven Generations of an American Family. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Thomas, Emory. Robert E. Lee: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Woodward, C. E. Robert E. Lee Jr. (1843–1914). (2019, February 26). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Robert_E_Lee_Jr_1843-1914.

  • MLA Citation:

    Woodward, Colin Edward. "Robert E. Lee Jr. (1843–1914)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 26 Feb. 2019. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: January 31, 2019 | Last modified: February 26, 2019


Contributed by Colin Edward Woodward, editor of the Lee Family Digital Archive at Stratford Hall.