Robert E. Lee had a reputation as one of the finest officers in the United States Army. Therefore, Abraham Lincoln offered Lee the command of the federal forces in April 1861. Nevertheless, Lee declined and tendered his resignation from the Army when Virginia seceded on April 17th. He argued that he could not fight against his people. Instead, he accepted a general’s commission for the newly formed Confederate Army.

His first military battle of the Civil War was at Cheat Mountain, Virginia (now West Virginia) on September 11, 1861. 

Although the Union won, Lee’s reputation withstood the public criticism that followed the battle. He then served as military advisor to the late President Jefferson Davis until June 1862. Following that, he was given command of General Joseph E. Johnston’s embattled army on the Virginia peninsula. 

This army also boasted some of the Confederacy’s most prominent military figures, including James LongstreetStonewall Jackson, and the cavalier J.E.B. Stuart.

Many streets at military bases are named after these men. The naming of these bases and streets was done during WWI when the Army expanded its military training centers to train troops overseas to Europe. Even in the early 1900s, there was a solid anti-Unionist sentiment still active in the South. Thus, it was believed that naming bases after Confederate generals (rather than Union ones) would increase the number of men from the South answering the draft call.

Lee’s Troops Continually Bettered Their Adversaries No Matter the Odds
“Recumbent Statue” of Robert E. Lee asleep on the battlefield by Edward Valentine in the Lee Chapel in Lexington, VA. (Susan Rissi Tregoning)

After the simultaneous Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Ulysses S. Grant assumed command of the Union armies. Rather than make Richmond the aim of his campaign, Grant chose to focus on destroying Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. In a relentless and bloody campaign, the Union juggernaut bludgeoned the under-supplied Rebel band.  

Despite his ability to make Grant pay heavily in blood for his aggressive tactics, Lee had been forced to yield the initiative to his adversary. He recognized that the end of the Confederacy was only a matter of time. By the summer of 1864, the Confederates had been forced into waging trench warfare outside of Petersburg.  

President Davis named him general-in-chief of all Confederate forces in February 1865. But only two months later, on April 9, 1865, Lee was forced to surrender his weary and depleted army to Grant at the Appomattox Court House, effectively ending the Civil War.