The shockingly destructive American Civil War that raged from 1861 to 1865, produced around 620,000 deaths – more than US figures in the First and Second World Wars, Vietnam and Korea combined.
One of the central figures of the devastating conflict was Robert E. Lee, a native of Virginia, who began the War as General of the Confederate Army of North Virginia and ended it as General in Chief of the entire Confederate Army.
Lee came into his senior command with an impeccable military pedigree. He graduated second in his class at West Point Military Academy in 1829 and followed this by a distinguished command during the 1846 war with Mexico.
When the Civil War began in 1861 he was offered command of the Union forces by President Abraham Lincoln but declined and instead accepted the position of General of the Confederate Army of North Virginia.
Lee’s reputation as a commander was enhanced by his role in several key battles of the war, including an inconclusive but bloody conflict at Antietam, and decisive victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. However the Confederate Army then suffered a heavy defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, a result that substantially weakened them for the remainder of the conflict.
Following a war of attrition conducted by the Union Forces during 1864 and 1865, the Confederates were in a state of gradual collapse and Lee was forced to surrender to the Union Commander, Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox on 9 April 1865. The end of the War followed soon after.
Lee proved to be what was later called “the icon of reconciliation” and did much to mend the wrecked bridges between North and South. A hero in the South, he also became increasingly popular in the North as it became obvious that he was genuinely committed to the advancement of the United States as a nation, and not just the Southern States in isolation. He later remarked:
“I have fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the South its dearest rights. But I have never cherished toward them bitter or vindictive feelings, and I have never seen the day when I did not pray for them”.
Image: General Lee (grey coat) surrenders to General Grant at Appomattox 9 April 1865. A reproduction of the painting by Thomas Nast, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.