“The education of a man is never completed until he dies” is a statement attributed to Robert E. Lee, whose education was completed in 1870 as death reached him only five years after surviving the U.S. Civil War as the head of the Army of the Confederate States of America (CSA).
General Lee died in Lexington, Virginia, on October 12, 1870, at the age of 63. Mourners at his funeral are pictured standing on the steps of Arlington House, residence of the Lee and Custis families for decades, and now known as The Robert E. Lee Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.
Lee was born on January 19, 1807, at his family’s Stratford Hall plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia. After attending West Point, he forged a promising military career and distinguished himself in the Mexican American War. Later, he would command the CSA Army and, in the last years of his life, serve as president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University.
There are several photos on Fold3, one showing Lee in profile, another with son George Washington Custis Lee, and his famous portrait as a Confederate general. Many more documents relating to Lee and his family can be found in Fold3’s Civil War Collection.
As a second-year student at West Point in 1827, Cadet Robert E. Lee appears on a list of assistant professors at the academy in Letters Received by the Adjutant General, 1822-1860. Lee’s name and signature appear often within that title and in the later set of Letters Received by the Adjutant General, 1861-1870. In this 1855 document, Lee accepts an appointment of Lieutenant Colonel and swears allegiance to the United States of America. Later, he’s recommended for promotion to brigadier general by J.M. Porter in a letter to President Buchanan. It was an appointment that didn’t happen despite Porter’s effusive endorsement.
Prior to the Civil War, Lee headed a board of officers tasked with examining effective signal communications. His 1859 reports begin here and continue for 179 pages. When Virginia voted to secede from the Union on April 17, 1861, Lee felt obligated to fight for his home state and signed a resignation letter three days later. In his new position, he wrote a letter to General McClellan regarding an exchange of prisoners on July 24, 1862,
Confederate Amnesty Papers contain applications of former Confederates for presidential pardons and, while there are many post-war oaths of allegiance to the USA by former CSA officers like General George E. Pickett and Lee’s nephew Fitzhugh Lee, General Lee’s request and pardon are not among them. Learn the story behind it in the Spring 2005 issue of NARA’s Prologue magazine.
After his death, Robert E. Lee’s legacy strengthened in both the South and the North. He is remembered as a brilliant military leader, a devoted family man, and a great American.