The Life of Gen. Robert E. Lee, For Children, In Easy Words
By Mary L. Williamson

A Confederate General.

WHEN the spring of 1863 came, the two armies were still in sight of each other near Fredericksburg. A new man, General Hooker, sometimes called “Fighting Joe,“ had been put at the head of the army of the North. Take note that he was the fourth general that President Lincoln had sent forth within a year to conquer Lee.

Lee watched his new foe, and when he had found out his plans was ready for him. He fell back to a place called Chancellorsville, and there, in the midst of a dense forest, the fight took place (May 2, 3).

While the battle was going on, Lee sent Jackson to the rear to cut Hooker off. from a ford in the river. Jackson’s men moved through the forest so swiftly and with so little noise that they fell upon Hooker’s men with a loud yell before he knew they were near. They rushed out like a thunder-bolt and swept down upon the line like a flash of lightning. The foe did not wait, but turned and fled.

It was now nearly dark, and, as Jackson rode forward to view the way, he was shot by his own men, who, in the dim light, thought that he and his aids were a squad of Northern cavalry. He was shot in three places—in his right hand, his left forearm, and again in the same limb near the shoulder. He was placed in a litter and taken from the field. All care was taken of this great and good man, but he died the next Sunday. His last words were:

“’Order A. P. Hill to prepare for action. Pass the infantry to the front. Tell Major Hawkes”—he stopped and then said, as if the fight was over, “Let us pass over the river and rest under the trees.”

Thus passed away the great Stonewall Jackson, the “right arm of Lee.”

For two days after Jackson was wounded, the fight went on and raged with great fury. General Hooker was struck by a piece of wood split off by a cannon ball, and for a time was thought dead.

Lee made bold plans and his brave men carried them out. Stuart, who had taken Stonewall Jackson’s command, led his men to battle, singing “Old Joe Hooker, won’t you come out of the wilderness.”

At last the battle of Chancellorsville was won and Hooker was forced back to his old camp at Fredericksburg.

Chancellorsville was Lee’s greatest battle, but its glory was clouded by Jackson’s death. General Lee wrote to his wife, May 11, 1863:

“You will see we have to mourn the loss of the good and great Jackson. * * I know not how to replace him, but God’s will be done.”


In this battle Lee had only fifty-three thousand men, one-third as many men as Hooker.

In June, 1863, Lee again crossed the Potomac and met an army under General Meade at Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania.

Lee had two reasons for this move. One was to get food for his men and horses; and the other to draw the Northern army away from its strong forts around Washington city. He gave strict orders to his men not to steal and rob. This is a part of his order:

“The commanding general thinks that no greater disgrace could befall the army, and through it our whole people, than to commit outrages on the innocent and defenceless. * * * It must be remembered that we make war only upon armed men.

This order, with its noble Christ-like spirit, will remain the “undying glory of Lee”; for all his property had been taken by the Federals. His wife and daughters were homeless, yet he did not fail to return good for evil.

When Lee started into Maryland, he sent Jeb Stuart on ahead to guard the right flank of his army. By some mishap, he crossed the Potomac too far to the east, and soon found that the whole Federal army was between him and General Lee. By hard lighting and riding he at last joined Lee at Gettysburg, but not until after the fight had begun. Lee was thus without his “eyes and ears,” as we have called General Stuart, and could not tell just where the foe was. Neither Lee nor Meade had planned to fight at Gettysburg, but they fell upon each other pretty much like two men groping in the dark.

For the first two days (July 1, 2) Lee’s men drove back the enemy. On the third day, at 1 o’clock P. M., Lee began to fight with one hundred and fifty big guns. For two hours the air was alive with shells. Then, out of the woods swept the Confederate battle line, over a mile long, under General Pickett. A thrill of wonder ran along the Federal lines as that grand column of fifteen thousand men marched, with ragged clothes, but bright guns and red battle-flags flying, up the slope of Cemetery Ridge. Down upon them came shot and shell from guns on the heights above and round them.

The line was broken, but on they went. They planted their Confederate flags on the breast-work; they fought hand to hand and killed men at the cannon with the bayonet; but down from the hill rushed tens of thousands of Federals, and many who were not killed were taken prisoners. Few got back to tell the story. That night the stars looked down upon a field of dead and dying men and also upon a sad general. Lee’s orders had not been obeyed, and, for the first time, he had been foiled.

Lee afterwards said to a friend, “Had I had Stonewall Jackson at Gettysburg, I would have won a great victory.”

He had made a bold plan to attack early in the day; but it was not done, and thus Meade got time to bring up his troops. Meade did not attack Lee, who rested that night upon the same ground as the night before.

Lee now had but little powder and shot. On the next day, the 4th of July, he started his long trains of wounded and prisoners towards Virginia; and, at the same time, buried his dead. That night, in a storm, the army began its homeward march, and reached the Potomac river to find it too high to cross. Calm and brave, Lee sent his wounded over in boats and got ready for Meade. But Meade was in no mood to attack Lee and came up slowly.

While waiting for the river to fall, Lee heard of the capture of his son Gen. W. H. F. Lee.

On the 13th, Lee’s men began to cross the river, and by the next night they were again safe in Virginia.

The men lost at Gettysburg were never replaced, for the South had sent forth all her fighting men and had no more to give.

The rest of the year passed without any great battle. Lee’s chief concern was to get food and clothes for his men and to watch Meade, who would not give battle.

About this time the city of Richmond presented to Lee a house. This he kindly but firmly refused to take, and begged that what means the city had to spare might be given to the families of his poor soldiers.

Late in November, General Meade moved towards Lee, who had built strong forts at Mine Run. But Meade found the forts too strong for attack and withdrew during the night.

The next year a new man was sent against Lee—Ulysses S. Grant. Lee had now only sixty-two thousand men to meet Grant, who had one hundred and twenty-five thousand men, and a wagon train that reached sixty-five miles.

With this large army, Grant crossed the Rapidan river, and marched on to give Lee battle. Lee did not wait for Grant, but went forward and met his hosts in a place called the Wilderness, which was a vast forest full of underbrush, and with only narrow roads here and there. It was a bad place in which to fight a battle, for no man could see but a few yards around him. Cannon and horsemen were of no use, because they could not move through the tangled bushes.

Grant did not know that Lee’s men were so near. But when they rushed into these wilds and boldly began the fight he had to give battle. For two days, May 5th and 6th, 1864, two hundred thousand men in blue and gray fought breast to breast in the thickets. Men fell and died unseen, their bodies lost in the bushes and their death- groans drowned in the roar of battle.

In the midst of these horrors, the woods caught on fire and many of the wounded were burnt alive. Lee, however, pressed forward, and when night closed had taken a portion of the Federal breast-works.

During the fight of the 6th, General Lee placed himself at the head of some men from Texas to lead the charge. “Hurrah for Texas!” he cried, and ordered the charge. But the soldiers, anxious for their dear general, shouted, “Lee to rear!” A gray-haired soldier seized his bridle, saying, “General Lee, if you do not go back, we will not go forward!” So General Lee reined back his horse and the brave Texans swept on to victory and death.

On the morning of the 7th, Grant made no motion to attack Lee, but that night marched towards Spotsylvania Court-House. Lee at once found out his plans and began a race to reach there first. When the front of Grant’s army reached the Court-House the next morning, they found Lee’s men behind breast-works and ready for the fight. Lee had gotten between Grant and Richmond! That evening the two great armies were again facing each other on the banks of the Po river. Here they threw up breast-works, which may yet be seen.

For twelve days, Grant made many attacks upon Lee’s lines. Early on the morning of the 12th his men made an opening in Lee’s lines and poured in by thousands. Lee’s men ran up quickly and soon a most terrible fight took place. The trenches ran with blood and the space was piled with dead bodies, whose lips were black with powder from biting cartridges.

Though Grant held that position, he could not break through the second line. The little army in gray stood as firm as the mountains.

In the fight of which I have just told you, General Lee again rode in front, with hat off, to lead the charge; but General Gordon dashed up and said:


“These are Virginians and Georgians who have never failed. Go to the rear, General Lee.”

Then he said to the men:

“Must General Lee lead this charge?”

“No! No!” they cried; “we will drive them back if General Lee will go to the rear.”

They rushed off and once more hurled back the Federal troops.

Grant now sent his cavalry general, Sheridan, on a raid near Richmond. A fierce battle was fought at Yellow Tavern, in which the famous Jeb Stuart was wounded so that he died the next day. Alas for Lee! Jackson and Stuart were both gone.

Grant again moved to the rear, and Lee next moved to the North Anna river. While Grant was again trying to flank, Lee got to the old works at Cold Harbor. Grant made an attack at daylight. His troops, sinking into a swamp, were killed by thousands, while Lee lost but few men.

A second assault was ordered, but the men would not move forward. About thirteen thousand of their comrades had been killed in less than half an hour, and they could no longer stand the awful fire.

We are told by General Fitzhugh Lee that Lee’s men were hungry and mad. One cracker to a man, with no meat, was a luxury. One poor fellow, who had his cracker shot out of his hand before he could eat it, said: “The next time I’ll put my cracker in a safe place down by the breastworks where it won’t get wounded, poor thing!”

Lee again stood in Grant’s way to Richmond. In the battles from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, Grant had lost sixty thousand men, while Lee’s loss was eighteen thousand.

Just before the battle of Cold Harbor, Grant had looked for Sigel to move up the Valley and fall upon Lee’s rear. But Sigel was met at New Market on May 15th by Breckenridge with five thousand troops, among which was a band of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington. These boys fought like heroes, fifty of them being killed and wounded. Sigel was sent running back down the Valley, and Breckenridge then marched to the help of Lee.

Grant then, on the night of June 12th, began to move his army south of the James river to march towards Petersburg, a city about twenty-one miles south of Richmond.

The famous General Beauregard (Bo´regard) was at Petersburg with only about two thousand men, as he had sent the most of his troops to the north side of the James river to the help of Lee.

Against these, on the 15th, General Grant sent eighteen thousand men.

Beauregard held these men in check until Lee sent troops to aid him. Lee then came up with the main army, and Grant, having lost ten thousand men, now began to make trenches and build forts to protect his men, as he was going to lay siege to Petersburg, the key to Richmond.

Lee had to defend both Richmond and Petersburg with lines thirty-five miles long, against Grant’s army, which was twice as large as his own. In fact, Grant had all the men that he asked for; while Lee’s ranks were thin and food was scarce. A fourth of a pound of meat and one pound of flour was all that each soldier had for one day.

In this stress, it is said that Lee thought it best to give up Richmond and march south to join the army there. I do not know the truth of that statement. At any rate, he did not go, but went to work to make his lines stronger and to get in food for his men. One of his great cares was to keep Grant from getting hold of the railroads which brought food from the South and other parts of the country.

Just here, it will be well to give you some of the war prices at that time. Flour brought, in Confederate money, two hundred and fifty dollars per barrel; meal, fifty dollars; corn, forty; and oats, twenty-five dollars per bushel. Brown sugar cost ten dollars per pound; coffee, twelve dollars; tea, thirty-five dollars; and they were scarce and hard to get. Woolen goods were scarce; calico cost thirty dollars per yard, and lead pencils one dollar a-piece. Women wore dresses that were made of cloth spun, woven and dyed by their own hands. Large thorns were used for pins and hair-pins, and shoes were made with wooden soles. Hats were made by girls out of wheat straw, plaited into a braid and then sewed into shape.

Those were indeed hard times; but in spite of want and care, the spirits and courage of the Southern people did not flag. All food that could be spared was sent to Richmond, and every one hoped for the best.

Time after time Grant’s men made attacks upon Lee’s works, but were always sent back faster than they came, by his watchful men.

The shells from Grant’s big guns fell into the city of Petersburg day after day, bursting into the churches and houses, and making the people flee for their lives.

One day, as General Lee was sitting on a chair under a tree at his headquarters, the “Clay House,” the balls fell so thick about him that his aids begged him to seek a safer place. He at last mounted his horse and rode away. A moment after, a gay young soldier sat down in the chair and tilted it back, saying, “I’ll see if I can fill Lee’s place for a while.” Just then a ball struck the front round of the chair and cut in in twain. If Lee had been there, with the chair upon the ground, he would have been badly hurt. All thanked God that he was safe.

On June 22d, the Confederates under General Mahone made a sally from their lines and gave the Federals a great surprise. As the Southern shot and shell burst upon them, they fled back into their lines and the Confederates brought off two thousand prisoners, four cannon and eight flags.

n the same day, there was a fight at Reams’ Station, in which the Federals were put to flight and lost twelve guns and one thousand men.

All this time, Grant was making earth-works and forts, and at last carried out a very cruel plan. From a spot out of sight, he had a mine dug until it reached under one of the Confederate forts. In that hole he had caused to be placed a blast of eight thousand pounds of powder. His plan was to blow a hole in Lee’s lines and then rush in with a large band of men and take the city.

A Confederate General


General Lee found out that they were digging the mine and where it was, and had a strong line made in the rear, while big guns were placed so as to fire across the breach when the mine was sprung.

At that time there were only thirteen thousand men in the trenches at Petersburg, as General Lee had been forced to send some of his troops to the north of the James to check a move which Grant had made on purpose to draw off Lee’s men from the mine.

Just at dawn, July 30th, the blast was fired. A great roar was heard, and then two hundred and fifty-six men from South Carolina and twenty-two from Petersburg, with guns, large masses of earth, stones and logs, were thrown high into the air. A breach one hundred and thirty-five feet long, ninety feet wide, and thirty feet deep, had been made in the Confederate lines. Those near the spot were at first stunned, and those far away could not think what the noise meant.

Grant’s guns fired at once all along the line, and a band of men marched out to rush in through the breach. When they had rushed across the space to the gap, they found a deep pit at their feet.


The Confederates had now gained their wits, and at once opened fire. The storm of shot and shell forced the Federals down into the pit for shelter; but when there, they could not get out. Band after band of Federals were sent forward to charge the works, but they either fell into the Crater or ran back to their own lines.

Two hours had now passed, when black troops were sent to seize the guns which were doing such deadly work. They marched bravely up, but the Confederate fire was too hot for them and they ran for their lives—some into the Crater, and some back to their own lines. White troops were again sent forward, but they, too, were driven back. All this time the Crater was full of wounded, straggling and dying men, upon whom the hot sun beat and shot poured down.

Soon General Lee rode up, and by his orders, General Mahone, with Weisiger’s and Wright’s brigades, came up and charged with a yell upon the Federals who had for the first time reached the breast-works. There was a fierce hand-to-hand fight, but the Federals were quickly forced back.

All honor is due to the few men who had so bravely held the breach until help came.

Just at this time a white flag was seen to float above the side of the Crater, which told that some were alive down there and ready to give up.

In this strange fight Grant lost about four thousand men and Lee about four hundred.

The pluck and skill of Lee and a few men had foiled a well-laid plan and showed what these brave heroes could do after years of toil and battle.

Lee now thought that if he would again send troops to threaten Washington, he might cause Grant to move some of his large army there, and thus give him (Lee) a chance to hurl back the hosts of Grant from Richmond. So he sent General Early down the Valley into Maryland with only ten thousand men.

They went as fast as they could, and on July 9th met, at Monocacy Bridge, General Lew Wallace with seven thousand men. Having whipped him and taken from him two thousand men, Early marched on to Washington.

On the 10th, his troops marched thirty miles, and on the 11th were in front of Washington. But his force was too small and too much worn out to try to attack the city. He coolly camped in front of it all day, and at night after a fight with some Federal troops sent to catch him, went back into Virginia.

This raid of Early’s did not move Grant. He left Mr. Lincoln to take care of Washington and kept the most of his men massed in front of Lee’s lines.

It was about this time that the Federal General Sheridan passed up the Valley and burned two thousand barns filled with wheat and hay, and seventy mills filled with flour. He also drove off and killed four thousand head of stock. The boast was that “if a crow wants to fly down the Valley he must carry his food along.”

This was a part of the plan to crush and starve Lee, for a great part of his flour and meat was sent from the Valley.

After many trials, on August 18th Grant at last got hold of the Weldon railroad, which brought supplies from the south. This was a great blow to Lee.

In the fall of this year, when meat was scarce, General Wade Hampton sent a note to General Lee, telling him that there was a large drove of beeves in the rear of Grant’s army and asked leave to take a force of horsemen and drive out the cattle. General Lee at last told him to go, but urged him to take great care not to be caught.

The men were well on their way when day broke, and rode on until dark, when they came to a halt in a road overhung by the branches of trees. Here they slept, men and horses, till just at dawn they sprang to their saddles, and with the well-known yell dashed into the camp of the foe. The Federals made a good fight for their meat; but at last fell back, and the Confederates captured and drove out more than two thousand beeves. These they brought safe into camp after having two fights and riding one hundred miles.

This fresh meat was a great treat to Lee’s men and the cause of much fun.

Lee’s lines were so close to Grant’s at one point that the men would often call over to each other. The Federals called the Confederates Johnny Rebs, while the Confederate name for the Federals was Billy Yanks. On the day after the beet raid, one of Grant’s men called out:

“I say, Johnny Reb, come over. I’ve got a new blue suit for you.”

“Blue suit?” growled out Johnny.

“Yes,” said the other, “take off those greasy butternut clothes. I would, if I were you.”

“Never you mind the grease, Billy Yank,” drawled out the Confederate, “I got that out’n them beeves ‘o yourn.

Pop! went the Federal’s gun, and the Confederate was not slow to pop back at him.


General Lee’s life was now full of care; as soon as one attack on his lines was over, another was begun. He lived in a tent and would go down to the trenches himself to see how his men were getting on.

An old soldier relates that one day he came into the trenches when the firing was quite rapid. The men did not dare to cheer, lest they might bring a hotter fire from the foe, but they crowded around him and begged him to go back. But he calmly asked after their health and spoke words of cheer. Then he walked to a big gun and asked the lieutenant to fire, so that he might see its range and work. The officer said, with tears in his eyes, “General, don’t order me to fire this gun while you are here. They will open fire over there with all those big guns and you will surely get hurt. Go back out of range and I’ll fire all day.” General Lee was greatly touched by this, and went back, while the men quickly fired off the huge gun.

Lee needed not only men, but food for those he had. Many men died from cold and want.

The winter of 1864 and ’65 was a sad one for Lee and the South. There were no more men in the South to take the place of those who had been killed.

The corn and wheat of the South had been burnt and the cattle killed by the Northern armies. The people sat down to empty tables and had no more food to send their men.

Mrs. Lee, in her sick chair in Richmond, “with large heart and small means” knit socks, which she would send at once to the bare-footed men.

On January 10, 1865, General Lee writes to Mrs. Lee:

“Yesterday three little girls walked into my room, each with a small basket. The eldest had some fresh eggs, the second some pickles, and the third some pop-corn, which had grown in her garden. * * They had with them a young maid with a block of soap made by her mother. They were the daughters of a Mrs. Nottingham, a refugee from Northampton county. * * I had not had so nice a visit for a long time. I was able to fill their baskets with apples, and begged them to bring me hereafter nothing but kisses, and to keep the eggs, corn, etc., for themselves.”

Lee’s men were ragged and starving, but they fought on till April 1st, 1865, when, at Five Forks, the left wing of Grant’s large army swept around the right and rear of Lee, and made him give up Richmond and Petersburg.

When the Southern troops were leaving Richmond, by law of Congress the tobacco houses were set on fire to keep them from falling into the hands of the foe. The fire spread, and Mrs. Lee’s house was in danger of being burnt. Friends came in and wished to move her to a place of safety, but she was loath to go. The fire had no terror for her as she thought of her husband with his band of ragged, starving men marching with their “faces turned from Richmond.” White clouds of dense smoke, with the light of fire in their folds, hung above the city as the Federal army, with waving flags and clashing music, marched in and stacked arms in the Capitol Square.

In the meantime, Lee marched on towards Amelia Court-House, where he had ordered meat and bread to be sent for his men. But when he got there he found that it had been sent elsewhere, and now real want set in. His men had nothing to eat but corn, which they would parch at night and eat as they marched along. General Lee’s plan had been to march south and join General Johnston, but some time had been lost in looking for food, and General Grant’s hosts were near at hand.

So Lee fell back towards Lynchburg, but on April 9th, 1865, being entirely surrounded by Grant’s vast army, he and his few ragged men surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Court-House. Lee had only eight thousand men, while Grant’s army numbered about two hundred thousand.

In all these battles, of which I have told you, General Lee had never been really defeated; but he gave up at last because he had no more men and no more food. The Northern generals had all the men and food they asked for, as they had the world to draw from; but the South, being blockaded, or shut in by Northern ships of war, could not get what she needed from other lands.

Lee did all that courage and genius could do against such odds, and was, without doubt, the greatest commander of his time.

Colonel Venable, an officer on General Lee’s staff, tells this story of the surrender: “When I told General Lee that the troops in front were not able to fight their way out, he said ‘Then, there is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.’ ”

Another officer says that when Lee was thinking of the surrender he exclaimed, “How easily I could get rid of all this and be at rest! I have only to ride along the lines and all will be over. But,” he added quickly, “it is our duty to live, for what will become of the women and children of the South if we are not here to support and protect them?”

So, with a heart bursting with grief, he once more did his duty. He went at once to General Grant and surrendered himself and his few remaining men.

By the terms of the surrender, Lee’s men gave up their fire-arms, but all who had horses took them home, “to work their little farms.”

General Grant, it must be said, was most kind to General Lee and his men. He did not ask for General Lee’s sword, nor did Lee offer it to him; neither did he require Lee’s men to march up to stack their guns between ranks of Federals with flags flying and bands playing. Lee’s men simply went to places which were pointed out and stacked their guns. Their officers then signed a parole not to fight again against the United States. They were then free to go back to their homes, which, in some cases, were burnt—blight and want being on every side.

After all, Grant did not go to Lee’s camp or to Richmond to exult over the men who had so often met him in battle; but he mounted his horse, and, with his staff, rode to Washington. Before going, he sent to Lee twenty-five thousand rations; for, as I have told you, Lee’s men had nothing to eat but parched corn.

After the surrender, Lee rode out among his men, who pressed up to him, eager to “touch his person, or even his horse,” and tears fell down the powder-stained cheeks of the strong men. Slowly he said:

“Men, we have fought the war together; I have done my best for you; my heart is too full to say more.”

“And then in silence, with lifted hat, he rode through the weeping army towards his home in Richmond.”


As General Lee rode on towards Richmond he was calm, and his thoughts dwelt much more on the state of the poor people at whose houses he stopped than upon his own bad fortune. When he found that all along the road the people were glad to see him and gave him gladly of what they had to eat, he said, “These good people are kind— too kind. They do too much—more than they are able to do—for us.”

At a house which he reached just at night, a poor woman gave him a nice bed; but, with a kind shake of the head, he spread his blanket and slept upon the floor.

The next day he stopped at the house of his brother, Charles Carter Lee; but, when night came, left the house and slept in his old black wagon. He could not give up at once the habits of a soldier.

When, at last, the city of Richmond was in sight, he rode ahead with a few of his officers. A sad sight met his view. In the great fire of the 3d of April, a large part of the city had been burned, and, as he rode up Main street, he saw only masses of black ruins.

As he rode slowly, some of the people saw him, and at once the news flashed through the streets that General Lee had come.

The people ran to greet him, and showed by cheers and the waving of hats and handkerchiefs how much they loved him.

General Lee now went home and there again took up his duty. He had fought for the South, which had failed to gain the victory. He thought that it was now the duty of every good man to avoid hate and malice and do all that he could to build up the waste places of his dear land. He had been a soldier for forty years, and, for the first time since manhood, was in private life.

He now enjoyed the company of his wife and children, and as long as he kept his parole and the laws in force where he lived, was thought to be safe. There were, however, steps taken to try him for treason; but General Grant went to the President and told him that his honor was pledged for the safety of General Lee, and that he wished him to be let alone. So, General Grant’s request was granted and no trial took place.

After some months the Lee family left Richmond and went to live at the house of a friend in Powhatan county.

The spring and summer of 1865 was spent by our hero in taking the rest which he so much needed.

Rĕf´ugee´, one who leaves home for safety.
Siĕge, the act of besetting a fortified place.
Hûrled, thrown.
Gēnius, a great mind.
Surrĕn´der, the act of yielding to another.

What do you remember about—

The death of General Jackson?
The Wilderness?
“Lee to the rear?”
Cold Harbor?
The siege of Richmond and Petersburg?
The surrender?
General Grant’s kindness?



Return to The Life of Gen. Robert E. Lee, For Children, In Easy Words