American Civil War for Kids - Confederate General Robert E. Lee Illustration

American Civil War for Kids - Confederate General Robert E. Lee

When Confederate president Jefferson Davis appointed General Robert E. Lee to command a 50,000-man Confederate army, currently protecting Richmond, some people in the South were concerned about this choice. General Lee had been under fire only twice, and had never commanded an army of this size. But Lee was a career army officer. He had a great deal of experience in military matters. He had fought in the Mexican War. He was the Superintendent of West Point Military Academy. And he was loyal to the Confederacy. Two days after Virginia seceded from the Union, Lee resigned from the U.S. Army, and became a valuable military advisor to Jefferson Davis.

Lee was very fussy. He wanted things done a certain way. Behind his back, his new staff in Richmond nicknamed him "Granny Lee". They knew nothing of his brilliant suggestions to Jefferson Davis and other Confederate generals.

One of Lee's first actions after taking over was to rename the army under his control the Army of Northern Virginia. He did this to give the men a feeling of loyalty to a specific cause, that being to protect Richmond. It was a clever ploy. It not only gave the men a sense of purpose and direction, but it also made the Union army aware that the South had many armies. This gave Union soldiers pause. Lee knew his men were outnumbered, and were facing 100,000 Union soldiers ready to battle for Richmond. A simple name change accomplished a great deal. Next, he directed his soldiers to build earthwork fortifications 16 miles long. The troops complained that they had not signed up to fight with picks and shovels. His troops began calling him "The King of Spades".

 "The King of Spades" and his Army of Northern Virginia fought brilliantly throughout the Civil War. They did not always win, but they were always a force to be reckoned with. As the war dragged on, the South was exhausted of supplies and energy. At Appomattox in 1865, rather than lose any more lives needlessly, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his 28,000 troops to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the Civil War. Other generals surrender over the next few weeks.

By the terms of his surrender, his men were safe from Union reprisals. Robert E. Lee signed his parole, and headed home. Grant had offered him an escort for his safety, but Robert E. Lee left with only a few members of his staff. On the road home, word spread of his surrender. People lined the road to cry and to cheer him, including some Union soldiers. Some handed him provisions. At night, Lee and his staff slept in people's yards. It took Lee three days to ride his horse home to Richmond, to join his wife. 

Lee had no desire to return to his ancestral home in Arlington, Virginia. The Union had taken it over during the war. Thousands of Union soldiers were buried in the front yard. Nor did Lee want to stay in Richmond. Instead, he moved his family away from the city to a modest house along the James River. Lee began planning a book he wanted to write about the experiences of the Army of Northern Virginia. He never wrote it. His daughter spoke to one of the trustees of Washington College, telling him her father could not find a job. Washington College decided to ask Lee to become president of the school. The school had barely survived the Civil War. In 1865, it had 5 teachers and a handful of students. One of the trustees borrowed money to buy a suit before he traveled to Lee's home on the James River with a job offer. Much to his joy, Lee accepted the job. Lee's salary was $1500 a year, use of a house on campus, and 20% of any tuition fees received. Lee and his family were very happy with this solution to their lives. Two weeks later, ex-Confederate General Robert E. Lee began his second career as president of Washington College. There, he did what he always did, an outstanding job.

Civil War Battles

Lee's Surrender at Appomattox 1865, how Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union General Ulysses. S. Grant came to an agreement on Confederate surrender (primary documents) effectively ending the Civil War

For Teachers

Free American Civil War Lesson Plans, Classroom Activities, Simulations, Debates, Role Play, Projects, Maps