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Historical Vignette 033 - Robert E. Lee Served for 26 Years as an Officer

Before the Civil War, Robert E. Lee Served for 26 Years as an Officer in the Corps of Engineers 

portrait of Lee in uniform
Robert E. Lee in the dress uniform of a Lieutenant of Engineers, by William Edward West, 1838,
Courtesy Washington and Lee University.

Robert E. Lee was a United States Army engineer officer from 1829 to 1855. Born on 19 January 1807 in Stratford Hall, Westmoreland County, Virginia, Lee’s father was Revolutionary War hero Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee. Home-schooled by his parents until he was thirteen, he then entered an academy in Alexandria, Virginia. After a year at a Quaker prep school, he entered the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York on 1 July 1825. An excellent student, Lee graduated number two in the class of 1829 and entered the Corps of Engineers.

His first assignment was as assistant engineer of fortification work on Cockspur Island in the Savannah River. For a time he worked under the command of Lieutenant Joseph Mansfield, Corps of Engineers, who would be killed at Antietam leading a Union Army corps. In 1831 Lee went to Fort Monroe, Virginia, as assistant engineer responsible for the outworks and approaches to Fort Monroe and preparatory work for construction of Fort Calhoun, now Fort Wool, Virginia.

Lee went to the Chief of Engineers Office as administrative assistant in 1834 and to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1837 as supervising engineer of navigation work on the Mississippi River. His assistant engineer at St. Louis was Lieutenant Montgomery Meigs, later Union Quartermaster General in the Civil War. From 1841 to 1846 Lee was supervising engineer for repair of the forts in New York harbor.

In 1846 Robert E. Lee went to war for the first time. Initially he was General Wool’s chief engineer in the campaign in northern Mexico. Assigned as an engineer staff officer to General Winfield Scott in 1847, he participated in all the main battles from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. Recognized for his daring reconnaissance and suggestions on battlefield tactics, he received three brevets: Major at Cerro Gordo, Lieutenant Colonel at Contreras and Churubusco, and Colonel at Chapultepec.

From 1848 to 1852 Lee was supervising engineer for construction of Fort Carroll near Baltimore, Maryland. In 1852 he accepted an assignment as Superintendent at the United States Military Academy, a position reserved for Corps of Engineer officers until 1866. While at the Academy, Lee encountered cadets who would be prominent in the coming Civil War to include Union generals James McPherson, Philip Sheridan, and O.O. Howard, and Confederate generals John B. Hood and Jeb Stuart. Lee left the Corps of Engineers in 1855 when he accepted an assignment as a Lieutenant Colonel in the 2d Cavalry Regiment.

Douglas Southall Freeman, his biographer, said of Lee that his mind was mathematical and his imagination that of an engineer, and that it was his advantage as a strategist to be an engineer. Lee’s engineer recognition extended to his opponents. Asked to name the best Union general, Lee answered George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac and Corps of Engineers officer from the West Point class of 1846. 


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August 2001