Robert E. Lee: The Man Behind The Monument

General Robert E. Lee surrendering to General Ulysses S. Grant in the parlor of the house owned by Wilmer McLean on April 9, 1865. (Getty Images)

Even when he was born on a tobacco plantation in Virginia on January 19, 1807, Robert E. Lee was already intrinsically tied to American history. His father, Henry Lee III, was a highly respected major general who fought in the Revolutionary War and rubbed shoulders with the likes of George Washington himself. In fact, they were such good friends that Robert E. Lee grew up to marry Martha Washington's granddaughter, making their families at least tangentially related (George Washington had no children of his own).

Lee followed in his father's footsteps when he enlisted at the prestigious West Point military academy at the age of 18. Although he served in the United States Army for the bulk of his life, he is best remembered for his role as general-in-chief in an army that fought against his own country. As the military leader of the Confederate Army during the Civil War, Lee waged the single deadliest war in American history.

However, his path to the role of Confederate general was not one he took lightly. He had made a name for himself during the Mexican-American War, where his general, Winifield Scott, noted him as "the very best soldier I ever saw in the field." It makes sense, then, that the Lincoln administration eyed him for command in the ever-impending Civil War. Lee was both a Southerner and a slave owner, however, so after intense personal deliberation, he refused to join the American struggle. Instead, Lee tendered his resignation from the U.S. Army, a move Scott called "the greatest mistake of [his] life."