Robert Edward Lee was born at Stratford, Virginia, on the 19th of January 1807. In 1825 he entered West Point. He graduated four years later second in his class. He was given a commission in the U.S. Engineer Corps. In 1831 he married Mary, daughter of G. W. P. Custis, the adopted son of Washington and the grandson of Mrs. Washington. In 1852 he was appointed superintendent of West Point.

In 1859, while at Arlington on leave, he was summoned to command the United States troops sent to deal with the John Brown raid on Harper's Ferry. Lee was strongly averse to secession, but felt obliged to conform to the action of his own state. The Federal authorities offered Lee the command of the field army about to invade the South, which he refused. Resigning his commission, he made his way to Richmond and was at once made a major-general in the Virginian forces. A few weeks later he became a brigadier-general (then the highest rank) in the Confederate service.

On the 9th of April 1865, at the Appomattox Court House, he signed the surrender of the Confederacy. In August he was offered, and accepted, the presidency of Washington College, Lexington (now Washington and Lee University), a post which he occupied until his death on the 12th of October 1870. He was buried in the college grounds.