A son of Revolutionary War officer Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee III, Lee was a top graduate of the United States Military Academy and an exceptional officer and military engineer in the United States Army for 32 years.
During this time, he served throughout the United States, distinguished himself during the Mexican–American War, and served as Superintendent of the United States Military Academy.
While home in the summer of 1829, Lee had apparently courted Mary Custis whom he had known as a child.When given the opportunity to visit his father's Georgia grave, he remained there only briefly; yet, during his time as president of Washington College, he defended his father in a biographical sketch while editing Light Horse Harry's memoirs.In 1809, Harry Lee was put in debtors prison; soon after his release the following year, Harry and Anne Lee and their five children moved to a small house on Cameron Street in Alexandria, Virginia, both because there were then high quality local schools there, and because several members of her extended family lived nearby.When Virginia declared its secession from the Union in April 1861, Lee chose to follow his home state, despite his desire for the country to remain intact and an offer of a senior Union command.During the first year of the Civil War, Lee served as a senior military adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. By this time, Lee had assumed supreme command of the remaining Southern armies; other Confederate forces swiftly capitulated after his surrender.Calhoun, urging that Robert be given an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.Fitzhugh wrote little of Robert's academic prowess, dwelling much on the prominence of his family, and erroneously stated the boy was 18.Lee was born at Stratford Hall Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia, to Major General Henry Lee III (Light Horse Harry) (1756–1818), Governor of Virginia, and his second wife, Anne Hill Carter (1773–1829).His birth date has traditionally been recorded as January 19, 1807, but according to the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor, "Lee's writings indicate he may have been born the previous year." Nothing is known of his relationship with his father who, after leaving his family, mentioned Robert only once in a letter.In June 1829, Lee was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers.On August 11, 1829, Brigadier General Charles Gratiot ordered Lee to Cockspur Island, Georgia.