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They were words that changed the course of the war: “General Lee, I shall assign you the command of this Army.” They were spoken by Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, on an evening ride following the Battle of Seven Pines. A mighty Northern army commanded by General George B. McClellan had pressed Richmond’s defenders back to the outskirts of the beleaguered Confederate capital. Then, at Seven Pines, the Confederate army commander, General Joseph E. Johnston, was seriously wounded.
Who would now take command of the Southern forces defending Richmond? If the capital fell, the newborn Southern nation would surely collapse. Riding back toward Richmond through the darkness on Nine Mile Road, President Davis turned to his chief military advisor, 55 year-old General Robert E. Lee, and made him the army’s commander. Although he had opposed secession, Lee was committed to defending his homeland from invasion, and he obediently accepted command.
Within a month, he had driven McClellan’s army from the field, and had reformed his command into what would become the heralded Army of Northern Virginia. By war’s end, he had established a reputation of competence and character that was revered in the South and respected in the North – and had launched the legacy that would make Robert E. Lee the most admired military leader of the American Civil War.