By Warren E. Burger
Great events in history and great careers have been often correctly attributed to the fact that a particular man was at the right place at the right time. That fortuitous circumstance, the thing called luck or chance, plays a large part in lives of men and nations, is hardly open to question. The big “if”—if I had only been there, if he had only been there, if only I had the opportunity—has been uttered countless times.
But life and history did not indeed afford one man a unique opportunity and he quietly, firmly and sadly made the choice that we can say with confidence denied him a far greater place in American history than he now occupies. And his choice altered the course of history.
When General Winfield Scott made his official report on the War with Mexico of 1848, he singled out one particular Lieutenant of the Engineers and said of him, after praising his services, “if opportunity offered,” that officer would become “the foremost captain of his time.” The officer in Scott’s prophecy was Robert E. Lee.
In the early days of his presidency, Lincoln, confronted with many trying problems of impending war and dissolution of the Union, learned the depressing facts of the impotence of the United States Army which had grown old and soft. Its officer cadre was weak and a majority of the West Point trained officers were southern aristocrats whose support of the Union in the event of war was uncertain at best. The Chief of Staff of the Army was this same General Scott, by then aging and ill, unable to mount a horse, and still addicted to wearing the old fashioned plumed hat and uniform in vogue in his youth a half century earlier. Often he had to be carried to and from his carriage when he dined out.
It was to this military leader the country and Lincoln had to look for guidance and leadership in the preparations for a possible war with seceding states. It was to him Lincoln was obliged to run for counsel on the selection of a commander for the North. Scott’s answer reflected at least that his mind had not failed to keep alive the memory of a junior officer in the Mexican War, now a full colonel. Scott urged the appointment of Lee. Lincoln promptly authorized Scott to have someone explore the matter with Lee on a confidential basis.
Unknown to Lincoln, Lee was torn with anxiety for the country he had served so many years and for his native state of Virginia. Lee, then 54, was by modern military standards an over-age Colonel. He was a man steeped in the currents of history. Born in 1807 when Jefferson was President, he was the son of the famous General “Lighthorse” Harry Lee, comrade at arms of General Washington and contemporary of the founding fathers who formed a nation by forging a union of thirteen sovereigns. Lee’s wife was Mary Custis, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. In Lee’s way of thinking, as with many of his era, Virginia was still a sovereign, not merely one component of a sovereign nation. The stories and legends of his youth were of George Washington, of Valley Forge, of Yorktown; Hamilton, Jefferson, and Lafayette were more than names in history, they were friends of his father not long dead. On slavery, one of the major issues leading to the impending conflict, Lee’s views were those of a devout Virginia Christian who rejected the notion of one man owning another. He was, notwithstanding his 18th century concept of Virginia as a sovereign in the classical sense, dedicated to the Union and its preservation. Virginia had already announced secession but had not yet joined the Confederacy.
All one night, after receiving Lincoln’s offer, his son heard Lee pacing the floor of his bedroom in the great mansion overlooking Washington and the Potomac—on the road to Mount Vernon. Long silence suggested Lee’s familiar resort to prayer. Some time during that night or by dawn he penned a terse note of resignation as Colonel of the 1st Cavalry and a letter of explanation to General Scott. Lincoln’s offer and Virginia’s secession had forced Lee’s decision. He packed a carpetbag of personal effects and took the train to Richmond. The agony of those hours and the days and nights which preceded his final decision were not recorded until later, after the war. Now severed from responsibility to the Army, he tendered his services to the Governor for the defense of Virginia. Hating slavery, believing firmly in the Union, he nonetheless could not take part in an invasion of his own native state. On the contrary, he had made the fateful decision to take arms if called upon, to defend his beloved Virginia from invasion.
Only a short time before this, history brushed him in another way by the coincidence of his being at home in Arlington in 1859, on leave, when the mad John Brown, the abolitionist leader tried to seize the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Lee was sent in command of troops to capture Brown, quell the insurrection, and supervise his execution after his conviction.
One cannot know what coursed Lee’s mind in making and carrying out his decision. As a trained soldier whose father had been a successful revolutionary, he was aware of the usual fate of unsuccessful rebels. He knew the fate of his beloved Arlington, the home his wife inherited from the Custis family. He knew of course that as soon as the inevitable hostilities broke out that home and all his possessions would be confiscated. Our system grants rights of conscience in peacetime, but Lee knew that politically he would have the “rights” of a traitor to the Union given the heated and tense atmosphere that was bound to come. As a soldier he must have known, too, the likely outcome of a prolonged war between the powerful industrial North and the smaller, poorer, agrarian South. He must have known, also, since he knew intimately the record and capacity of every military leader available to the South, that he would play a leading, if not the leading role, in the conflict. Every consideration of the kinds which move men to great choices could—and perhaps more likely—should have led him to accept Lincoln’s offer of the command of the forces of the North. What man before in history had what was almost predictably the choice of leadership of two great contending armies in a conflict destined to alter the history of the country and make it a world power, out of the costly experience in the terrible arts of war bought with blood. The answer to that question: None.
No man before or since ever had such a choice. No man with such a terrible responsibility to bear ever decided the issue on grounds with so little concern for self and so great dedication to his own concept of duty. Precisely because it was such a hard choice for a man of his beliefs, he is honored today for making it as he did.
But could Lee have fully grasped the magnitude of his choice? Could he have sensed that perhaps more than any man before him he had it within his power to make a choice that would likely have saved thousands of lives, vast material treasure, enormous political, social and economic values? And could he have known, with the perspicacity of hindsight, that if he made it in the way “best” for all Americans, he would likely have made the “best” choice for himself and might have become . . . but that must wait for a moment.
First let us speculate what would have occurred in the normal course of history patterns if Lee had accepted Lincoln’s offer and at once, in the early days of 1861, taken command of the Northern forces. Given his performance later with meager resources, it is reasonable to believe that Northern military preparation and organization processes would have been successful, apart from field operations. The North would have been made ready for its task by a mature commander with wide organization experience and proven field experience. Lincoln, instead of finding his “Grant” by the expensive process of bloody years of trial and error, would have “found his general” at the outset. By the same token the South would have been deprived of its ablest general, and Jefferson Davis’ well-known proclivity for “running his own war” unchecked by Lee would perhaps have been an added asset for the North. If these speculative premises are anywhere near correct, this could well have meant a short—or at least shorter—war, with a truly benevolent and constructive peace under the combined influence of Lincoln and Lee—two men allied in spirit and human values.
True, this might have cast Lee and Lincoln as political rivals at the end of this “shorter” war, but each of these men was so clearly of a mold to put institutional loyalties ahead of self and that some solution would have developed between them. Even assuming the war took a course that carried it into and through Lincoln’s second term, can anyone doubt that the people of the victorious North would have looked beyond their current and victorious War Hero for the next President? All of Lee’s qualities, before 1861 as after, stamped him as a natural leader of men, possibly greater in peace than in war. To support this we need look only to his conduct after the hostilities were terminated at Appomattox. He was so widely respected in the North that no serious thought was ever given to punitive action against him—something novel in the history of unsuccessful revolts. When he declined all opportunities to exploit his fame with Southerners, but instead became President of a struggling and impoverished college, he soon developed the foundations of a true university, advocating graduate education in business, in journalism, law.
At that date the idea of a university in this modern sense was a radical innovation. His dignity, restraint, his constant sense of duty to the people of Virginia and of the defeated, impoverished South, suggest what kind of post-war president he would have been. Surely if Grant could be elected twice, after his war exploits, Lee could have filled this role in a post war election had he, when “opportunity offered” taken this course. Pause for a moment to speculate on other benefits of a Lee following a Lincoln: a shorter war, a more generous policy, generously administered, toward the defeated South; fewer casualties, speedier recovery, earlier economic recovery of the South, possibly even an earlier, self-developed solution to the integration of the Negro. All this and more, “if”. . . .
Source: Vertical files, Jessie Ball duPont Library, Stratford Hall
Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2017 January 19