General Lee, by Fitzhugh Lee, Chapter 4

General Lee


ROBERT E. LEE was now fifty-four years old, and the wheel of time had recorded thirty-two years of honorable service in the army of the United States. During that time his country had grown in population and increased in wealth and territory far exceeding the expectations and hopes of her people. His profession had absorbed his attention to such an extent that he had scarcely noticed a gathering war cloud destined to discharge death and destruction upon the American Republic, as well as mark a most important epoch in his own life and career. The Constitution adopted by the Convention at Philadelphia in 1787 was the result of a compromise of the opinions of its members. The scope and extent of the powers to be conferred on a government to be created by the representatives of the States, the line marking those powers, and the rights reserved by the States, was a most difficult problem to solve. On the one hand, if too little power were conferred on the legislative, executive, and judicial departments of the Federal Government, its organization might at any moment be broken to pieces, because not strong enough to enforce its legal decrees. On the other hand, should too much power be delegated, a strong central government might result, and the creators—the States—might be crushed out of existence by an instrument of their own creation. The people would in that case be returned to a form of government they abhorred, and from whose tyrannical methods their forefathers had breasted the waves of the Atlantic, and incurred all dangers in settling a newly discovered country. The safety of the States was the safety of the people, and only limited and defined powers must be conferred upon the Government of the United States. The Constitution, the supreme law of the land, must state in writing exactly the rights delegated by the States for their common government. The powers not so delegated were reserved by the States to themselves. They possessed them because they had never parted with them. An attempt in the Philadelphia Convention to insert a clause in the Constitution prohibiting a State’s withdrawal from the Union then being formed could not have succeeded, while an express provision authorizing such secession would have been regarded as unwise and suggestive of disunion of States which were then trying to form “a more perfect union.” If the framers of the Constitution, when at work in the Quaker City, said nothing upon this very important point, the States to be bound, if they ratified it, said much. They did not purpose to be blindly gagged and bound to the wheels of the Federal chariot, for they possessed sovereign power.

In the Declaration of Independence the colonies were not declared independent of Great Britain in a collective capacity, but each separate colony was transformed thereby into an independent State; and so his Britannic Majesty treats them by name in a provisional agreement in 1782. When George III withdrew the scepter of his power from the Virginia colony it was an empire in territory, and became absolutely a free, independent, and sovereign State. The allegiance of her citizens to her was undisputed and admitted. Before the life-blood could circulate in the veins of the new Government it must be stamped with the approbation of the States; it had no power to act unless ratified by nine of these States. If the other four did not ratify the Constitution, the government so formed was not binding on them. The State conventions called for this purpose were for the most part cautious and exceedingly slow of action.

To the State of Lee’s nativity the independence of the colonies and their union afterward as States was largely due. One of her sons held the sword and another the pen that accomplished this great work. The superb oratory of another kept the camp fires of the Revolution burning brightly, while in ringing tones still another of her citizens moved “That these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, and that all political connection between these States and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” Nine States, a requisite number, had approved the Constitution before Virginia acted. The debates in her convention on this subject have no equal in intellectual vigor. Mental giants, full-armed with wisdom, fought on either side. In one rank—opposed to the adoption of the Constitution as it came from the hands of its framers—was Patrick Henry, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, James Monroe, Benjamin Harrison, and William Grayson. In the other were James Madison, John Marshall, Edmund Randolph, Edmund Pendleton, and General Henry Lee, and behind them, as a powerful reserve, was the great influence of Washington. On the final vote friends of the measure secured a majority of only ten votes. The next State to adopt it after Virginia was New York, and she did so by only three votes. North Carolina did not join the Union immediately, and Rhode Island for fifteen months, after the new Constitution had gone into operation. The delay in the action of these States, and the close votes in so many others, was the result of an undefined fear in the public mind that as years rolled on the government they were then creating might in turn destroy the autonomy of the various States.

Massachusetts, South Carolina, and New York had made, as the price of their ratifying the Constitution, amendments to guard as far as possible against consolidated powers. Robert Lee knew all this; he knew also that his own State had been remarkably careful upon this important point, for she had declared, upon consenting to go into the Union then formed by the action of nine States, “that the powers granted under the Constitution, being truly derived from the people of the United States, may be resumed by them whenever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression.” Without any act of his, face to face he was confronted with the great question—loyalty to the General Government or loyalty to Virginia. Would it be treason to substitute for the “E Pluribus Unum written upon the scroll of the beak of the eagle Virginia’s Sic Semper Tyrannis? He had been taught when a boy that his first duty was to his mother Commonwealth. How, then, could he be a traitor if he placed his hand in hers and knelt at her feet when she called him lovingly to her side? His elevated character and conscientiousness of purpose appealed to him to decide in an honorable way this question. During those anxious moments how his thoughts must have marched and countermarched upon constitutional questions! At that very time he might have heard a distinguished senator, who afterward became Vice-president and President of the United States, declare from his seat that the Federal Government possessed no sovereign power; that it could not coerce a State; that under the Constitution you can not apprehend any of the States as a party; and that all the powers of the General Government were derived, and that it had no single primitive power. The study of the early history of his country convinced Lee that while the secession of a State from the Union might not be a remedy, it was not a violation of the Constitution so far as the original thirteen States were concerned. He probably found also, in the anxious study he was then making to arrive at a proper solution of the question, that this theory of constitutional government was recognized by most of the States when the Union was formed.

For instance, Massachusetts had declared in 1809, when the Embargo Act was passed by Congress, that it was not binding upon her citizens; and in December, 1810, one of her members of Congress declared that if Louisiana were admitted into the Union it would lead to its dissolution; the New England States would secede, “amicably if they might, forcibly if they must.” And he found similar instances in the history of Pennsylvania and Kentucky. In Pennsylvania he found that that State had placed herself on record by an act of her Legislature, as well as by her Governor, to prevent a decree of a United States judge from being executed, boldly asserting that it was her duty to protect her citizens, and to her their allegiance must first be given. In his examination of this perplexing subject he might have noticed that the Constitution of the United States at that time made it mandatory on the Governor of a State to give up a fugitive from justice to the Governor of the State he had fled from, in order that he might be tried by the laws of that State; but that, notwithstanding the Constitution, governors of sovereign States did not give up ofPenders unless they chose to do so. Indeed, in a rendition contest between the States of Ohio and Kentucky, Mr. Taney, then Chief Justice of the United States, delivering a decision of the Court, said: “While admitting that the Constitution was mandatory on the governors, there was not a line in it which gave power to the General Government to compel a State to do anything.”

Lee had probably read, too, that a convention composed of the representatives of the New England States had assembled in Hartford, Conn., in 1814, to protest against the war with England because of the great damage it was inflicting on the shipping interests of that section. He might have seen that secession was advocated as the remedy, while the declaration was made that “if the Union be destined to dissolution,” some new form of confederacy should be substituted among those States which shall not need to maintain a federal relation with each other. Fortunately, peace was declared with Great Britain, or at that time there might have been a secession of the New England States. It was an interesting question to this lieutenant colonel of cavalry, that if this action had been taken by the New England States, and the States remaining in the Union had invaded their territory for the purpose of coercion, upon what side would the large majority of the citizens of the New England States have been found fighting?

The more Robert E. Lee thought upon the subject the more he became convinced, first, that Virginia in seceding from the Union was exercising the right she had reserved when she entered it. Second, that if war must follow, his sword should be drawn in her defense, and not be pointed against her. In the soil of old Virginia were buried those nearest and dearest to him. His ancestors had first settled within her limits. She was to be invaded because she exercised a right not denied her by the Constitution, and her course had been determined by a convention of the representatives of her people duly called to consider the question; and a convention voiced the highest authority of a State. He may have deplored her action, but he could not oppose his judgment to the collective wisdom of her representatives whose action had been solemnly indorsed by her people at the polls. The irrepressible conflict had to be met in his own person. He had seen, but could not prevent the sections from drifting apart. If the interests of the manufacturing and shipping States of the North and the agricultural States of the South were not in entire harmony, he had hoped that a possible remedy might be found. Mr. Lincoln received only 1,857,000 of the popular vote, while Breckinridge, Douglas, and Bell received 2,800,000; but that was not a sufficient reason in his opinion to declare war. If he had much to do with John Brown’s body lying moldering in the ground, the fact that his spirit was marching on down the abolition ranks did not disturb him. His State when a colony was opposed to slavery. The first speech his eloquent relative, Richard Henry Lee, ever made was in favor of the motion to lay so heavy a duty on the importation of slaves as effectually to put an end to the iniquitous and disgraceful traffic in the colony of Virginia.

Lee had read, too, Jefferson’s indictment of Great Britain for allowing the slave trade when he penned the Declaration of Independence. He knew that slavery existed in the Northern States so long as it was profitable, and was abolished when it was not, and that the Mayflower which landed the Pilgrim Fathers on Plymouth Rock sailed on its very next voyage with a cargo of slaves. He had found the negroes shucking corn and hoeing potatoes. They had always been kindly treated by him; and no more happy, contented, well-clothed and well-fed negroes ever existed than those at Arlington. He would not have fought to preserve slavery; he disapproved of it and had years before freed his own, and Mr. Custis had freed by will all of his. He regretted war, but did not regret as one of its results the probable freedom of the slave, although he knew that slavery had called a race of savages from superstition and idolatry and imparted to them a general knowledge of the precepts of religion. Indeed, he is recorded as saying at that time that if he owned all the negroes of the South he would gladly yield them up for the preservation of the Union. In 1861 Lee hoped and prayed that the Temple of American Liberty might still stand in the majesty of its vast proportions, complete in all of its parts, each pillar representing with equal strength an American State. He sincerely hoped each State would pursue the path designated for it by the Constitution, as the planets revolve in well-defined orbits around the great central sun. He wrote from Texas in 1861 that he could not anticipate a greater calamity for the country than the dissolution of the Union, and that he was willing to sacrifice anything but honor for its preservation. And in another letter from Fort Mason, Texas, January, 1861, to Mrs. Lee, he says: “You see by a former letter that I received from Major Nicholl, Everett’s Life of Washington you sent me, and enjoyed its perusal very much. How his spirit would be grieved could he see the wreck of his mighty labors! I will not, however, permit myself to believe, till all ground for hope is gone, that the work of his noble deeds will be destroyed, and that his precious advice and virtuous example will soon be forgotten by his countrymen. As far as I can judge from the papers, we are between a state of anarchy and civil war. May God avert from us both. I fear mankind for years will not be sufficiently Christianized to bear the absence of restraint and force. I see that four States have declared themselves out of the Union. Four more apparently will follow their example. Then if the border States are dragged into the gulf of revolution, one half of the country will be arrayed against the other, and I must try and be patient and wait the end, for I can do nothing to hasten or retard it.”

It was hard for Lee to give up his position in the army and separate himself from his army comrades and associations. He wrote in 1849, from Mobile, Ala.: “I have met many officers of the garrison who were with me in Mexico. You have often heard me say the cordiality and friendship in the army was the great attraction of the service. It is that, I believe, that has kept me in it so long, and it is that which now makes me fear to leave it. I do not know where I should meet with so much friendship out of it.”

While he was wrestling with this disturbing question at Arlington his old commander, Scott, just across the river, was pleading for him to remain in the service of the United States. The veteran general had impressed the President with the distinguished services of Colonel Lee, and urged that every effort should be made to keep him on the side of the Union, going so far as to say that he would be worth fifty thousand men to their cause. Probably it was due to Scott that Mr. Lincoln requested Mr. Francis Preston Blair to have an interview with Lee, and secure him by the tempting offer of the command of the active army of the United States. Neither the President nor his officers knew the man. Three years after the war, in a letter to the Honorable Reverdy Johnson, of Maryland, dated February 25, 1868, is found for the first time his account of this interview: “After listening to Blair’s remarks,” writes Lee, “I declined the offer he made me to take command of the army that was to be brought into the field stating, as candidly and courteously as I could, that, though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States.

“I went directly from the interview with Mr. Blair to the office of General Scott, told him of the proposition that had been made me, and my decision. After reflection upon returning home, I concluded that I ought no longer to retain any commission I held in the United States Army, and on the second morning thereafter I forwarded my resignation to General Scott. At the time I hoped that peace would have been preserved; that some way would be found to save the country from the calamities of war; and I then had no other intention than to pass the remainder of my life as a private citizen. Two days afterward, on the invitation of the Governor of Virginia, I repaired to Richmond, found that the convention then in session had passed an ordinance withdrawing the State from the Union, and accepted the commission of commander of its forces, which was tendered me.”

“Since the Son of Man stood on the mount,” said an orator, “and saw all the kingdoms of the earth and the glory thereof stretching before him, and turned away from them to the agony and bloody sweat of Gethsemane, and to the Cross of Calvary beyond, no follower of the meek and lowly Saviour can have undergone a more trying ordeal, or met it with a more heroic spirit of sacrifice.”

Two and a half months before Colonel Lee’s resignation the conventions of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had respectively passed ordinances taking these States out of the Union; and their delegates had assembled at Montgomery, Ala., and formed a new government, under the name of the Confederate States of America. On February 4th, the date of the birth of the new government, at Virginia’s request, a peace conference, composed of delegates from twenty-one States, met in Washington. The Congress of the United States rejected all terms of settlement proposed by it, and the rising tide of sectional strife passed the high-water mark.

If the seven Southern States which first formed the Confederacy were terribly in earnest, so equally were the Northern and Eastern States in opposition to the new government. The border States, upon whose breast the storm of war must break, were still hoping for a peaceable solution of the trouble; the problem was soon solved for them. In Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, out of the waters rises a fortress of the United States called Sumter. It is situated in the middle of the harbor, and was erected on an artificial island built on the shoals. Its walls were eight feet thick and forty feet high. It was five-sided, inclosing a space of about three hundred and fifty feet. On its ramparts and in its casements one hundred and forty guns could be mounted, and its full garrison was six hundred men. This fort was originally occupied only by an engineer, who was employing some workmen in its repairs; but at Fort Moultrie, on a narrow neck of land extending into the harbor, was a garrison of sixty-nine soldiers and nine officers under the command of Major Robert Anderson. This officer, having every reason to apprehend an attack upon his position, decided to abandon Moultrie and take possession of Sumter, which he did on the night of December 26th. Robert Anderson was a Kentuckian, and a West Point graduate of the class of 1827, whose sympathies at the beginning of the war were rather on the side of the South. He continued to occupy with his little force this island fort, while Beauregard, who had resigned from the United States Army and was already commissioned by the seceding States, was building hostile batteries on every side. A crisis in this harbor was fast approaching. The Government of the United States decided to make an attempt to throw men and provisions into the fort, and when this became known, orders were issued from Montgomery for Beauregard to open his batteries. In the gray of the morning at half-past four on a certain Friday, April 12, 1861, a single shot fired from the Confederate batteries at Fort Johnson announced that the bombardment of a fort over whose grim walls floated the Stars and Stripes was about to begin. The report of the bursting of this shell startled the country from center to circumference. The Angel of Peace which for months had been hovering over the republic plumed his wings for flight and the Demon of War reigned supreme. President Lincoln followed this act of war by issuing a proclamation calling for seventy-five thousand troops. A prompt response was given to him by the governors of the Northern States; but those of Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, and Missouri declined in terms more or less emphatic. The secession of all these States from the Union followed, except Kentucky and Missouri, whose sympathies were divided, and their union with the Government formed at Montgomery, Ala., was speedily made. On April 17, 1861, the Ordinance of Secession was passed by the Virginia Convention, and the day following, Lee had a long interview with his old commander, General Scott. On the 20th the die was cast; his Rubicon was crossed, for the resignation[1] of his commission in the army of the United States was respectfully tendered to the War Department. His letter explanatory of his position at that time, though familiar to the public, is given here as the best expression of his feelings upon so momentous a subject:

ARLINGTON, VA., April 20, 1861.

GENERAL: Since my interview with you on the 18th inst. I have felt that I ought no longer to retain my commission in the army. I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted the best years of my life and all the ability I possessed. During the whole of that time—more than a quarter of a century—I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors and a most cordial friendship from my comrades. To no one, General, have I been as much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness and consideration, and it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation. I shall carry to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, and your name and fame shall always be dear to me. Save in the defense of my native State I never desire again to draw my sword. Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness and prosperity, and believe me, most truly yours,

(Signed)     R. E. LEE.

To his sister in Baltimore, whose husband was a strong Union man, Colonel Lee wrote the same day, telling her that he had resigned; that he had decided the question whether he should take part for or against his native State, saying: “With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I know you will blame me, but you must think as kindly of me as you can, and believe I have endeavored to do what I thought right. May God guard and protect you and yours, and pour upon you every blessing, is the prayer of your devoted brother.”

He wrote still a third letter, upon this eventful day, to his brother, Sydney Smith Lee, at that time a commander in the United States Navy:

ARLINGTON, VA., April 20, 1861.

MY DEAR BROTHER SMITH: The question which was the subject of my earnest consultation with you on the 18th inst. has in my own mind been decided. After the most anxious inquiry as to the correct course for me to pursue, I concluded to resign, and sent in my resignation this morning. I wished to wait till the Ordinance of Secession should be acted on by the people of Virginia; but war seems to have commenced, and I am liable at any time to be ordered on duty, which I could not conscientiously perform. To save me from such a position, and to prevent the necessity of resigning under orders, I had to act at once, and before I could see you again on the subject, as I had wished. I am now a private citizen, and have no other ambition than to remain at home. Save in the defense of my native State, I have no desire ever again to draw my sword. I send you my warmest love.

Your affectionate brother,
(Signed)     R. E. LEE.

It was necessary now to bid farewell to old Arlington, where so many happy memories of the past had clustered. He must say good-by to his army comrades, and his sword must soon be crossed with many of them on the bloody field of battle. With conflicting emotions he departed from what had been the capital of his country so long, and went immediately to Richmond, the capital of his State. His coming had been anxiously looked for, and his mother Commonwealth opened wide her arms to embrace her distinguished son. He was at once nominated by the Governor to the Virginia Convention still in session there, to be a major general and commander in chief of the Virginia forces. When the question of his nomination was put to that body, there was an immediate and ardent response, which attested the cordial and unbounded confidence in the man to whom Virginia committed her fortunes. The next day Major-General Lee was invited to appear before the convention. The invitation greatly disturbed him; he was so modest, so opposed to display, so little accustomed to be gazed at by the public, and certainly never before had been placed in such a trying position. But what could he do? The ceremony had been prepared; he had accepted the command of the troops of Virginia after having declined the command of the United States Army. Virginia, through her convention, wanted to see him. A committee had been appointed to transmit its invitation and conduct him to its presence. “The hall was crowded,” said the historian, “with an eager audience.” All the members of the convention stood as a mark of respect. On the right of the presiding officer were Governor Letcher, of Virginia, and Mr. Stevens, the Vice-president of the Confederacy, and on the left members of the Advisory Council of Virginia. Leaning on the arm of Mr. Marmaduke Johnson, of Richmond, chairman of the committee, General 1,ee entered the hall. Every spectator admired the personal appearance of the man, his dignified figure, his air of self-composure, his strength of feature, in which shone the steady animation of a consciousness of power, purpose, and decision. He was in the full and hardy flush of ripe years and vigorous health. His form was tall, its constituents well knit together; his head, well shaped and squarely built, gave indication of a powerful intellect. The face, not yet interlined by age, still remarkable for its personal beauty, was lighted up by eyes black in the shade, but brown in the full light, clear, benignant, but with a deep recess of light, a curtained fire in them that blazed in moments of excitement; the countenance and natural expression were gentle and benevolent, yet striking the beholder as masking an iron will. His manners were at once grave and kindly without gayety or abandon. He was also without any affectation of dignity. Such is the man whose stately figure in the capital at Richmond brought to mind the old race of Virginians, and who was thereafter to win a reputation not only as the first commander, but also as a perfect and beautiful model of manhood.

When about half-way up the main aisle Mr. Johnson stopped, and in ponderous tones said: “Mr. President, I have the honor to present to you and to the convention Major-General Lee.” The general’s retreat was cut off by the crowd of people who pressed up the hall in his rear. The president of the convention, Mr. Janney, of the County of Loudoun, was to voice the sentiments of the body over which he had ably presided, and Lee must face the music of Janney’s eloquence, so he stood calmly while the president of the convention said:

“Major-General Lee, in the name of the people of our native State here represented, I bid you a cordial and heartfelt welcome to this hall in which we may yet almost hear the echo of the voices of the statesmen and soldiers and sages of bygone days who have borne your name, whose blood now flows in your veins. When the necessity became apparent of having a leader for our forces, all hearts and all eyes, with an instinct which is a surer guide than reason itself, turned to the old county of Westmoreland. We know how prolific she had been in other days of heroes and statesmen. We know she had given birth to the Father of his Country, to Richard Henry Lee, to Monroe, and last, though not least, to your own gallant father; and we knew well by your deeds that her productive power was not yet exhausted. We watched with the most profound and intense interest the triumphal march of the army led by General Scott, to which you were attached, from Vera Cruz to the capital of Mexico. We read of the sanguinary conflicts and blood-stained fields, in all of which victory perched upon our banners, We know of the unfading luster that was shed on the American armies by that campaign, and we know also what your modesty has always disclaimed—that no small share of the glory of these achievements was due to your valor and military genius. Sir, we have by this unanimous vote expressed our convictions that you are at this time among the living citizens of Virginia, ‘first in war.’ We pray to God most fervently that you may conduct the operations committed to your charge, that it will soon be said of you that you are the ‘first in peace,” and when that time comes you will have earned the still prouder distinction of being ‘first in the hearts of your countrymen.’ When the Father of his Country made his last will and testament he gave his swords to his favorite nephews with the injunction that they should never be drawn from their scabbards except in self-defense, or in defense of the rights and principles of their country, and that if drawn for the latter purpose, they should fall with them in their hands rather than relinquish them. Yesterday your mother Virginia placed her sword in your hand upon the implied condition that in all things you will keep it to the letter and spirit, that you will draw it only in defense, and that you will fall with it in your hand rather than that the object for which it is placed there should fail.”

The reply of General Lee was simple and short, Washington-like in modesty and touching in language. His heart was filled with emotion as he heard the very language his father had used in reference to the great Washington, applied so many years afterward to himself. The scene was solemn as well as new to the soldier.

“Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Convention,” said he in reply, “profoundly impressed with the solemnity of the occasion, for which I must say I was not prepared, I accept the position assigned me by your partiality. I would have much preferred had the choice fallen upon an abler man. Trusting in Almighty God, an approving conscience, and the aid of my fellow-citizens, I devote myself to the service of my native State, in whose behalf alone will I ever again draw my sword.” It was his first and last speech, and under all the circumstances he could safely rest his oratorical reputation upon this single effort. It is possible, had he selected a public profession after the war, we could have said of him as Pope said of Argyll:

The State’s thunder born to wield,
And shake at once the Senate and the field.

He had now entered upon the discharge of new duties and assumed new responsibilities. The bridge over which he had crossed from Colonel Lee, of the United States Army, to Major-General Lee, of the Virginia forces, had been burned behind him. He was enlisted for the war. In the prime of manhood and physical vigor he held what he considered the greatest honor—his State’s highest commission. He had sacrificed exalted rank, home, and fortune, and had followed only the conscientious voice of duty. The words of his own father were ringing in his ears as he once exclaimed, “No consideration on earth could induce me to act a part, however gratifying, which could be construed into a disregard or forgetfulness of this Commonwealth.” Therefore he would not join the confederacy of States, but was waiting for the endorsation by the people of Virginia of the action of her representatives duly assembled in convention. One hundred and twenty thousand votes were cast for the ratification of the Ordinance of Secession, some twenty thousand against it. Before this popular decision was reached, the convention gave to the Confederate government the control of the military operations within her border, and the Secretary of War, Mr. L. P. Walker, had, by an order dated Montgomery, Ala., in May, 1861, placed under General Lee’s command all troops of the Confederate States as soon as they arrived in Virginia. Previous to this, his command was limited to the Virginia forces. Virginia having united her fortune with her Southern sister States, the Confederate Congress in session at Montgomery ten days afterward adjourned to meet in Richmond, Va. A letter from General Lee to his wife, who was still at Arlington, April 30, 1861, tells her that he is “glad to hear all is well and as yet peaceful. I fear the latter state will not continue long. I think, therefore, you had better prepare all things for removal from Arlington—that is, plate, pictures, etc., and be prepared at any moment. Where to go is the difficulty. When the war commences no place will be exempt; in my opinion, indeed, all the avenues into the State will be the scene of military operations. I wrote to Robert [his son] that I could not consent to take boys from their schools and young men from their colleges and put them in the ranks at the beginning of the war when they are not needed. The war may last ten years. Where are our ranks to be filled from then?”

And again he writes: “I am very anxious about you. You have to move, and make arrangements to go to some point of safety which you must select. The Mount Vernon plate and pictures ought to be secured. War is inevitable, and there is no telling when it will burst around you. Virginia yesterday, I understand, joined the Confederate States. What policy they may adopt I can not conjecture.” And Mrs. Lee, from Arlington, May 5, 1861, sent the following note to General Scott in Washington:

MY DEAR GENERAL: Hearing that you desire to see the account of my husband’s reception in Richmond, I have sent it to you. No honors can reconcile us to this fratricidal war which we would have laid down our lives freely to avert. Whatever may happen, I feel that I may expect from your kindness all the protection you can in honor afford. Nothing can ever make me forget your kind appreciation of Mr. Lee. If you knew all you would not think so hardly of me. Were it not that I would not add one feather to his load of care, nothing would induce me to abandon my home. Oh, that you could command peace to our distracted country!

Yours in sadness and sorrow,
M. C. LEE.

Occasionally this wife and mother’s heart would beat with happiness at the stories of successful compromise between the sections and then sink in despair at the continued prospects of war. From Richmond, May 13, 1861, her husband wrote her: “Do not put faith in rumors of adjustment. I see no prospect for it. It can not be while passions on both sides are so infuriated. Make your plans for several years of war. If Virginia is invaded, which appears to be designed, the main routes through the country will, in all probability, be infested and passage interrupted. I agree with you in thinking that the inflammatory articles in the papers do us much harm. I object particularly to those in the Southern papers, as I wish them to take a firm, dignified course, free from bravado and boasting. The times are indeed calamitous. The brightness of God’s countenance seems turned from us, and its mercy stopped in its blissful current. It may not always be so dark, and he may in time pardon our sins and take us under his protection. Tell Custis[2] he must consult his own judgment, reason, and conscience as to the course he may take. I do not wish him to be guided by my wishes or example. If I have done wrong, let him do better. The present is a momentous question which every man must settle for himself and upon principle. Our good Bishop Meade has just come in to see me. He opens the convention to morrow, and, I understood him to say, would preach his fiftieth anniversary sermon. God bless and guard you.” A few days before he had written:

RICHMOND, May, 8, 1861.

I received yesterday your letter of the 5th. I grieve at the anxiety that drives you from your home. I can appreciate your feelings on the occasion, and pray that you may receive comfort and strength in the difficulties that surround you. When I reflect upon the calamity pending over the country my own sorrows sink into insignificance.

On the 2d of the same month he told her: “I have just received Custis’s letter of the 30th, inclosing the acceptance of my resignation. It is stated it will take effect on the 25th of April. I resigned on the 20th, and wished it to take effect on that day. I can not consent to its running on further, and he must receive, no pay if they tender it beyond that day, but return the whole if need be.” And again, in a letter May 16, 1861, he writes: “I witnessed the opening of the convention yesterday, and heard the good bishop’s sermon for the fiftieth anniversary of his ministry. It was most impressive, and more than once I felt the tears coursing down my cheeks. It was from the text: ‘And Pharaoh said unto Jacob, How old art thou?’ It was full of humility and self-reproach.”

Mr. Jefferson Davis, the provisional President of the new Government, reached Richmond on the 29th of May. Virginia’s capital then became the capital of the Confederacy. The journey from Alabama by the Southern President was a triumphal march. At every station crowds of people met and cheered him, and on his arrival in Richmond he received an ovation. He had graduated at West Point the year before General Lee, but was one year and a half his junior in age. He had served in the infantry, and later in the dragoons in the United States Army, and then resigned his commission. When the Mexican War broke out his soldierly instincts could not be repressed. His services were greatly demanded, and he entered Mexico as the colonel of a Mississippi regiment. He had also held the highest positions in civil life, as a member of the United States House of Representatives, as a Senator of the United States, and Secretary of War in Mr. Pierce’s Cabinet. Distinguished in war and in peace, a statesman and a soldier, he combined in his person the qualities necessary for the head of a new government born amid the throes of war, whose cradle had been lighted by the rifle’s flash. No stain had ever been found on the polished armor of his career during a long term of public service. His courage could not be assailed, his honor questioned, or his ability denied. He had been made on the secession of Mississippi commander in chief of her forces, just as General Lee had been commissioned in the Virginia forces. Had he consulted his own wishes he would have respectfully declined the position of President, and upon the pages of history, from 1861 to 1865, might have been found the record of his deeds as an army commander.

The rôle assigned to him in the tragedy of war was a most difficult one to discharge, and in the eyes of his opponents he was “the villain of the play.” When the red curtain of war rolled up from the American stage, to the world were revealed two presidential chairs. In one was seated Mr. Abraham Lincoln, in the other Mr. Jefferson Davis. These two chief magistrates were both born in Kentucky. One, when a small child, was carried by his parents to Mississippi; the other, when about eight years old, was taken to Indiana, and afterward to Illinois. Each absorbed the political theories of their respective States. Had Davis been carried to Illinois and Lincoln to Mississippi, in the war between the States Lincoln might have been carrying a Mississippi rifle, while Davis held aloft the star-spangled banner. Each represented, as powerful exponents, the constructions of the Constitution, referred to the sword for decision, there being no common arbiter in such case. Mr. Davis’s office had none of the elements of popularity. Upon it was showered the criticisms of the South, while at the North every finger, every pen, every gun was pointed at its occupant. Davis used every possible effort to make two republics grow on this continent where only one grew before; and so likewise did Lee.

The former, as President, could not have written success on the standards of the Confederacy; it was not so ordained—the contest was too unequal in men, money, and means of war. The people of the whole South, who stood behind their guns, or were left at their hearthstones, numbered only six million whites, while the population in the Northern States amounted to eighteen million. The former were animated by the tie which binds the heart to home, and which it is said “stretches from the cradle to the grave, spans the heavens, and is riveted through eternity to the throne of God on high.” On the other hand, the Northern people desired to see the great republic stretch from the waves of the Atlantic to the golden sands of the Pacific, and from the Northern lakes to where the Father of Waters rolls his tribute to the Gulf as an undivided country. The North was thickly populated, and the whole machinery of its Government was in running order. It had its regular army around which the volunteer regiments could rally. Its navy rode undisputed the adjoining seas; its arsenals and forts were crammed with weapons, and its Treasury filled with precious metals, out of which could be manufactured all the sinews of war. In a long struggle, under these circumstances, victory was to the strong. The deeds of a brave soldier, even if unsuccessful, excite the admiration of mankind. The civil ruler of the vanquished is not so fortunate when the power to sustain his government departs. Mr. Davis was not the demon of hate his enemies have painted. He did not thirst for the blood of his countrymen. His whole character has been misunderstood by the mass of the people who opposed his public views. His heart was tender as a woman’s; he was brave as a lion, and true as the needle to the pole to his convictions; in disposition generous, in character courteous and chivalric.

When his voice was heard for the last time in the Senate Chamber of the United States it did not breathe hatred to sections of the country other than his own, but he spoke in affectionate terms of those with whom he had to conscientiously differ upon great questions. “I am sure,” said he, “that I feel no hostility to you Senators from the North. I am sure there is not one of you, whatever sharp discussion there may have been between us, to whom I can not say in the presence of my God, I wish you well, and such is the feeling, I am sure, of the people whom I represent and those whom you represent. For whatever offense I have given, I have, Senators, in this hour of our parting, to offer you my apology.”

General Lee found himself surrounded on all sides by war. From Richmond, June 9, 1861, he wrote his wife: “You may be aware that the Confederate Government is established here. Yesterday I turned over to it the command of the military and naval forces of the State, in accordance with the proclamation of the Governor, under an agreement between the State and the Confederate States. I do not know what my position will be. I should like to retire to private life, so that I could be with you and the children, but if I can be of service to the State or her cause, I must continue. Mr. Davis and all his Cabinet are here.” And two days afterward he tells her: “I am sorry to learn that you are anxious and uneasy about passing events. We can not change or hinder them, and it is not the part of wisdom to be annoyed by them. In this time of great suffering to the State and country, our private distresses we must bear with resignation, and not aggravate them by repining, trusting to a kind and merciful God to overrule them for our good.”

Preparations were now being rapidly made for war, which could be no longer prevented or postponed. The firing upon and capture of Fort Sumter, the hostile reception given the Massachusetts troops in Baltimore on April 19th, the great excitement all through the country, caused every one to speedily join the side he desired to unite with. In the North every arsenal was put to work on the manufacture of arms for their troops. It was the first duty of the Federal Government to make Washington, the capital, secure. Then an army of invasion must be organized and a plan of campaign mapped out, whose objective point was the capture of Richmond, the capital of the Southern Confederacy.




Honorable Simon Cameron, Secretary of War.

SIR: I have the honor to tender the resignation of my commission as colonel of the first regiment of cavalry.

Very respectfully your obedient servant,
R. E. LEE, Colonel, First Cavalry.

[2] His son, then a lieutenant in the Engineer Corps, U. S, Army.

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