The Life of General Robert E. Lee
G. Mercer Adam


THE two sections of the riven Union, when Major-General Lee betook himself to Richmond, were speedily now to come together in the clash of arms. Already, the weakly-garrisoned and badly-provisioned Federal Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor, had been the object of Southern attack and occupation by a Confederate force under General Beauregard. Major Anderson and his slender Northern command evacuated the Fort on April 14th (1861) with the honors of war, the Confederates permitting its temporary defenders to board the Federal Steamship Baltic, lying on the bar, and convey them to New York. Contemporary with the fall of Fort Sumter, sympathy with Secession showed itself in rioting in Baltimore, a street mob there, being exasperated over the passing through the city of a body of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania troops bound for Washington, assailed them with stones and other missiles. The troops, resenting the insult paid them, fired upon the mob, and several deaths and many serious casualties occurred on both sides. When Federal authority was re-established in Baltimore, the Secession fever subsided, and the city and the State of Maryland were preserved to the Union; though both became for a time the seats of disaffection and the hiding-place of not a little covert treason. Nor, at the outset of the war, was the seriousness of the situation less grave to the North when the South made haste to possess itself, garrison, and occupy Federal forts, arsenals, and even navy-yards, at outlying points of the coast, or within reach of the seceded States. Among these posts early pounced upon by the Confederate forces were Harper’s Ferry, with its arsenal, and the Gosport Navy Yard, adjoining Norfolk, which, though set on fire and abandoned by its Northern garrison, was seized by the Virginians, its flames subdued, and many of its valuable military stores, with several pieces of serviceable artillery, were recovered for use by the South. Alike grave was the aspect of things revealed in the unpreparedness of the North to meet the emergency of the time, and its inability for some months to confront the enemy in the field with any force more adequate than raw, untrained militia. This accounts for the successive defeats to the North early in the war, such as those at Big Bethel, near Yorktown, and at Eich Mountain and Laurel Ridge, in the valley of Virginia, followed by the more important victory for the South at Bull Run, with its humiliating and disastrous rout of the Northern troops backward upon Washington.

Still darker for the North was the prospect when, besides the secession of the seven Southern States, came the breaking away from the Union of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas, together with the subsequent recognition by Great Britain and France of the Confederate Government and their according it belligerent rights, following upon the Northern proclamation of a blockade of the Southern ports. In these fateful times, the North, though slow to realize the rift within the Union lute, and hardly dreaming that the Southerners were serious in their estrangement from their Northern brethren, was meanwhile full of unrequisitioned resource, alike in men and in money; while her people, when they awoke from their lethargy, were ardently bent on, as well as patriotically zealous for, the prosecution of the war. The firing upon and capture of Fort Sumter, however incredibly the report of its occurring was at first received, aroused and made indignant the North; while it brought her people to face the reality and braced them to the point of armed coercion. Here and there, dissent from the latter was heard, and doubt cast upon the prospect of an “irrepressible conflict.” In these quarters, hope of reconciliation was still clung to, and much was made of the sentimentally viewed spectacle of “brother shedding brother’s blood.” The day of peace, however, had gone by, and hope of arresting civil war before it had passed the appeals of argument and the bounds of reason was now seen to be futile. In the South, on the other hand, there was more inflexibility as well as unity; while, at first, its government was better prepared for a conflict, and it knew, moreover, that the North was not. Subjugation by the North was, as yet, hardly dreamed of; while Southern invasion of the North and the capture of Washington were widely entertained ideas as well as hopefully deemed projects. Had Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri joined the Confederacy, as at one time seemed probable, the scenes of the coming conflict would more likely have been the North rather than the South, and possibly with another than the after historical result. Aside from this, and from the constitutional argument involved in the question of the right of Secession, the North had the advantage of possessing a moral motive, with the prestige it naturally gave it, in the conflict; while the South fatally handicapped itself by fighting, in the main, for the preservation of its favored institution. The doctrine of human chattelhood, to an enlightened and religious world, was the South’s moral condemnation, and as fanatical was its adherence to and preaching of this as were fanatical the extreme views and the hysterical incitement to aggression on the part of Northern abolitionists. The better minds of the South obviously saw and admitted this, though they could ill brook the sectional intolerance of the North, and so took the stand they did, further influenced by the local claims of the region and the ties of family connection and tradition in the South. With them, Disunion was not so much their motive—indeed, by many it was distinctly disavowed—as the believed right they had of separation, coupled, as in the case of Major-General Lee, with an ardent affection for their native State, loyalty to its interests, and the claim each section had to its sons’ allegiance and succor when in jeopardy, or when it had become the object of menace and aggression by the government of what was deemed “a sectional and minority President.”

To the North, it was unfortunate that the crisis that had come upon the country had found it unprepared for the pending conflict, and that, when it was launched, it was at once paralyzed as well as dismayed at the immediate result. The effect of this on the South was naturally encouraging, while the Confederates were more united and in greater earnest, and possessed, moreover, the abler army leaders, in such experienced generals and clever tacticians as Lee, Johnston, Longstreet, and Stonewall Jackson. It was, on the other hand, at a disadvantage in having little of a navy, and was consequently unable to cope with the sea-power resources of the North in blockading and investing Southern ports, with the fine fighting qualities and admirable seamanship manifested by men like Farragut, Foote, and Porter. In command of the sinews of war, the South was also at a disadvantage compared with the North, though the drain even upon the latter became, as we know, unprecedentedly great and most embarrassing to its financial backers at home and abroad, as well as to the distracted Administration at Washington. This was especially the case in the later stages in the war, when the national currency had greatly depreciated, and when the North was staggering under its burdensome load of taxation, with a national debt which had risen from about $80,000,000 in 1860 to over $2,800,000,000 in the autumn of 1865. In this respect, the South had its own perplexities and troubles, in spite of heavy levies in the way of taxation, its risky, surreptitious sales of cotton and the greatly-needed provisions it obtained for this, when it succeeded in passing the vigilant blockade and paying loot to the army of private speculators. With all in its favor, or could procure by hook or by crook, the Southern army was often in sore straits for daily rations, having often to rely almost solely on corn meal; while it was usually sadly deficient in tents for shelter, as well as in shoes, clothing, and blankets. The facilities for caring for the sick and wounded were also often lamentably indifferent; while the privations endured by even the strong and the well on the march, or when being transported in close box-cars from place to place, were at times too harrowing for words.

The curtain of war was now, however, rung up, and from the general aspects of the struggle as it affected both combatants we pass to describe, in some reasonable detail, the chief incidents in the eventful drama. The Federal Administration we have seen, had received Lincoln as its presiding head, and he was judicious in the selection of a Cabinet, which was composed, as a whole, of experienced as well as able Northern statesmen. The Vice-President was Hannibal Hamlin, who, in 1864, when Lincoln was elected for another term of office, was replaced by Andrew Johnson in the subordinate post, and who became his successor. The more prominent of Mr. Lincoln’s advisers were Seward, Chase, and Cameron, all of whom had been influential in the political circles of the capital. To these were entrusted the secretaryships, respectively, of the State Department, the Treasury, and the War Office. Secretary Seward remained during the war at the head of the State Department, though Chase, in 1864, when he was created chief-justice of the Supreme Court, gave place at the head of the Treasury to Fessenden, and later on to MacCulloch; while Cameron, in 1862, gave way to E. M. Stanton in the control of the War Department. To Gideon Wells fell the post of Secretary of the Navy; Montgomery Blair became Postmaster-General; Caleb B. Smith, Secretary of the Interior; and Edward Bates was appointed Attorney-General.

The representative department heads of the Southern cause, who had been officially installed at Montgomery, Ala., under Jefferson Davis (of Miss.) as President of the Confederate Government, with A. H. Stephens (of Ga.) as Vice-President, were: Robert Toombs (of Ga.), Secretary of State; C. G. Memminger (of S.C.), Secretary of the Treasury; and L. P. Walker (of Ala.), Secretary of War. To these were later appointed S. K. Mallory (of Fla.), Secretary of the Navy; and J. H. Reagan (of Texas), Postmaster-General. The chief change in the above posts was that which gave to Judah Philip Benjamin, in 1861, the Secretaryship of War, and from February 1862, to the collapse of the Confederacy, the Secretaryship of State. Later on, the headquarters of the Confederate Government was transferred from Montgomery, Ala., to Richmond, Va., and thither, after his withdrawal from the military service of the Union, did Major-General Lee, as we have related, proceed. Here the distinguished son of Virginia met with a hearty, vociferous welcome, and that alike from the Richmond populace and from the Virginia convention, then in session, and before which, on his coming to the capital, he had been invited to appear. Governor Letcher had already nominated him to the chief command of the military forces of the State, with the rank of major-general, and as such the convention, together with a large and interested audience, warmly greeted him. To the assembled body, Lee was formally presented in an elaborate and eulogistic address, the major-general being introduced as the State’s trusted commander-in-chief. To the address and greeting, the recipient of the honor made the following brief, but characteristically modest, reply: “Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Convention:—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 your 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.”

The demonstration, and the honor paid the general in the high appointment which had been given him, was not only well deserved, but was sure to be rewarded by able and gallant, as well as by most efficient, service. He had sacrificed not a little in resigning his cavalry command under the Union flag; but this, as we have seen, was due to his preferred allegiance to his native State, no less than to his refusal to fight against her when it had withdrawn from the North and joined her fortunes with those of the Confederacy. For this act of loyalty to the Commonwealth of Virginia, he had to abandon his loved Arlington, while he, with his dear wife and attached family, had become homeless, save for the temporary domicile in the White House, at Pamunkey, in which his wife aad children had meanwhile found safety and shelter. But with all the patriotic sacrifice he had been called upon to make, Lee was not one to repine over duty conscientiously performed. His attitude amid the distractions and perils of the time is well shown at this juncture in a letter to his wife from Richmond (under date May 8, 1861). He there says: “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,” he bravely and resignedly adds, “my own sorrows sink into insignificance.” Very touching at this time is the spirit shown by Lee’s noble wife, in a letter she addressed to her husband’s admiring friend, the aged General Scott, giving him an account of her worthy husband’s welcome by the Virginia Convention. Writing from Arlington (May 5, 1861) before quitting her ancestral home, she thus addresses the veteran soldier: “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 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.” Less than three weeks from the date of this epistle, the paternal home of the Lee family had to be abandoned, on the approach of an outpost of the Federal army, which made Arlington its headquarters, while taking possession of the heights of Washington and the region of the Potomac’s banks as far as Alexandria.

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