Robert E. Lee
Philip Alexander Bruce


DURING the many years that Lee had been performing his duties as an army officer with so much distinction, the causes of difference between the people of the North and South had been steadily growing in bitterness. Suddenly, and unexpectedly to himself, he was brought face to face with a very startling manifestation of that antagonism, echoes of which had previously reached him only from a great distance while he was actively employed in military service.

It happened that in October, 1859, Colonel Lee was off duty at “Arlington,” having obtained a furlough, as already stated, in order to settle up Mr. Custis’s estate. News came to the War Department that John Brown, of bloody notoriety in Kansas, accompanied by a band of raiders, had crossed the Potomac, seized the national arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, and from that point, by arming the negroes, was seeking to spread the horrors of a slave insurrection throughout the Southern states. Prompt and decisive action was required. An order was at once sent to Colonel Lee to take command of a squad of marines procured from the Navy Yard at Washington, and to proceed to Harper’s Ferry. On arriving there, he found that Brown, who had succeeded in capturing several well-known citizens of the town and its neighborhood for use as hostages, had been driven by the local militia behind the walls of the armory engine-house. Posting his troops in a cordon about the building, Lee directed Captain Stuart to approach the door with a flag of truce and to demand the surrender of the entire band. Brown boldly replied that, should be be attacked, he would kill his prisoners on the spot. “Don’t mind us; fire,” exclaimed Colonel Washington, one of the prisoners, as soon as he heard these words. At a signal from Captain Stuart, the marines made a sudden rush for the door, and quickly battering it in, besides releasing every hostage unharmed, killed or mortally wounded all the party except four. John Brown himself escaped injury. He was delivered to the civil authorities, tried, and hanged.

Such was the prompt and complete extinction of a little flame which was designed to create a conflagration from one end of the South to the other. No record has survived of the impression left on Colonel Lee’s mind by the Brown invasion, or by the purpose its leader had in view; but there is no reason to doubt, from the thoughtfulness of his character, that, as he returned to “Arlington,” he pondered deeply and sadly on the terrible significance to the Southern people of that apparently small event. It recalled the Turner insurrection, which had occurred in a neighboring county when he was stationed at Fort Monroe as a young officer. He knew that, had Brown had his way, these atrocities would have been repeated from the Potomac to the Rio Grande, and from the Ohio to the Gulf. Was his act, the act of a single madman representing nobody but himself and his misguided followers, or was it symptomatic of a general feeling in the North of hostility toward the Southern people? Had Colonel Lee never before speculated as to what the antagonism between these two sections would lead in the end, the part that he was called upon to play in Brown’s capture must have brought before his mind a dismal picture of the future.

The most fateful moment of Colonel Lee’s life was now approaching. What were the influences moving him to cast in his lot with the Southern people as soon as they decided that the hour had arrived when they were justified in withdrawing from the Union? In order to understand the general influences governing him as a single individual in taking that step, we must understand those governing his people as a whole. Their reasons have been often told, but cannot be too often reiterated if their motives are to be weighed in the balance.

In a general way, it may be said that the citizens of each Southern state firmly believed that, in their collective capacity, they had a constitutional right to secede whenever they concurred that their interests were in jeopardy. It was this right and not their right of revolution, inherited from the fathers of 1776, which they asserted in the secession conventions. When the Constitution was adopted, at least four of the states, namely, South Carolina, Virginia, New York, and Massachusetts, expressly reserved the right to withdraw from the Union under provocation. Massachusetts was the first that threatened to exercise this right through the voice of the Hartford Convention; South Carolina did exercise something not unlike it, in 1831, in adopting an act of nullification. No clause was inserted in the Constitution by the framers which either declared the sovereignty of the nation or proclaimed the right of secession, but that instrument reserved to the states all rights not expressly delegated to the central government. The Southern people affirmed that secession was the most important of these reserved privileges, because its existence was absolutely necessary to prevent the national government from becoming a despotism like the one overthrown in 1783; that in recognizing the thirteen Colonies in the Treaty of Paris, King and Parliament had declared each by name to be “free, sovereign and independent”; that the creators, the states, must, in the nature of things, be greater than the creature, the Union; that two of the states for some time had declined to enter the Union, and no one for a moment had questioned their sovereignty daring that interval; and finally, that the Constitution, in tacit recognition of state sovereignty, contained no clause authorizing the general government to coerce a state.

According to the Southern view, each state was a member of the Union, but the people were citizens of their respective states. The individual citizen bore no relation to the United States,—the only relation was between the United States and communities known by the names of the separate states. It followed that the individual Southerner’s allegiance was due only to his native or adopted state, and that if he refused to acknowledge this allegiance, he was guilty of treason. Dissolution of the compact between the state and the United States served instantly to release from the obligations of their oaths all citizens of each state who were employed in the civil or military departments of the central government.

Why was it, as time passed, that the North as a whole gradually adopted the theory of an indivisible Union, while the South remained loyal to that theory of a divisible Union, should just reason arise, which had at first been almost universally held by the people of North and South alike? The explanation is to be found in a steady and continuous divergence of their respective economic interests.

At the end of the Revolution, the population of all the former Colonies was practically homogeneous; and they had been further unified by their sacrifices in support of a common cause. Every state at that time, in one form or another, was interested in the institution of slavery:—the Southern and Middle States as owners of slaves; the states of New England as importers from Africa or the West Indies. By the date set for the abolition of the slave trade (1808), all the New England states had liberated their slaves, and measures were maturing for the emancipation of those still held in the Middle States. There were no great staples produced north of Maryland to make negro bondsmen’s labor in the field peculiarly profitable; nor was the climate such as to encourage their substitution for white men as better adapted to endure exposure to the summer heats. Agriculture was very generally carried on there by white yeomen, who needed no assistance in tilling their little estates; and side by side with them, there sprang up a great number of small artisans, who were not likely to regard slave competition with tolerance. Very soon a targe variety of manufactures were established, and these prospered and expanded, while commerce grew increasingly lucrative.

As slaves had never been numerous in the Northern states, the stability of no great interest there was jeopardized by their emancipation; no large amount of property was confiscated in liberating them; and no dangerous population was admitted as freemen to a community with which it would be impossible for them to amalgamate. In abolishing slavery, the Northern people were able to yield to the new spirit of the age without the slightest detriment to their prosperity. When the institution disappeared from that part of the Union as the result of economic and democratic, not moral, influences (for a large proportion of the Northern slaves were sold in Southern markets before the day appointed by their native states for their emancipation arrived), the North was in a condition to attract a host of European emigrants to its different communities. The growth of the Northern and Western states in wealth and population between 1820 and 1850, in consequence of the diversification of employment and the inflow of sturdy and industrious aliens from oversea, forms, from some points of view, the most extraordinary chapter in our history. Constituting as they did either manufacturing communities dependent for their prosperity on the existence of a tariff passed by Congress, or agricultural communities compelled to look to the central government for the building of railways and canals to carry their products to the Atlantic ports, it was only natural that they should have been pervaded by a vivid sense of the practical advantages of nationality. This feeling was simply the highest form of that cooperative spirit which manufacturing interests always encourage in a people; and it was further strengthened and extended in its scope by the presence of a vast foreign-born population, who, in their native countries, had always been accustomed to look up to a paternal centralized government. The Western states were settled for the most part by Europeans, who, at their arrival, and even long afterward, considered the United States, and not their adopted states, to be their home. These states had been simply territorial divisions a few years before, and even in the eyes of their citizens of American birth possessed no history to create and foster local pride.

It was Webster, who, in his memorable debate with Hayne, expressed that new view of the Union and the Constitution which had gradually arisen among the Northern people, as their complex and rapidly expanding economic interests became increasingly dependent upon the central power for the maintenance of their present prosperity and its enlargement in the future. By the interpretation of that celebrated statesman, who was but the mouthpiece of his section, the Constitution was a living, growing organism, a vehicle of life like the Constitution of Great Britain; not rigid and inflexible, but an instrument adaptable to the changing conditions of a people, who, by the forces of their internal growth, unforeseen by their fathers in the early years of the republic, were united beyond all possibility of legal separation.

Hayne, in combatting these statements, expressed the view which had once been held by the bulk of the people in North and South alike, and which was still held by the Southern people because the character of their interests had undergone no change. The Southern population, which was almost entirely native, hardly increased owing to the volume of the annual outflow of its own citizens. Each succeeding generation did not differ substantially from the preceding because the institution of slavery kept the framework of Southern society practically fixed and unalterable. There were few manufactures, few towns, and no variety of manual employments. Agriculture was the single interest of importance, and ample labor for the ground was supplied by African bondsmen. There was no room and no demand for foreigners in the tobacco and cotton fields. At one time, the Southern people had hoped to keep step with the Northern in economic expansion and diversification; and this led them for a time to favor a moderate tariff, but their expectations proved futile and baseless. They soon found themselves in the position of men who were sapping their own resources in order to pay tribute for the advancement of Northern industries.

In consequence of this stationary economic system, no influence arose to lead the Southern people to modify or alter their original view that the Constitution was and had always been a rigid and inflexible instrument. On the contrary, as early as 1831, there started into existence a new influence which made the people of the South more loyal than ever to that view, as it seemed to be their only bulwark against the possible aggressions of the changing North. In that year William Lloyd Garrison, in spite of the Constitution’s expressed guarantees, began his memorable crusade, in which he denounced slavery as such a “damnable crime” that it should be abolished without compensation to the owners of the negroes, notwithstanding the different example in this respect recently set by the English government in the West Indies. Up to this time, the opinion had prevailed very generally in the Southern states that slavery was an evil and its existence was to be lamented. But there were at least three reasons, all having their root in practical good sense, which had caused even the most eager of Southern advocates of emancipation to hesitate.

First, the value of the slaves between 1830 and 1860 ranged from one to two if not three thousand millions of dollars. There were practically but three forms of property in the Southern states before the great war; namely, land, negroes and live stock. To destroy the right of property in negroes was to destroy at least one third of the accumulated wealth of the South. In demanding emancipation without compensation, the Abolitionists were advocating a policy that would not impose on them the loss of a single cent, but would deprive the Southern people at one stroke of one third of their then available capital. Such a sacrifice in the cause of pure philanthropy was never made by any people, however enlightened, in the whole course of human history.

Secondly, the loss of capital invested in slaves was not all that would follow from emancipation; agriculture was thought to be entirely dependent in a large part of the Southern states on negro labor. The result of emancipation in Jamaica seemed to show that the black man would lose his industry in a state of freedom. Land would, therefore, immediately decline in value, and the few remaining pecuniary interests of the South would, in sympathy, inevitably shrink also. In other words, there seemed to be just reason to think that for the bulk of the Southern people emancipation would mean a condition of affairs that would fall little short of modified bankruptcy, a prospect that men are not disposed to face with equanimity even when consoled by the approval of those who themselves have suffered no loss.

Thirdly, slavery was not wholly an economic system. The institution, having been in existence since the foundation of the country, was inextricably interwoven with the whole social life of the Southern people; to make an end to it, was to destroy a social fabric consecrated by all their historical memories, domestic traditions, and intimate personal affections. Indeed, the working of habit and custom through two centuries and a half made it hard for them to conceive of their ability to live under a different order.

Finally, should the slaves be liberated, what would be their new status in the community? There could be no social amalgamation of the white and black races without the disappearance of the white; there could be no common enjoyment of political rights without the degradation, if not the destruction, of all the foundations of order. The permanent social and political subordination of the freedman would, therefore, be of paramount importance; but could any country hope to flourish which numbered among its inhabitants millions of emancipated Africans, who were naturally averse to labor, and who, by withdrawal from the personal influence of their former masters, would tend to sink back, as had the negroes of Jamaica and Hayti, into their original state of barbarism?

The situation was one fall of perplexity to those who had to meet in a practical way the problems which it raised. In spite of the difficulties that would attend and the dangers that would follow emancipation, there seems now no room for doubt that ultimately Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, Tennessee, North Carolina, and perhaps Arkansas, in their eagerness to share in the North’s abounding prosperity, would have freed their slaves had not the intemperate spirit of the Northern Abolitionists provoked a strong revulsion of feeling. Just about the time when Garrison began to advocate emancipation without compensation, the legislature of Virginia, after a long debate, failed only by a few votes to pass a bill granting freedom to the slaves. Had she set the example, the states contiguous to her boundaries would have followed, and in the end even the cotton states would have been forced, by their isolation, to adopt the same policy. As the Northern Abolitionists grew more numerous, zealous, aud abusive, the sentiment in favor of emancipation declined even among the people of the Border States, although they saw clearly enough that they had no real interest in the maintenance of the institution, since the inter-state slave trade benefited only a small proportion of their citizens.

Why did that sentiment weaken in consequence of the Abolitionists’ attacks? First, the independent life which the Southern people led on their plantations, and their supreme control of many slaves, had made them extraordinarily proud and high-spirited, quick to resent dictation, and slow to brook interference from the outside with their domestic affairs. Had they yielded it would have appeared to them like an acknowledgment of the truth of the Abolitionists’ charges, and an ignominious surrender. Secondly, as the safety of their domestic institutions had been guaranteed by the Constitution, an assault on slavery was really an attempt to subvert the national as well as the local law. Thirdly, the propaganda of the Abolitionists was of a character to incite a slave insurrection, the very greatest calamity that could fall upon a Southern community. And fourthly, the Southern people were deeply wounded by the unjust and indiscriminate aspersions cast upon their social life. They knew that they were no more responsible for the existence of slavery in the United States than the people of New England, who had been not only slaveholders themselves, but also the chief carriers in the wretched traffic in human flesh and blood. This fact alone the Southern people thought should have made that part of the North at least more considerate and temperate in weighing the perplexities of the South’s position in its relation to an institution less difficult to retain than to abolish.

So far from such a feeling being shown, the spirit of the North as represented in many of its greatest speakers, and nearly all its greatest writers,—Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier and Emerson, to name only the most eminent,—was all directed, with extraordinary zeal, toward blackening the reputation of the Southern people, and holding them up to the reprobation of the civilized world. From platform and pulpit, men who knew by practical observation as little of the South as they did of Central Asia,[note 1] were denouncing its people for inflicting systematically and continuously every form of atrocious cruelty and bitter suffering on the slaves, although associated with them from childhood in every hour of joy or sorrow. Looking at slavery in the abstract, they made no allowance for the softening influence of habit, custom, and public opinion; they refused to credit the Southern people with having lifted the negro, in disposition, manners, and conduct, very far above the level of the contemporary savages of Africa. They even denied that the same selfish instinct which, in the absence of a higher motive, discouraged the slaveholder from maltreating his horses and cattle, would also discourage him from maltreating his slaves; and that, if lacking in ordinary humanity, fear of retaliatory insurrections would stay his hand from cruelty.

Shrinking from the economic ruin, social decline, and political disorder which might follow the emancipation of millions of bondsmen; fully conscious that, as a body, they had made every sacrifice to ameliorate the condition of their slaves; and feeling that there was no just reason why they should be charged with being less humane or less moral than the Northern people, was it strange that the people of the South should have bitterly resented the attack upon their society launched by Mrs. Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel which, taking what slavery sometimes led to, presented it as a picture of what it always was; pushing forward as the universal rule what was, in reality, the exception? Before the end of twelve months, a million and a half copies of this book had been sold among English-speaking peoples all around the globe. It had been translated into all civilized languages, and had been acted upon the boards of many theatres. The Southern people, for continuing to retain an institution which, not very many decades before, had been held by every branch of their race in America, were made the target of a chorus of reproaches co-extensive with the world.

The form which the next assault took seemed to them the legitimate result of the indirect teachings of Mrs. Stowe’s book,—namely, the substitution of the pike and gun for pen and voice. Had John Brown succeeded in the object of his invasion, not a countryside in the Southern states would have been without its Cawnpore; not one would have escaped those scenes of atrocious cruelty and bestiality which made the revolution in Hayti one of the most appalling events in the world’s history. Startling as Brown’s act was in itself; it seemed to the South to acquire a much more alarming significance by the disclosure of the fact that the expedition had had the moral support of men of such high standing in the North as Gerrit Smith, the wealthy philanthropist; Theodore Parker, the famous preacher; Dr. Samuel G. Howe, the enthusiastic humanitarian; Thomas W. Higginson, poet and pastor; Stearns, a well-known man of business of Boston; and Sanborn, a young man of fortune recently graduated from college,—a body of citizens distinctly representative of the best culture of the Northern communities.

It might easily have been predicted that the Southern people, keenly resentful of the strictures made upon their character and society, would soon move from a passive attitude to one of aggressive defense. But for these strictures, which began in earnest in 1831 with the appearance of Garrison, the acrimonious struggle for the territories would probably never have taken place. The South readily consented to the guarantee of free labor for the Northwestern Territory because at that time there was no interference with her own domestic institutions; and had there continued to be none, this spirit would have undergone no change. It was not simply thirst for slavery’s extension which led the Southern people to assert so vehemently, and apparently so unwisely, a claim to the new regions in the West thrown open to settlement; it was rather an unerring instinct, in the light of what had gone before, that their only safety lay in maintaining their numerical equality in Congress, which was possible only by securing at least a share in the new territories. Jefferson Davis, in a speech delivered in the Senate in 1858, spoke but the truth when he said that the South presented “a new problem, the problem of a semi-tropical climate, the problem of malarial districts. This produces a result different from that which would be found in the farming districts and cooler climates. A race suited to our labor exists there. Why should we care whether they go into other territories or not? Simply because of the war that is made against our institutions; simply because of the want of security which results from the action of our opponents in the Northern states.”

Goaded on by the fears as to her own safety that the growth of the Abolition sentiment in the North raised, the South was led to take two steps which she would not have done had she been calm enough to act wisely: she demanded a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law; and she approved the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, the virtual overthrow of the Missouri Compromise. Naturally enough, the Northern people revolted against the task of hunting down Southern slaves; and naturally enough too, they were opposed to slavery’s extension over the virgin prairies of the far West. The South simply played into the hands of the Abolitionists. Her aggressively defensive action led to the creation in the North of a new party, which, animated by the same ruthless spirit as its opponent, took a position, not only openly in contempt of a recent decision of the highest court in the land, but also by inference in denial of the principle of local self-government. When the Republican party proclaimed that it had no intention of interfering with slavery where already existing, the Southern people simply did not believe it, for they thought they foresaw clearly enough the logical result of Mr. Seward’s assertion of the “higher law,” and of Mr. Lincoln’s statement that slavery should be placed “where it would be in course of ultimate extinction.”

South and North, mutually aggressive and defiant, had reached a point where they had lost all faith in the honesty and justice of each others’ intentions. The North was convinced that the South was seeking to force the institution of slavery on her free communities; the South that the North aimed not only to abolish that institution in the Southern states, but in striking this blow, to destroy the right of local self-government there; and furthermore, by concentrating all power at Washington, to erect in the national capital the centralized tranny which Southern statesmen had dreaded from the beginning. Such was the melancholy condition to which the sentiment of Abolition without compensation, or without consultation with the slaveholders, advocated for the first time by Garrison, had brought the country!

In going to war, the Northern and Southern people laid on the sacrificial altar of their country ten thousand millions of treasure (five times the value of all the slaves), and the bodies of nearly one million men who perished by the sword or disease. Had the North foreseen all this, would she have undertaken the conquest of the South? Would she have undertaken it, had she not been misled by the false impression that, should war break out, the slaves would rise against their masters; and that the poor whites, because they owned no negroes, would decline to support the great slaveholders who had brought about secession? Both expectations showed how ignorant were the Northern people of the conditions really prevailing in the Southern states. The slaves as a whole, so far from having been treated with cruelty, as alleged by the Abolitionists, had experienced so much kindness that the war only made them cling with the greater loyalty to their masters’ families, and, with the greater fidelity, serve as their defenders and comforters in the absence of all the able-bodied white men in the Confederate army. The poor whites favored secession even more ardently than the slaveholders, for emancipation, in their eyes, meant simply that they would be reduced to social and civic equality with the freedmen. Under the existing system, they at least enjoyed the distinction of being both free and white, however indigent. It was only in the mountains of west Virginia and east Tennessee that this class was disaffected to the Confederacy, and there merely because no negroes were to be found in such remote and primitive regions.

The Southern people, in the exercise of what they considered to be their indisputable right, withdrew from the Union because they believed that, by the party in power, which was purely sectional, and certain to grow in strength, they would be deprived of all the safeguards of the Constitution; that, in time, their slaves, forming one-third of their wealth, and upholding all the values represented in their economic system, would be emancipated without compensation to their owners, and placed upon a footing of political equality with the whites, to the confusion and degradation of the Southern states; that, by the adoption of these measures, the right of local self-government, the only bulwark, in their opinion, of the liberty of the individual, and peculiarly dear to them from its long enjoyment, would be taken away from them; that a far higher tariff would be imposed on them, which would make the purely agricultural South pay a tribute heavier than ever to the industrial North; and finally, that they would have to submit to the humiliating domination of the very men who, for years, had persistently calumniated them as inhuman, immoral, and criminal. No doubt, these convictions were deeply colored by passion, but that they were sincerely entertained, is incontrovertibly proven by the extreme step which they led the Southern people to take.

What was the attitude of Virginia after the announcement of Mr. Lincoln’s election? Unlike the seven cotton states, which, one after another, left the Union, Virginia refused to regard that election as in itself a justification of secession, The convention which she summoned to decide upon that fatefull question, declared, by a very large majority, in favor of remaining under the Federal government. “Better for the South to fight for its rights within the Union than out of it,” was the prevailing sentiment. In spite of the recent invasion of the state by John Brown, the most influential citizens of Virginia believed that the apprehensions of the cotton states vere very much exaggerated; and they endeavored by the Peace Conference to stay the tide of secession. Had Virginia followed the far South’s example by withdrawing from the Union before Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas at once would have taken the same step; above all, Maryland, for at that time, this commonwealth would have been free to act, and Washington would have fallen under the Confederacy’s control, becoming the Southern capital.

But Virginia’s reluctance to secede was based on other reasons besides those urged by practical expediency. It was in great measure sentimental. Through Jefferson, she had been largely instrumental in declaring the independence of America; through Washington, in winning that independence by the sword; through Washington and Madison, in establishing the national government by the drafting and adoption of the Constitution; through Marshall, in consolidating that government by a liberal interpretation of its powers; through Jefferson again, in doubling the area of the United States by the Louisiana purchase; and through Generals Scott and Taylor, in extending that area to the Pacific coast from Oregon to the Gulf of California. These were proud recollections, and they created bonds too strong to be lightly broken.

Virginia cannot be charged with seceding in the hope of aiding in the foundation of a great slave empire; she left the Union only when called upon, contrary to what she believed to be all constitutional right, to assist in the coercion of her sister states in the South,—states to which she was bound by far more intimate social and political ties than to the states of the North. She was fully aware that the overwhelming majority of her citizens had no real interest in any form in the perpetuation of slavery; and for the institution itself she entertained no great love. Her action was unselfish and chivalrous in the extreme, for all men knew that, if she should join the Confederacy, her soil would at once become the principal battle-ground, and be devastated by the march of contending armies.

As soon as Virginia passed her ordinance of secession, all factions at once disappeared, and her sons, seeing the imminent peril of her position, flocked from all sides to her defense. Especially was this the case with those who held commissions in the navy and army of the United States. Among the most distinguished of these was Robert E. Lee.

What were the particular motives leading Colonel Lee to take this momentous step? Was he influenced by self-interest touching his property? “Arlington,” his home and principal estate, was situated almost in gunshot of the Federal capital, and the heights on which it stood were certain to be seized at once by Federal troops for the defense of the city on its most exposed side. Fortified lines would be drawn, and inevitably the estate would pass under military control, to the destruction of everything on it but the soil which gave it an agricultural value. The residence itself could not escape occupation. Lee clearly foresaw that, in abandoning the mansion, it would be left open to depredation, if not to destruction. It was a home that was profoundly endeared to every member of his family. Its stately architectural beauty, incomparable situation, and noble outlook and environment; its identification with General Washington through the presence of so many priceless relics, as well as with the honored Custis name; its association with the sacred memories of Colonel Lee’s own married life, and the early lives of his children,—all served to lacerate his heart in abandoning it, in all probability forever, to the intrusion of rude soldiers, to have its treasured contents dispersed, its encircling groves cut down, and every beloved surrounding feature obliterated or desecrated.

In a letter to his wife, dated May 11, 1861, after dwelling on these forebodings, he closed with the words: “God’s will be done. We must be resigned.” And again a few days later: “I fear we have not been grateful enough for the happiness there within our reach, and our Heavenly Father has found it necessary to deprive us of what He has given us. I acknowledge my ingratitude, my transgressions, and my unworthiness, and submit with resignation to what He thinks proper to inflict on me.”

If Colonel Lee had been simply unwilling to take up arms against the South, it was in his power to resign his commission in the Federal service and to retire to “Arlington,” there to pass the remainder of his life unmolested. In casting in his lot with Virginia, he reposed himself to the chance of becoming a houseless wanderer on the face of the earth.

Nor could any expectation of preserving his right of property in his slaves have influenced Colonel Lee in his decision to join the Confederacy. He had already emancipated the few negroes he had inherited, and by the terms of Mr. Custis’s will, all those held by Mrs. Lee as a part of her father’s estate were to be liberated at the end of the first five years following his death. This date fell in 1862, at a time when General Lee was actively engaged in one of the most arduous campaigns of the whole war. As his father-in-law’s executor, it was his duty to see that the instructions of the will were duly carried out. Not permitting the other claimss upon his attention to divert him from the performance of these instructions, he caused to be entered among the records of the Richmond Hustings Court a paper that assured the immediate liberation of all the slaves attached to “Arlington,” “Romancoke,” and the “White House”; and not satisfied with this formal announcement, he directed letters of manumission to be sent to every one whose address could be obtained after a diligent inquiry. Practically, therefore, neither Colonel Lee nor any member of his family had any interest in slaves when he was compelled to decide upon the course he should pursue.

Had the ownership of numerous slaves been the only influence to shake Colonel Lee’s loyalty to the national authority, he was not the man to allow so selfish a feeling to govern his conduct. In a conversation with the elder Francis P. Blair on the eve of Virginia’s secession, he declared, in tones of great earnestness, the sincerity of which cannot be questioned, that if he owned all the negro bondsmen of the South, and the one condition of saving the Union was that all should be freed without compensation to him, he would gladly sacrifice their value for the attainment of an object he so ardently desired.

Long before the breaking out of actual hostilities, he seems to have favored a policy of gradual emancipation that would give the community time to adjust itself to the new condition. “In this enlightened age,” he wrote in 1868, “there are few, I believe, but will acknowledge that slavery is a moral and political evil. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it a greater evil to the white than to the colored race, and while my feelings are strongly interested in the latter, my empathies are more deeply engaged for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially, and intellectually. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race, and I hope will prepare them for better things. . . . Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influence of Christianity than from the storms and contests of fierce controversy. This influence, though slow, is sure. . . . While we see the course of the final abolition of slavery is still onward, and we give it the aid of our prayers and all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in His hands who sees the end, and who chooses to work by slow things, and with whom a thousand years are but as a single day. The Abolitionist must know this, and must see that he has neither the right nor the power of operating except by moral means and suasion. Although he may not approve of the mode by which it pleases Providence to accomplish its purposes, the result will nevertheless be the same, and the reason he gives for interference in what he has no concern, holds good for every kind of interference with our neighbors when we disapprove of their conduct.”

It is plain that in going over to the Confederacy, Colonel Lee brushed aside every suggestion raised by his pecuniary interests. Was he, in taking that step, influenced by the prospect of greater military advancement than he could look forward to in the Federal army? At the moment when he was called upon to decide upon his course, there was not a single officer in the United States of his own age, who enjoyed a higher reputation as a soldier. As we have seen, he had won great distinction in the Mexican War, and possessed, to an extraordinary degree, the respect and confidence of the Commander-in-Chief, while he was esteemed and admired by his comrades-in-arms. In addition, his spotlessness of character, singular comeliness of person, and striking dignity in deportment; his possession of a name conspicuous for great services in civil and military life almost from the beginning of colonial times, and a connection by marriage with the family of Washington,—all seemed to unite to point to his early and rapid promotion should he retain his old commission. General Scott in public had repeatedly announced his intention to recommend him as his successor, and now that the hero of the Mexican War was verging upon old age, which rendered it impossible for him to take the field in person, and now also that the highest military talents available were required to cope successfully with the difficulties that had arisen, he grew more earnest in his desire that Lee should be advanced to his place in the command of the Federal army. He urged upon Mr. Lincoln the pressing necessity of securing that officer’s services; and he reiterated this to Cameron, the new Secretary of War.

Scott’s advice impressed both Lincoln and Cameron so much that each stated separately to the elder Francis P. Blair the Administration’s willingness to appoint Colonel Lee General-in-Chief of the army of invasion now in the course of organization. Blair felt authorized to mention this fact, as he correctly looked upon it as an indirect offer of the command, which the Administration quite naturally did not wish to make directly until Colonel Lee had been sounded and found favorable to its acceptance. The Virginian declined the offer on the same grounds that afterward influenced him to proffer his services to the Confederacy. Had he accepted, there is no reason to think that, like McClellan, he would in time have been removed. In the first place, being in possession of far greater military talent, and of equally great organizing powers, he would have used the superior resources of the United States as skilfully and energetically as he used the inferior resources of the Confederacy. In the second place, his spirit of loyal subserviency to the civil authority, which he displayed throughout his military career; his entire lack of political ambition or self-seeking tendencies; his power of winning the goodwill of all with whom he was thrown by the quiet dignity and charm of his manner, the spontaneous tactfulness of his acts and words, and the palpable integrity of his motives, would have given him a hold upon the confidence and respect of the Federal Administration not likely to have been shaken even by passing military catastrophes.

Mr. Lincoln, as soon as he discovered a capable general in Grant, showed no disposition to displace or even to interfere with his chief commander in the field; and this attitude doubtless would have been still more conspicuous in his relations with Lee, had the latter been serving at the head of the Army of the Potomac. As the leader of that army, which would have been a far more effcient instrument had the brilliant courage shown by it on all occasions, been more skilfully directed, Lee, in all probability, would have come out of the war on the Federal side with the same reputation for genius which he won on the Confederate, and at the end of Mr. Lincoln’s second term, would have succeeded to the presidency of the United States. An expectation like this an ambitious man might well have allowed to influence him in considering such an offer as that made to Colonel Lee, for its realization was certain to follow upon great success in the field.

He resigned his commission in the United States army in a spirit of profound sadness. “My husband,” Mrs. Lee wrote to General Scott, “has wept tears of blood.” “No honor,” she declared after his appointment as commander of the Virginia forces, “can reconcile him to this fratricidal war.” “How Washington’s spirit would be grieved,” Colonel Lee himself had written at an earlier date, “could he see the wreck of his mighty labors.” His heart seems to have clung to the Union almost to the last. “I can contemplate,” he wrote in January, 1861, “no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice ererything but honor for its preservation. However,” he added, “a union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me. I shall mourn for my country and the progress of mankind. If the Union is dissolved, and the government is disrupted, I shall return to my native state and share the miseries of my people; and save in their defense, will draw my sword no more.”

In a letter written a few months before Virginia became a member of the Confederacy, Colonel Lee expressed doubt as to the consitutional right of secession; but during his examination by a Congressional committee in 1866, when asked whether he looked on himself as having been guilty of treason, he replied that “the act of Virginia in withdrawing herself from the Union” carried him along as a citizen of Virginia, and her laws and acts were binding on him. “I and my people,” be added, “considered the act of the state legitimate, and the seceding states were merely using their reserved rights, which they had a legal right to do.” “Let each man,” be urged in an order to his soldiers issued in September, 1861, “resolve to be victorious and that the right of self-government, liberty, and peace shall in him find a defender.” And near the end of the war, when his army was retreating from Petersburg, he said, in dwelling on the causes of secession: “We had, I was satisfied, sacred principles to maintain, and rights to defend, for which we were in duty bound to do our best, even if we perished in the endeavor.” Long after hostilities had closed, and he had had an opportunity to weigh the past with calmness, he exclaimed: “I fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the people of the South their dearest rights.

Naturally, with a man so full of tenderness, so responsive to every claim of affection, the love of family and kindred, and attachment to the state associated with the most sacred memories of his life, exercised a powerful influence in shaping his decision. “With all my devotion to the Union, and feeling of loyalty and duty as an American citizen,” he wrote to his sister, “I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.” But, characteristically, he refused to advise his eldest son, an officer in the army, as to whether he should withdraw from the Federal service. “Tell Custis,” he wrote, “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. It is a momentous question, which every man must settle for himself and upon principle.”

Colonel Lee, in resigning his commission, a step be did not take until informed of Virginia’s secession, not for a moment underrated the tremendous obstacles to be surmounted before independence could be won. His long service in the army of the United States had made him familiar with the varied resources of the North from a military point of view, while his observation of the bravery and endurance shown by Northern soldiers in battle and on the march during the Mexican War, or in the fights with the Indians on the frontier, had given him a justly high opinion of the courage and fortitude of the troops whom the South would, in the impending conflict, have to resist and overcome before its freedom could be attained.

It caused Colonel Lee, a man of strong affections, as we have seen, sharp pain to tear himself away from so many of his old comrades-in-arms. “You have heard me say,” he wrote in 1859, “that the cordiality and friendship in the army was the great attraction of the service. It is that, I believe, which 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.” If this feeling was peculiarly keen when he thought of parting with his associates of equal rank, it was still more poignant when the prospect of a permanent separation from his commander-in-chief arose. In sending to General Scott his resignation of his
commmission, be declared that it would have been offered at an earlier date but for the struggle it had cost him to withdraw from a service to which he had devoted the best years of his life, and all the ability he possessed. “During the whole of that time, nearly a quarter of a century,” he added, “I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors, and a most cordial friendship from my comrades. To no one, General, have I been so much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness and consideration, and it has always been my ardent desire to meet your approbation. I shall carry to the grave the most grateful recollection of your kind consideration, and your name and fame will always be dear to me.”

Scott accepted Colonel Lee’s resignation with great reluctance, and never ceased to regret his withdrawal to support the Confederate cause. But this did not prevent him from doing the fullest justice to the motives influencing his subordinate in taking that step. He never failed to affirm that Lee was moved by “an imperative sense of duty”; and he is said to have found consolation in the reflection “that, in the conduct of the war, he would have as an opponent a soldier worthy of every man’s esteem, and one who would never deviate from the strictest rules of civilized warfare.”

As soon as the Governor of Virginia was informed of Lee’s resignation of his commission in the United States army, he appointed him to the chief command of the Virginia troops. Notified of that fact, Colonel Lee repaired to Richmond, and in the presence of the secession convention, composed of the most distinguished citizens of a state still fertile in the production of great men, he, on April 23d, received at the hands of its president, John Janney, his new commission as the commander-in-chief of the forces of his native commonwealth. The presentation of that commission was accompanied by an address, which, in its solemn and lofty eloquence, was worthy of so memorable an event, and of the extreme gravity of the country’s situation. It was as if the presiding officer of the Roman Senate, in language of the noblest exhortation, was investing with supreme military power in the field some champion, of acknowledged genius and conspicuous services, who was about to set out for the defense of his native city against the invasion of the Germanic hordes. Lee, at this time, was fifty-four years of age, but in the prime of his manly vigor and beauty. The extraordinary dignity of his appearance, and the gracefulness of his easy action and movement, gave an increased weight to the few modest, quiet words with which he thanked the convention for the honor they had conferred upon him: “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 on an abler man. Trusting in an 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.”

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