The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls
By J. G. De Roulhac Hamilton and Mary Thompson Hamilton


IN the years which followed the Mexican War a violent dispute over slavery arose in the United States. Lee took no part in it, of course, and, so far as can be seen from his letters, he seems at first’to have been entirely absorbed in his military duties and in his family and to have paid no attention to this discussion. So far as slavery was concerned, Lee, like many Southerners in the Border States, never doubted its evils. Opposition to slavery was particularly common in Virginia, and until the abolitionist crusade began, there was every indication that slavery would be abolished within a few years. As has been seen, Lee freed all the slaves he owned before the war began, and it is not unlikely that it was his influence that caused Mr. Custis to provide for the freeing of his own. Lee’s feeling toward slavery is best shown in a letter written in 1856 in which he said: “In this enlightened age there are few, I believe, but will acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil. It is idle to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it is a greater evil to the white than to the colored race, and while my feelings are strongly interested in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are stronger for the former.”

As time passed, the disagreement over slavery involved the question of preserving the Union. In the North the Republican Party, the first political party in our history confined to one section, was organized on the principle of opposition to the spread of slavery in the Territories, and it gained strength with great rapidity. Its pledge to prevent the extension of slavery caused great alarm in the South, where it was claimed that it was the right of any citizen to carry his property into the Territories which were the common property of all the States. This view had been upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States in the celebrated Dred Scott decision which the anti-slavery advocates denounced and declared not binding. To the argument of the South that slavery was protected by the Constitution, came the reply that there was a law higher than the Constitution, that is, the moral law. Because of the avowed purpose of the Republican Party and the opinions of its leaders, the South came to feel that its success would mean grave danger to the peace and safety of that section, since the Constitution might not be regarded as binding. The North was deeply opposed to slavery and determined to check its growth. Therefore, when Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate, was elected in 1860, South Carolina, the most extreme of the Southern States, followed in turn by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, the so-called “Cotton States,” called conventions, which were supposed to exercise the sovereign power of the States, and through them withdrew from the Union. In February delegates from these States met in Montgomery, Alabama, and organized the Confederate States of America. An effort was made to induce the Border States, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee, to follow, but in those States the majority of the people felt that Lincoln’s election alone was not sufficient cause for so grave a step as withdrawal from the Union.

Lee, from Texas, watched these movements with sorrowful forebodings. By this time he was alive to the gravity of the situation. He wrote his son:—

My little personal troubles sink into insignificance when I contemplate the condition of the country, and I feel as if I could easily lay down my life for its safety. But I also feel that it would bring but little good.

A little later he wrote:—

If the Union is dissolved, which God in His mercy forbid, I shall return to you.

Still a little later, writing of this same possibility, he said:—

Major Nichols thinks the Union will be dissolved in six weeks. . . . If I thought so, . . . I would return to you now. I hope, however, the wisdom and patriotism of the country will devise some way of saving it, and that a kind Providence has not yet turned the current of His blessings from us. The three propositions of the President
in his message are eminently just, are in accordance with the Constitution, and ought to be cheerfully assented to by all the States. But I do not think the Northern and Western States will agree to them.

It is, however, my only hope for the preservation of the Union, and I will cling to it to the last. Feeling the aggressions of the North, resenting their denial of equal rights to our citizens to the common territory of the commonwealths, etc., I am not pleased with the course of the “Cotton States,” as they term themselves. In addition to their selfish, dictatorial bearing the threats they throw out against the “Border States,” as they call them, if they will not join them, argues little for the benefit or peace of Virginia should she determine to coalesce with them. While I wish to do what is right, I am unwilling to do what is wrong, either at the bidding of the South or the North.

Lee, as has been seen, was ordered to Washington and reached there in March. He remained there for six weeks, during which time he was promoted to colonel of the First Cavalry. From Arlington he watched the progress of events with the deepest interest and anxiety. Virginia had called a convention, but it refused to secede, and waited for developments; a great peace conference, composed of delegates from the States, summoned by Virginia, met in Washington and attempted fruitlessly to settle the questions at issue; Congress was entirely given over to efforts to bring about some compromise which would effect a peaceful settlement. In the North many were inclined to take no steps to prevent the secession of the Southern States. General Scott suggested to President Lincoln that he should say, “Wayward sisters, depart in peace,” a view also held by Horace Greeley, the great editor of the “Tribune.” But others opposed such a course, demanding the preservation of the Union, and Lincoln himself had no idea of admitting the right of a State to withdraw from the Union. He waited a month before taking any steps against the seceded States. Then he decided that Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, which was still in the possession of Federal troops under the command of Major Robert Anderson, should be reinforced. It was recognized that the Confederacy would regard this as an act of war, and when the attempt was made the fort was at once bombarded and the garrison forced to surrender.

On April 15 President Lincoln issued a proclamation, calling for seventy-five thousand volunteers to force the seceded States to return to the Union. He demanded that the Border States furnish their part of this number, but the governors of all of them flatly refused. Governor Letcher, of Virginia, replied, “You have chosen to inaugurate civil war, and you can get no troops from Virginia for any such evil purpose.” On April 17 the Virginia Convention, which was still in session, passed an ordinance of secession. The same action was taken during the next five weeks by Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. The other slave States—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri—did not secede. Delaware had no leaning towards secession and Kentucky chose to attempt to remain neutral, but Missouri and Maryland were only prevented from seceding by force.

Lee now faced an enormous and terrible problem. His devotion to the Union amounted to a passion, and his resignation from the army would mean a wrench of his whole being. His own personal interests could be served only by remaining in the service of the United States. Over against this was Virginia’s call to him—one not lightly to be disregarded by a Lee. While he weighed the question, trying to see his duty clearly, General Scott was imploring him to remain in the army. Scott had recommended him to President Lincoln, and the latter, on April 18, through Francis P. Blair, offered him the chief command of the United States Army. Lee’s reply was what might have been expected, “If I owned four millions of slaves, I would cheerfully sacrifice them to the preservation of the Union, but to lift my hand against my own State and people is impossible.”

Just after receiving the offer, Lee had an interview with Scott who still sought to change him from his purpose of resigning. Lee’s reply was simple, “I am compelled to; I cannot consult my own feelings in the matter.” All that day and the next, Lee pondered the question. The night of April 19 he spent walking the floor or kneeling to pray for God’s guidance in making his final decision. At last he saw where his duty lay. He came down stairs and said to his wife, “Well, Mary, the question is settled. Here is my letter of resignation and a letter I have written General Scott.” These were the letters:—

ARLINGTON, VA., April 20, 1861.


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 all 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 the 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 meet your approbation. I shall carry to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, and your name and fame will always be dear to me.

Save in 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,

R. E. LEE.


Secreatary of War.

Sir:—I have the honor to tender the resignation of my commissson as colonel of the First Regiment of Cavalry. Very respectfully, Your obedient servant,

R. E. LEE.

He also wrote a letter to his brother Smith, and one to his sister Mrs. Marshall, who had followed her husband in support of the Union. They follow:—

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 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 until the ordinance of secession should be acted upon 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 defense of my native State, I have no desire ever again to draw my sword. I send my warmest love. Your affectionate brother,

R. E. LEE.

My dear Sister:—

I am grieved at my inability to see you. I have been waiting for a more “convenient season,” which has brought to many before me deep and lasting regret. We are now in a state of war which will yield to nothing. The whole South is in a state of revolution, into which Virginia, after a long struggle, has been drawn; and though I recognize no necessity for this state of things, and would have forborne and pleaded to the end for redress of grievances, real or supposed, yet in my own person I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my native State. 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 have, therefore, resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native State—with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed—I hope I may never be called upon to draw my sword.

I know that you will blame me; but you must think as kindly of me as you can, and believe that I have endeavored to do what I thought right. To show you the feeling and the struggle it has cost me, I send you a copy of my letter of resignation. I have no time for more.

May God guard and protect you and yours, and shower upon you everlasting blessings, is the prayer of Your devoted brother,

R. E. LEE.

Two days later Lee bade Arlington a long and sorrowful farewell. He was destined never to see it again. He went immediately to Richmond in obedience to a summons from the governor, who at once nominated him major-general and commander-in-chief of the forces of Virginia.

He was at once unanimously elected to the position by the convention, and invited to appear before it. In spite of Lee’s strong dislike of publicity, he felt that he could not refuse, and, in the presence of a great audience, he was presented to the convention and welcomed by its president, who, after an eloquent address of welcome, said:—

Sir, we have by this unanimous vote expressed our convictions that you are at this day among the living citizens of Virginia, “first in war.” We pray to God fervently that you may so conduct the operations committed to your charge that it will soon be said of you that you are “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.” I will close with one more remark.

When the Father of his Country made his last will and testament, he gave swords to his favorite nephews, with an injunction that they should never be drawn from their scabbards except in self-defense, or in defense of the rights and liberties 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 we know you will keep to the letter and in 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 was placed there shall fail.

Lee, in clear tones, replied briefly:—

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 that your choice had fallen upon an abler man. Trusting in Almighty God, an approving conscience, and the aid of my fellow-citizens, I devote myself to the services of my native State, in whose behalf alone will I ever again draw my sword.

Alexander H. Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederacy, was present and said of the scene:—

As he stood there, fresh and ruddy as a David from the sheepfold, in the prime of his manly beauty, and the embodiment of a line of heroic and patriotic fathers and worthy mothers, it was thus I first saw Robert E. Lee. I had preconceived ideas of the rough soldier with no time for the graces of life and by companionship almost compelled to the vices of his profession. I did not know then that he used no stimulants, was free even from the use of tobacco, and that he was absolutely stainless in his private life. I did not know then, as I do now, that he had been a model youth and young man; but I had before me the most manly and entire gentleman I ever saw.

Behind Lee’s decision to obey the call of his State lay the whole history of the Union. When the Constitution of the United States was adopted, nearly every State which ratified it had already a separate history of its own which had then lasted more years than have passed since. Each had its own laws, customs, and traditions; each, largely because of the long struggle with England for the right of self-government, was intolerant of outside power or influence. During the Revolution they had needed each other and had acted together, but even then they would consent to no stronger form of government than that provided by the Articles of Confederation, which gave the Central Government so little power that it was dangerously weak. At the close of the Revolution England had declared each one a “free, sovereign, and independent State.” Once again the needs of all led them to act together, and the Constitution was adopted in convention and ratified by the States. North Carolina and Rhode Island refused to ratify at first, but finally joined the new Union. If the Constitution had forbidden any State’s withdrawal at will from the Union, not a single State would have ratified it. As it was, New York, Rhode Island, and Virginia, at the time of ratifying, all stated their right to withdraw, Virginia declaring, “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.” No one questioned this right openly, if indeed any one thought the opposite. As Mr. Henry Cabot Lodge says, “When the Constitution was adopted by the votes of the States in convention at Philadelphia, and accepted by the votes of the States in popular conventions, it is safe to say there was not a man in the country, from Washington and Hamilton on the one side, to George Clinton and George Mason on the other, who regarded the new system as anything but an experiment entered upon by the States and from which each and every State had the right peaceably to withdraw, a right which was very likely to be exercised.”

From the beginning of the new government, secession was accepted as a possibility. New England, with Massachusetts in the lead, often threatened it. Webster, the eloquent prophet of our later national unity, began his public life as a secessionist. In the early years under the Constitution, individual States, and both North and South collectively, had at times looked toward secession. But as time passed, the political theory of the North began to change, and many people in that section denied the existence of the right. The rise of manufacturing, the flood of immigration, the progressive tendencies which come from the growth of cities and the spread of public education, all contributed to this. But the most powerful cause of the change was the rise to power and influence of the great West. With no traditions of existence apart from the Union, States’ Rights theories had not found there a fertile soil. The North and the South talked of secession, and such States as Virginia and Massachusetts were proudly conscious of their noble history as individuals, but the West, with its face to the future, thought only in terms of the Union, and claimed the glories of all the original States as the common heritage of all Americans. To-day, in the cool light of history, there can be found no room for doubt of the historical and constitutional right of secession, but the occasion for putting that right into practice did not occur until both the North and the West had developed a point of view in which secession seemed simply rebellion and the sovereignty of the State a delusion. To the South, putting the theory to the test, it was still the corner-stone of government. The State was sovereign, secession was merely the exercise of an undoubted right, and the first duty of every citizen—his paramount allegiance—was owed to his State.

In no State was state pride and feeling stronger than in Virginia. The making of the Union was largely due to her, and she loved it, was proud of it, and even felt a sort of maternal tenderness for it; but in all things, according to Virginia theory, Virginia came first. She did not want to leave the Union, and her safety as well as her interest and sentiment urged that she should not; but the choice of remaining carried with it the necessity of fighting those States most closely allied to her by ties of blood, friendship, and common interest, all of whom were acting, if unwisely, still in the exercise of what she considered their undoubted right. There could be for her no thought of such a choice, and Virginia cast her lot with the South.

In the atmosphere of States’ Rights Lee had been born and reared. His education, even at West Point, had carried him on to mature belief in state sovereignty. In this crisis it seemed to him that a struggle must be made to preserve the government of a federal union, as established by his fathers, from the threatened change into a national government. Of this he said later, “I had no other guide, nor had I any other object than the defense of those principles of American liberty upon which the constitutions of the several States were originally founded, and unless they are strictly observed, I fear there will be an end to republican government in this country.” At the close of the war, he said, “We had, I was satisfied, sacred principles and rights to defend for which we were in duty bound to do our best, even if we perished in the endeavor.”

In making his decision Lee was without thought of personal advantage or reputation. His choice, too, was for himself alone; he had no criticism for those who chose the opposite course. Even to his own son he sent this message: “Tell Custis 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.”

In these words Lee stated the case. There was a divided allegiance, and every man had to decide which was paramount . As Charles Francis Adams, the distinguished historian, himself a soldier of the Union who fought against Lee and the South, says, “Every man in the eleven States seceding from the Union had in 1861, whether he would or no, to decide for himself whether to adhere to his State or to the Nation; and I finally assert that, whichever way he decided, if he only decided honestly, putting self-interest behind him, he decided right.”

Lee knew far better than most men in the South the strength and resources of the North, and he had no illusions as to any easy victory. He knew that the chance of victory was a doubtful one. And yet he declined the highest rank in his profession that he might serve his own State. And he did this simply because he sought always to do the right as God gave it to him to see the right, and for him, a Lee of Virginia, there was no other choice. “Duty,” he said, “is the sublimest word in our language.” “There is a true glory and a true honor, the glory of duty done, the honor of the integrity of principle”; and finally, these words to his son Custis: “I know that wherever you may be placed you will do your duty. That is all the pleasure, all the comfort, all the glory we can enjoy in this world.” In these words, the keynote of his whole life, lie the explanation and defense?if there still be any need of defense in this day of a united and understanding country—of Lee’s decision.

At the time of the centenary celebration of Lee’s birth, the “Outlook,” in an editorial, expressed the best thought of the Nation to-day as to the choice of Lee and his comrades: “If willingness to sacrifice what is passionately prized next to honor itself is any criterion as to the degree of patriotism that begets such sacrifice, then the Southerners of whom Robert E. Lee is the type are to be counted among the patriots whose lives constitute the real riches of the nation.”

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