Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Illustrations Chapter 17


The Great Decision

BY early February of that year, 1861, the seven “Cotton States”—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and South Carolina—were out of the Union and had set up a Confederate Government at Montgomery, Alabama, with Jefferson Davis as their President, and Alexander H. Stephens, Vice-president.

Later these states were joined by Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee.

President Davis did not think that the North would fight but was sure it would follow the plan suggested by General Scott;, which was to “allow the erring sisters to depart in peace.”

Horace Greeley, one of the great newspaper editors of the North, stated that if any state, or group of states, chose to form an independent nation, “they had a clear moral right so to do.”

James Buchanan, who was President of the United States when the trouble began, thought it was unconstitutional for the states to secede but said that he saw no way to compel them back into the Union, and so he did nothing.

On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln came into office. He was characterized as a “tall, gloomy-faced man with a magnetic voice and a prophetic manner.” In his inaugural address he promised not to do anything, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it already existed, for he did not believe he had any lawful right to take a hand in the matter.

The news of political developments was often garbled by the time it reached Texas and Colonel Lee’s letters show his anxiety for a clear picture of the situation. He writes home for news: “As an American citizen, I take great pride in my country, her prosperity and institutions, and would defend any State if her rights were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the country. . . . I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. . . . If the Union is dissolved and the Government disrupted, I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people, and, save in defense, will draw my sword on none.”

“Everything but honor — Everything but honor — Everything but honor. —” The turning click of the wheels on the train that moved slowly northward seemed to be saying those words over and over and over again. Lee heard them continuously throughout; the long days and the anxious nights.

The issue could no longer be evaded. Now was the time for decision, he knew. And it was a decision that he, and every man, must make for himself. He prayed to God for strength to choose the right path, for he realized there could be no turning back.

Home at last and a loving welcome from his family.

Events moved rapidly forward. Major Robert Anderson, who had been in command of the United States forces at Charleston, South Carolina, withdrew his eighty men from the seceding state and took up his quarters on Fort Sumter, which was built on a shoal in the harbor. He was in need of food and ammunition but was not able to get the supplies, because the ship bearing them was forbidden to land by the Confederates. President Lincoln now told the Governor of the state that he was going to send the needed articles and did so on April twelfth.

The Confederates opened fire and on the fourteenth Major Anderson surrendered his Federal forces on Fort Sumter to the Rebels.

Since “Old Glory” had been fired on, the war was now an actuality and all talk of compromise was forgotten. President Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand troops to coerce the seceding states and demanded that the border states should furnish their quota. Governor Letcher of Virginia told the President, “You have chosen to inaugurate civil war, and you can get no troops from Virginia for any such wicked purpose.”

A convention was called and the Commonwealth of Virginia seceded on the seventeenth of April.

On the evening of that day, Mary and Robert Lee sat together in the lamplit parlor at Arlington. Mary laid aside the little sacque she was knitting for their first grandchild, Robert’s namesake. She folded her hands in her lap and was silent for a moment, watching her husband’s face.

“You have decided, my dear?” she asked finally.

“Yes, Mary, I have decided.” His face was calm and untroubled and he smiled at her with confident courage. “I have been thinking, as I was sitting here with you, of some words that my father spoke a great many years ago. He didn’t know then that he was looking far ahead into the future and making up my mind for me. I can see him so clearly now. It is as if he were speaking again and saying those very words which he uttered in a debate on the resolution drawn up by James Madison. . . .”

For a moment he was quiet and there was a faraway look in his eyes. Mary leaned toward him and laid her hand over his. She knew the words he was going to say but she closed her eyes for a moment, as he spoke them in a low, grave tone: “Virginia is my country; her will I obey, however lamentable the fate to which it may subject me.”

“Amen,” Mary said softly and her hand pressed Robert’s.

Within the next few days, the supreme command of the Federal forces was proffered to Robert Lee but he declined the offer, saying that he could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States, and he immediately forwarded his resignation from the Army to the proper quarters.

To his sister Anne, whose husband and son were with the Federal troops, Lee wrote, “. . . I know 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.”

Governor Letcher at once summoned Robert, Lee to Richmond, greeted him with warm admiration, and appointed him major-general and commander-in-chief of Virginia’s forces. In accepting this position, Lee stated that he would have much preferred that the choice had fallen upon an abler man but that, trusting in Almighty God, an approving conscience, and the aid of his fellow citizens, he would henceforward devote himself to the services of his native state.

Commenting on his appearance, a spectator remarked afterwards, “I had before me the most; manly and entire gentleman I ever saw.”

At this time Lee was fifty-four years old, His complexion was ruddy. He was clean-shaven but wore a small moustache and was said to look younger than his age. By the following year he had a beard and resembled the pictures which are familiar to later generations.

It was characteristic of Lee that though he himself, after soul searching, had come to a decision which he felt was right for him, he did not attempt to criticize nor influence those who, with equal honesty, found themselves not in agreement with his stand.

He wrote to Mary: “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.”

Custis, as well as the two younger sons, decided to join the Confederate forces and so Lee was spared the sorrow of having his household divided amongst itself, as was the case in so many families of the South and the border states.

Each morning brought fresh issues to be decided and additional plans and strategies to be evolved for the Army of Northern Virginia. At last it was ready—oars near ready as it could be—and Lee turned the command over to the Confederate Government, relinquishing his title of major-general in the army of Northern Virginia.

The letter which he wrote to Mary that night told her that he planned to retire to private life, unless he could be of further service. That particular phrase, “to be of service” was ever on his lips. He wondered now, while the reorganization was in progress, about enlisting as a private in Rooney’s cavalry company, saying, “I am very anxious to get into the field but am detained by matters beyond my control. . . . Where I shall go I do not know, as that will depend upon President Davis.”

Shortly after this he was chosen as one of five brigadier-generals and later was made Military Aide to President Jefferson Davis, whom he had known since their early days together at West Point.

Under Davis’ direction as commander-in-chief of the Confederate forces, Lee was given the job of organizing the Army in the new capital of Richmond. No one realized better than he the problems which would confront him. He knew that the North had four times as many soldiers as the South, that it had much more money and much better equipment. Most of the factory towns were in the North and the good railroads were there, too.

On the other hand, the Southerners felt that they were fighting to defend their homes. Lee could understand this feeling very well indeed, for his own home at Arlington had already been taken over by the Federal forces. His wife and daughters, as well as many other Southern women, had been forced to seek shelter with friends, and the possessions which they had inherited from the Washingtons had been scattered and stolen.

However, there was no time for Robert E. Lee to think of these purely personal troubles. His present job was to find guns and ammunition for his soldiers. Thousands upon thousands of guns would be needed, he said plainly, for this was going to be a long war, a long one and a hard one. It would last for four years, maybe, he predicted.

His fellow officers laughed at him and said, “Why, man, we’ll lick the Yankees by Christmas, if not before!”

“Lee shook his head and turned back to that task of finding arms—or making them when they couldn’t be found. He counted the available rifles and muskets and flintlocks, even the old blunderbusses.

“Not enough. Not enough,” he said bitterly, and ordered the blacksmiths to get to work. Iron hinges were to be taken off doors, church bells were to be melted down, even old metal coffins were to be dug out of graveyards. If tempered blades couldn’t be made for sabers, then old-time pikes, such as soldiers had used in the Middle Ages, were to be fashioned.

And uniforms had to be made. If there wasn’t enough gray cloth in the countryside-and of course there wasn’t—then let the volunteers who were streaming into the town by every stage and train wear their own clothes. Let the hunters and the farmers wear what they had. Let the gentlemen wear their fine broadcloth and their Negro body servants the linsey-woolsey which had been woven for them back home on the plantations.

Upper officers, where possible, were to find themselves epaulettes, Lee ordered, and the lower officers were to stitch chevrons on their sleeves, Each branch of the service was to be designated by different color trimmings: red for the artillery, blue for the infantry, yellow for the cavalry and black for the engineers.

Not one fine fellow in a dozen was able to fit himself out properly, but little he cared, for the chances were that, uniform or not, he possessed what was far more important, a good horse.

The South was riding-country, hunting-country and racing-country. All of her sons had grown up on horseback. Most of them owned a four-legged beast and most of these beasts had a drop of good blood in them, if they were not actual thoroughbreds.

Men and horses, they poured into Richmond now, by the dozens, by the hundreds, by the thousands. Schoolboys and graybeards, all of them sent word to President Jefferson and to his aide, Robert E. Lee: “Here we are, ready to fight. What shall we do now?”

Lee worked twenty hours out of the twenty-four. No matter was too small for his attention, no task too arduous. An unending stream of men filed into his office, received his undivided attention and a word of encouragement. The town was overrun, its population more than doubled. Men jostled one another in the Ballard House, pushed and shoved through the crowded, dusty streets. There was drinking and shouting and cursing among the ragtag and bobtail hangers-on, and there were prayers and services at St. Paul’s and the other churches for the thoughtful and the faithful.

Robert E. Lee attended these services whenever he could snatch a brief moment from his interminable work. Late at night the lamplight fell on his graying head, bent over a sheaf of important papers to be signed and stacks of letters to be answered—and a final chapter in the Bible which was always read before bedtime. Behind him, in the shadows on a pallet, Perry, one of the faithful Negroes whom he had brought from Arlington, drowsed.

“It’s near on to midnight, Marse Robert.”

“Yes, Perry, I know.” Lee would look up from his papers to smile at his kindly servitor.

“You gwine ter be up afore dawn. I promised Miss Mary I’d look out for you. She wouldn’t want you should be all wore out.”

“Another half-hour, Perry, and I’ll be done.”

“You want I should het you up a cup coffee, Marse Robert?”

“No, Perry. You go on back to sleep. I’ll be done soon and stretch out here on the cot. Get your rest. I’ll call you if I need anything.”

“I done gib my word to Miss Mary an’ de young ladies, Marse Robert. You ain’t so young no mo’ lak ye uster be, don’ forgit!”

Lee’s tired smile rewarded Perry’s persistence. “All right. I’ll quit now. These papers can wait till morning, if they must. And I’ll remember to tell Miss Mary in my next letter that you look out for me, just as she would if she were here.”

“Yas suh, yas suh. Thank you, Marse Rob.” Perry turned over and was soon in the land of dreams.

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