The Soul of Lee, by Randolph H. McKim, Chapter 3

The Soul of Lee


“Non ille pro caris amicis
Aut patria timidus Perire.”

“I did only what my duty demanded, I could have taken no other course without dishonor.”—Robert E. Lee.

“The degree of the love of liberty is proportioned in each man to the moral elevation he has attained.”—Cavour.

“You cannot barter manhood for peace. nor the right of self-government for life or property.”—Robert E. Lee.

“Let each man resolve that the right of self-government, liberty and peace, shall find in him a defender.”—Robert E. Lee.

The great crisis had come. Virginia had passed the ordinance of secession and joined her Southern sisters. What course should Lee take? He loved the Union with a passionate devotion. His ancestors had played a great part in its formation. And though the right of secession had been acknowledged in the early history of the country, quite as much at the North as at the South; and though that right was defended in the text-book on the Constitution (Rawle’s) taught at West Point in the year before his entrance as a cadet; yet Lee saw that there could be then no such thing as peaceable secession. “Secession,” he wrote, “is nothing but revolution,” And further, “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union.”

While his mind was torn with doubt as to his duty, he received through the Hon. Francis P. Blair, and at the instance of Mr. Lincoln, the offer of the supreme command of the United States Army. But neither his ambition as a soldier, nor his love for the Union, could tempt him to accept this magnificent offer. He says, “I declined the offer he made me to take command of the army in the field, stating as candidly and courteously as I could, that though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in the invasion of the Southern States.”

And yet he hesitated to break the bonds which a lifetime of service in the U.S, Army (he was then 54) had forged. It was a choice as full of anguish as perhaps any human soul was ever called to make. Through the long night he wrestled with the question in his chamber at Arlington, pacing the floor hour after hour, and often crying to God for guidance. At last the choice was made. He threw in his lot with Virginia, and in doing so deliberately sacrificed nearly everything that men hold dear, home and fortune and professional career, and the dazzling rewards of ambition.

But why? Because he held his allegiance to his state supreme; because by ancestry, by inherited traditions, he was a Virginian of the Virginians, and could not fail to reflect the feeling which his eloquent father expressed when he exclaimed in the debate on the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798: “Virginia is my country, her will I obey, however lamentable the fate to which it may subject me.” To use his own words: “I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my native state. I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relations, my children, my home.” Not a few of the brave and candid men of the North have declared that had they been placed as Lee was placed, they would have done as Lee did.

Gamaliel Bradford, contemplating the perhaps impossible contingency of a future sectional separation in our country, says, “I should myself be first, last, and always a son and subject of New England and Massachusetts,” words which are the echo of an utterance of another distinguished son of Massachusetts, Charles Frauds Adams, who said at the Lee Centennial, “If in all respects similarly circumstanced, I hope I should have been filial and unselfish enough to have done as Lee did.”

Lee’s anguish of soul in deciding to resign his commission is reflected in his letter to Gen. Scott, April 20, 1861, in which he refers to “the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted the best years of my life and all the ability I possessed.” Of all the inner struggles of his life, it is evident this was the most intense, the most painful. Never, in any of his great battles,—Chancellorsville, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Petersburg, was his great soul so shaken as on that night in his chamber at Arlington when this momentous decision was trembling in the balance, Even now, after the lapse of fifty-six years, no generous heart can contemplate without emotion and admiration this midnight wrestling of a brave and unselfish man.

One question alone presented itself to his great soul: “What is my duty?” He put aside ambition—personal inclination—every selfish interest. Nothing weighed in the balance at that supreme moment but the purest, highest, most unselfish motives.

To this Charles Francis Adams bears noble testimony: “Lee was a soldier; as such, rank and the possibility of high command and great achievements were very dear to him. His choice put rank and command behind him. He quietly and silently made the greatest sacrifice a soldier can be asked to make. With war plainly impending, the foremost place in the army of which he was an officer was now tendered him; his answer was to lay down the commission he already held.” And this generous foe goes on to say, 𔄬He stands awaiting sentence at the bar of history in very respectable company, Associated with him are for instance, William of Orange, known as the Silent; John Hampden, the original Pater Patriæ; Oliver Cromwell, the Protector of the English Commonwealth; Sir Harry Vane, once a governor of Massachusetts; and George Washington, a Virginian of note.” It is of moment to enquire what was Lee’s attitude,—once he had cast in his lot with Virginia—touching the nature of the struggle between the North and the South, Let us look into his soul for the answer. We can do this because his words were ever the true expression of his soul. “I had no other guide,” he wrote, “nor had I any other object, than the defence 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.”[1] And again, “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.” To this add his words to his soldiers, “You cannot barter manhood for peace, nor the right of self-government for life or property. . . . Let us then oppose constancy to adversity, fortitude to suffering, and courage to danger, with the firm assurance that He who gave freedom to our fathers will bless the efforts of their children to preserve it.”[2]

These words leave no room for doubt that to the soul of Robert E. Lee the cause of the Confederacy was the cause of Liberty and Self-government, and that history must recognize in him an illustrious champion of Freedom and Democracy. The first of these conclusions can hardly be denied by any candid historian, but the second is challenged even by Mr. Gamaliel Bradford,—in spite of his almost boundless admiration for the character of Lee. Commenting on the words just quoted, he is “almost” ready to look upon Lee “as one of the great martyrs of liberty“—but he feels compelled to refuse him that chaplet of glory on the ground that Lee, though he was no advocate of slavery, though before the war he had freed his own slaves, and had declared that “slavery, as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country,” “was yet, after all, fighting for slavery, and he must have known perfectly well that if the South triumphed and maintained its independence, slavery would grow and flourish for another generation, if not for another century.”

But what if Lee believed, as apparently Jefferson Davis believed in 1861, that in any case slavery was doomed by the moral judgment of the world, and that even if successful in their revolution, the Southern states would be compelled sooner or later, by gradual emancipation, or otherwise, to confer freedom upon their slaves,

Will not the historian in determining this question refer to the expressed opinions of the men who fought the war—statesmen and soldiers of the North, and statesmen and soldiers of the South?

What then, we ask, were the avowed purposes of leaders on both sides? And first of Mr. Lincoln:

In August, 1862, he wrote Mr. Greeley: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”[3]

Mr. Lincoln then was waging the war not to free the slaves but to save the Union. His Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863) was avowedly a war measure, and it did not proclaim the freedom of all the slaves; but only “those persons held as slaves in any state the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States.” Slaves in all states not in rebellion (as Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri) were not released from slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation.

On the other hand Jefferson Davis declared that the South was not fighting for slavery, and in fact he embarked on the enterprise of secession believing that he would, as a consequence, lose his slaves, for he wrote to his wife in February, 1861: “In any case our slave property will eventually be lost,” that is to say, whether successful or not in establishing the Southern Confederacy, Lee, long before the war, emancipated the few slaves that came to him by inheritance, whereas his Union antagonist, Gen. Grant, held on to those that had come to him through marriage with a Southern woman, until they were freed by the Thirteenth Amendment.

Stonewall Jackson never owned but two slaves—a man and a woman—whom he bought at their earnest solicitation. And he kept account of the wages he would have paid for white labor, and when he considered himself reimbursed for the purchase money gave them their freedom. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston never owned a slave, nor did Gen. A. P. Hill, nor Gen. Fitzhugh Lee. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart, the famous cavalry leader, never owned but two, and he rid himself of these long before the war.[4]

To these facts as to the attitude of the leaders and commanders of the Confederacy; should be added the testimony of the rank and file of the Southern armies. With one voice they avowed then, with one voice they avow now, that they were not marching and fighting and suffering and dying for slavery but for the right of self-government. Old soldiers, known to the writer, declare they never met a Southern soldier who had drawn his sword to perpetuate slavery. What they had at heart was the preservation of the supreme and sacred right of self-government. They had the same pride in their cause as Lee had when he expressed his absolute belief in its nobility and justice, and his resolute determination to fight for it so long as there was any possibility of success. To use his own words, “Let each man resolve that the right of self-government, liberty and peace, shall find in him a defender.”

And what was true of the soldiers of the South was true also (unless the present writer is misinformed) of the soldiers of the North. Slavery was not the issue in their minds. As a general rule, at least, they were not fighting to free the slaves but to preserve the Union.

In the light of these facts—of these sentiments—of the actors in the grim tragedy of the war, it may be confidently affirmed that the flag of the Confederacy was no more an emblem of slave power than the Stars and Stripes, for the Constitution of the United States recognized the institution of slavery as distinctly as did the Constitution of the Confederate States up to the date of the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in December, 1865.

But the Southern Confederacy is reproached with the fact that it was deliberately built on slavery, Slavery, we are told, was its cornerstone. But if slavery was the cornerstone of the Confederacy, what are we to say of the Constitution of the United States? That instrument as originally adopted contained three sections which recognized slavery; and whereas the Constitution of the Southern Confederacy absolutely prohibited the slave trade, the Constitution of the United States prohibited the abolition of the slave trade for twenty years from its adoption—against the earnest protest of Virginia. And if the men of the South are reproached for denying liberty to three and a half millions of human beings, at the same time that they professed to be waging a great war for their own liberty, what are we to say of the revolting colonies of 1776, who rebelled against the British Crown to achieve their liberty while slavery existed in every one of the thirteen colonies unrepudiated?

Cannot those historians who deny that Lee fought for liberty because the South still held the blacks in bondage see that upon the same principle they must impugn the sincerity of the signers of the Declaration of Independence? For while in that famous instrument they affirmed before the world that “all men were created free and equal,” and that “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” they took no steps whatever to free the slaves. Indeed if it be maintained that the cornerstone of the Constitution of the Southern Confederacy was slavery, then it must be acknowledged that the Constitution of the United States had a worse cornerstone,—since it held the ægis of its protection over the slave trade itself!

The noble-hearted biographer of Lee, quoted above, Mr. Gamaliel Bradford, holds that Lee, in spite of his passionate declarations that he was fighting in the cause of liberty, was after all in fact fighting for the perpetuation of slavery. This proposition rests upon an inference that might or might not be correct, as we have suggested above. But more than this, it necessitates the position that in fighting against the United States he was fighting against a power which repudiated slavery and demanded its abolition. But, let it be observed, this was not true of the United States until the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 18, 1865, up to which date the United States was still a slave power,

We have dwelt upon this question somewhat in detail because a correct understanding of it is vital to a true elucidation of the course which Lee in this the greatest crisis of his life. His whole character and career hinges upon the purity and elevation of his motives as a soldier of the Confederacy. To him it was a sacred cause, dearer than life. He was fighting in protest against the overthrow of the constitutional balance of the government of the Fathers. To his mind “the future of popular government depended on the careful balance of local and central authority for which the Constitution originally provided.” These are his words, “All that the South ever desired was that the Union as established by our forefathers should be preserved, and that the government as originally organized should be administered in purity and truth.” And again, “I did only what my duty demanded. I could have taken no other course without dishonor. Thus, if it were all to be done over again, I should act in precisely the same manner.”

A recent historian of the United States has generously said, “Censure’s voice upon the action of such a noble sou1 is hushed. . . . Could we share the thoughts of that high-minded man as he paced the broad-pillared veranda of his stately Arlington house, his eyes glancing across the river at the flag of his country waving above the dome of the Capitol, and then re sting on the soil of his native Virginia, we should be willing now to recognize in him one of the finest products of American life. For surely, as the years go on, we shall see that such a life can be judged by no partisan measure, and we shall come to look upon him as the English of our day regard Washington, whom little more than a century ago they delighted to call a rebel.”[5]

On the 20th of April Lee had tendered his resignation as an officer of the United States Army. On April 23d in the presence of the Convention of the State and a large assemblage of citizens, he was presented his commission as Major General and commander-in-chief of the forces of Virginia by Mr. Janney, president of the Convention.

In accepting it General Lee said. “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,” Before the sun set on that very day he was called upon to resign the commission just put into his hands.

Alexander H. Stephens had come to Richmond to induce Virginia to enter the Confederacy which had been formed by the states to the South. The compact which he came to propose left Lee out of consideration, and, in order to ratify it, it was necessary that Lee should resign the office of commander of the forces of Virginia which had been that very morning bestowed upon him under such impressive circumstances by the Virginia Convention,—and this without any compensation and without any promise of rank in the Confederate Army.

Mr. Stephens says, “I knew that one word, or even a look of dissatisfaction from him, would terminate the negotiations with which I was entrusted.”

General Lee did not hesitate a moment, but, recognizing that he alone stood between the Confederacy and his state, at once consented to the proposal, and surrendered the sword which Virginia had just put into his hand, It was an act of self-abnegation fit to be placed by the side of his declination of the chief command of the United States Army a few days before, for it reduced him to a subordinate and inconspicuous position in the new Confederacy. This noble disinterestedness—this complete readiness to subordinate his personal interest to the good of the cause he had espoused, was characteristic of the man—was indeed one of the most conspicuous features of his character.

It should be added that after Lee resigned his Virginia commission he proceeded quietly to find positions for the officers who had been on his staff, and was arranging to enlist himself as a private in a cavalry company.[6]

It should also be recorded that he said to Gen. Imboden that the South must be prepared for a longer war than that of the Revolution, and for still greater sacrifices. To another he said the war might last ten years.[7]


[1] Jones, Rem., p. 218.

[2] In an unpublished letter, dated Richmond, Virginia, July 27, 1861 (see Life Bishop Kerfoot, James Pott & Co., 1876, Vol. I, p. 223), Gen. Lee wrote:

As far as my voice and counsel go, it will be continued on our side as long as there is one horse that can carry his rider and one arm to wield a sword. I prefer annihilation to submission. They may destroy, but I trust they will never conquer us. I bear no malice, have no animosities to indulge, no selfish purpose to gratify. My only object is to repel the invaders of our peace and the spoilers of our homes. I hope in time they will see the injustice of their course and return to their better nature.

[3] Short Life by Nicolay, p. 336.

[4] See article by Col. W, Gordon McCabe in the London Saturday Review of March 5, 1910.

[5] History of the U.S. by James Ford Rhodes, Vol. III, p. 413.

[6] Reminiscences of R. E. Lee, by Rev. J. Wm. Jones, p. 168.

[7] When the war was over, the President of the United States declared that, “if the Reconstruction Bill then pending became a law, (and it did become a law), it would be to all the world a justification of the contention of the South, that they were, in truth and in fact, fighting for their liberty; and, instead of branding their leaders by the dishonoring name of traitors against a righteous government, would elevate them in history to the rank of self-sacrificing patriots; consecrate them to the admiration of the world; and place them by the side of Washington, Hampden and Sidney.” (Andrew Johnson.)

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