Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy
By Henry Alexander White



THE Autumn of 1859 witnessed the attack of John Brown upon the town of Harper’s Ferry in Virginia. From the field of blood in Kansas, Brown had recently fled eastward. In concert with prominent Abolitionists, he made preparation to incite the slaves in Virginia to rise in insurrection against their masters. More than four thousand dollars were furnished to Brown for the prosecution of the campaign.* Two hundred Sharpe’s rifles, two hundred revolvers, and nine hundred and fifty iron-pointed pikes he collected in his arsenal at the Kennedy farm in Maryland, four miles from Harper’s Ferry. The pikes were manufactured especially for the purpose of arming the slaves whom he expected to flock to the standard of revolt. On the night of October 18 Brown entered Harper’s Ferry with eighteen followers, each man armed with a rifle and revolvers. By midnight the conspirators were masters of the village, and had intrenched themselves in the United States arsenal. Their leader sent out a party to begin the work of emancipating the slaves; one negro man was shot down in cold blood, and two prominent citizens, with a number of slaves, were seized and carried into the arsenal. After sunrise, the citizens and militia came together, and, during the firing that followed, men were slain on both sides, among them the Mayor of the town, and also a prominent land-holder of the vicinity. At mid-day. Brown betook himself to the engine-house in the armory yard; there he barred the doors and windows, cut portholes through the brick walls, and prepared to maintain his position. Already he had failed in the chief aim of his attack; not a single slave had volunteered to assist him. Late in the evening of the 19th came Colonel Robert E. Lee, with a company of United States Marines. He had returned from Texas to Arlington on brief leave of absence, and was at once ordered from Washington to the scene of action.

[Note] * It was the belief of the Virginians, and of the Southerners generally, that the negroes were being organised for the purpose of attacking their masters. It was the contention, on the other hand, of men like Gerrit Smith, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and others, through whom these moneys were raised, or who had personal knowledge of the instructions given for their use, that the negroes were expected merely to maintain their organisation in a defensive campaign, in the hope that public opinion in both North and South, would be aroused in the end, on behalf of their cause.

Lee’s memorandum-book states that he found the railroad at Harper’s Ferry “blocked with arrested trains.” He hurried his soldiers across the Potomac, and “posted them,” the memorandum continues,

in the United States armory which was held by a party of banditti that had taken refuge in the engine-house, where they had been driven by the troops and citizens from Virginia. All retreat of the insurgents being cut off, I determined to wait for daylight, as I learned that a number of citizens were held as hostages by the robbers, whose lives were threatened if they should be attacked. . . . Tuesday about sunrise, with twelve marines under the command of Lieutenant Green [accompanied by J. E. B. Stuart], broke in the door of the engine-house, secured the robbers and released the prisoners unhurt. All were killed or mortally wounded but four, John Brown, Aaron Stevens, Edwin Coppie, and Green Shields (black). Had the prisoners removed to a place of safety and their wounds dressed,

Five men killed and nine wounded was the substance of the crime charged against Brown and his companions at the bar of the Circuit Court in Charlestown, Virginia. After a fair and lengthy trial, in which they were defended by able counsel, Brown and his accomplices were found guilty of murder and executed, December 2, 1859. Before this, application for appeal was made through counsellors of the highest ability. The Supreme Court heard the case, and refused the application for appeal. After this manner, the sentence of Brown was affirmed by the highest legal tribunal in Virginia.

To the Southern people, the real significance of John Brown’s attack appeared not alone in the bloodshed caused by a band of nineteen men; not merely in the purpose of Brown, according to their belief, to stir up servile war and to repeat in the Southern States the horrors of San Domingo. They knew that he could not succeed in this purpose.

The real meaning of the assault was unveiled to the world, on the day of Brown’s execution, by the tolling of funeral bells and the firing of minute-guns in many parts of the North. It was revealed by the Church services and the public mass-meetings held for the purpose of glorifying the cause of immediate abolition, and for enrolling Brown’s name in the calendar of martyrs. John Brown was merely a narrow-minded fanatic who assumed for himself the right to carry to a logical conclusion the teachings of the Abolitionists. For almost three decades, the latter had made increasing strides in popularity by denouncing slavery as a crime, and the slave-holder as criminal and outlaw. It was only natural that a stern, unsympathetic spirit like that of John Brown should use this moral code to justify his inauguration of a programme of bloodshed. It was his opinion, revealed, as the Southern people believed, by his deeds, that the slave-holder had forfeited all right to life, and Brown supposed that he did service unto God by attempting to incite the slaves to take arms and slay their masters.

John Brown’s raid startled the South, for it suddenly revealed the width of the social chasm between the two sections of the Federal Union. A blow was struck, and slave-holding citizens were slain; the scaffold of the slayer was compared to the cross on Calvary. Reputable persons made this latter assertion in various forms, and went unrebuked. “Saint John the Just” was the verdict of the Concord philosophers concerning John Brown. “The new Saint . . . will make the gallows glorious like the Cross” was the sentiment of Emerson that drew applause from a vast assemblage in Boston. In the Senate, January, 1860, Douglas declared that the responsibility for John Brown’s attack must be laid upon Lincoln’s doctrine that the Union could not endure half-slave and half-free, and upon Seward’s theory of “irrepressible conflict” between the North and the South.

In May, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was nominated for the Presidency by the Republican Convention in Chicago. Mr. Lincoln had won this position of party-leader by his speeches in the campaign of 1858 in the State of Illinois. In the joint debates with Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s central theme was that the slavery of the South was wrong; and that the Federal Union must be made all slave or all free territory. At Alton, October 15, Mr. Lincoln declared that nothing had “ever threatened the existence of this Union save and except this very institution of slavery!“ At the same time he announced the existence of an “eternal struggle” between Northern and Southern principles—declaring that the North Wcts the champion of “the common right of humanity,” while the South was defending the old principle of “the divine right of Kings!” Douglas charged Lincoln with thus announcing the policy of open warfare against the institution of slavery; the Southern people believed this to be the creed of the Republican standard-bearer of 1860.

The Chicago platform upon which Mr. Lincoln presented himself to the country contained the declaration that “the normal condition of all the territory of the United States is that of freedom.”

This doctrine was based upon the claim that the founders of the Federal Government were emancipationists who had “abolished slavery in all our national territory.” The platform further declared that no legislative body, Federal or territorial, could “give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.” This view set at naught the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Dred Scott, and only represented a more advanced stage in the evolution of the consolidation theory.

In the prosecution of the political campaign of 1860, the supporters of the Chicago platform while disclaiming the purpose to interfere with slavery in the States, made the key-note of the canvass violent denunciation of the inhumanity of American slavery and the iniquity of its extension into any of the territories. In this crisis the Democratic party presented a divided front. John C. Breckinridge was the leader of the Southern Democrats who upheld the full text of the Dred Scott decision that slavery had legal existence in the territories under the Constitution. Douglas was nominated by the Northern wing of the Democratic Party; Bell and Everett were leaders of those who spoke, indefinitely, of preserving the Union. At the polls the eighteen Northern States held together, and gave Mr. Lincoln a majority of the electoral vote; of the popular vote he failed to receive a majority by about one million ballots. In the entire block of the Southern States, only about twenty-six thousand ballots were cast for the Republican candidate.

A majority of the Southern people looked upon the Federal Union as substantially broken and divided by the election of a sectional candidate upon a platform which they declared to be revolutionary and hostile to the South. There was no practical division of sentiment as to the obligation of the citizen to obey the mandate of his State. But there was difference of opinion concerning the proper time to withdraw from the Federal compact. One party now advocated immediate secession, while the other desired to postpone secession until compromise between the sections of the Union should be attempted. In the Cotton States the people decided for immediate withdrawal as the only legal, and therefore, peaceable remedy for sectional differences. Between December 20, 1860, and February 1, 1861, these seven Commonwealths summoned conventions in accordance with the precedent of 1787 in the adoption of the Federal Constitution, and, through these bodies as the incarnation of the sovereignty of the people, revoked each Commonwealth’s assent to the Federal compact. As sovereign Commonwealths they stood now, even as they stood before the organisation of the Federal league. Not for a moment did they think to remain isolated from one another as separate States. The experiment of 1787 had proved a failure, and these seven Commonwealths, with kindred sympathies and similar ideals, formed a new Federal compact among themselves in February, 1861, as the Southern Confederacy.

It was not conspiracy among a few malcontent slave-holders that carried these States out of the old Union. There was not and had never been any practical division of sentiment between slave-holders and non-slave-holders, and a wave of popular enthusiasm swept both classes alike as one mass of people into the movement, and the leaders were compelled to yield to their practically unanimous demand for secession. Nor did these people take action as the enemies of the black race. They were the benefactors of the African serfs. But the Anti-slavery crusaders had stirred up a race-war of that anomalous sort wherein the negro was ready to take sides with his alleged oppressor against his self-appointed champion. Although the African did not greatly desire emancipation, and was loyal to his master, yet the Southern people had endured denunciation as a race of outlaws because of negro servitude. Against these charges the resentment of the non-slave-holding class was perhaps greater than that of the owners of slaves. In behalf of racial dignity and racial solidarity did these Southern Commonwealths prepare to assert their legal rights, in much the same spirit in which the people of Poland had opposed dismemberment. “The maintenance of the honour, the rights, the equality, the security, and the glory of my native State in the Union, if possible; but if these cannot be maintained in the Union, then I am for their maintenance at all hazards, out of it.” Thus spoke A. H. Stephens, of Georgia, a member of the postponement wing of the secessionists. But when the voice of the people of Georgia hurried the convention into immediate withdrawal, then all the members of that body took pledges of loyalty to the Commonwealth, and thus was the Convention “unanimously committed to the maintenance of the sovereignty of Georgia.” Even so stood as one man the people of all the seven States who, in March, 1861, adopted a Constitution like the old Federal Constitution, except, among other features, in the forbidding of bounties and of protection in the tariff, and in imposing on the Confederate Congress the duty of passing preventive and punitive laws to prohibit the importation of slaves from Africa.

The attitude of the Federal Administration toward this Confederacy was based upon the written opinion of the Attorney-General, J. S. Black, concerning the power granted to Congress to control the militia: “All these provisions are made to protect the States, not to authorise an attack by one part of the country upon another; to preserve the peace, and not to plunge them into civil war. . . . The Union must utterly perish at the moment when Congress shall arm one part of the people against another.” The views of President Buchanan were the same, as thus expressed in his Annual Message: “The long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States has at length produced its natural effects. The different sections of the Union are now arrayed against each other.” While Buchanan refused to concede the legality of secession, he acknowledged that an attempt to coerce a seceded State would be only a gratuitous act of war against her.

The postponement party of secessionists held sway in the Border States. In 1856, these States were ready to secede, but now in 1860 they wished to continue discussion in the halls of legislation and establish a compromise measure. Crittenden of Kentucky brought before the Senate a proposition to amend the Constitution by extending the old 36° 30′ line to the westward. This amendment would have recognised territorial slavery only in New Mexico and the Indian Reservations, where the nature of the country itself forbade the employment of African labour. Virginia called a Peace Convention, and submitted to Congress practically the same compromise. The advantage in the territories was thus offered to the Anti-slavery party. Both schemes were buried, as S. S. Cox, an actor in the drama, has declared, under the solid Republican vote in both Houses.

The Border States now awaited the policy of President Lincoln. The Virginia Convention was still in session with the postponement wing in supremacy. They desired to know if the intent of the new Administration was peaceable. Peaceable it professed to be. The President entered office with the claim that he desired harmony between the sections; he claimed to ofTer peace upon a Constitutional basis. Webster’s great speech in reply to Hayne gave colour to the President’s views; its historical inaccuracies were accepted by Lincoln as veritable history. Want of accurate knowledge concerning the origin of the Federal Union inspired the historical errors of the Inaugural Address of March 4, 1861, which was merely the untenable theory of original consolidation:

The Union, [said President Lincoln,] is much older thanthe States. It was formed in fact by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual by the Articles of Confederation in 1778.

President Lincoln ventured to designate a committee’s recommendation in 1774 as a legal instrument establishing a government! The olive-branch proffered in this Inaugural was interpreted in the South as a virtual declaration of war, and the party advocating immediate secession grew stronger in the Border States.

President Lincoln refused to recognise the Commissioners sent by the seven Commonwealths to ask “peaceful solution“ of all matters in dispute. The most pressing issue had reference to the control of Forts Sumter and Pickens, in the harbours of Charleston and Pensacola, then occupied by Federal troops. The foundation of these forts was originally the property of the States of South Carolina and Florida, and these Commonwealths, having withdrawn from the Union, claimed that the island-fortresses had reverted to the original owners as military posts. There was complete willingness to make compensation to the Federal Government for the property value of the forts.

Since the closing days of 1860 many Republicans had advocated the policy of non-coercion in the case of the seceded States. Greeley’s paper, The Tribune, made this declaration on November 9

If the Cotton States shall decide that they can do better out of the Union than in it, we insist on letting them go in peace. The rightto secede may be a revolutionary one, but it exists nevertheless. . . . Whenever a considerable section of our Union shall deliber-
ately resolve to go out, we shall resist all coercive measures designed to keep it in. We hope never to live in a republic, whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets.

“It will be an advantage for the South to go off,” said H. W. Beecher. After the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln there was a strong current of opinion in the North that the Federal troops should be withdrawn from the Southern forts. President Lincoln’s “organ,” the National Republican, announced that the Cabinet meeting of March 9 had determined to surrender both Sumter and Pickens. That Anderson would be withdrawn from Sumter “was the universal impression in Washington” (Rhodes, U.S., vol. iii., p. 332). Welling, of the National Intelligencer, was requested by Seward to communicate the Cabinet’s purpose to George W. Summers, member of the Virginia Convention (The Nation, Dec. 4, 1879). March 15 Secretary Seward unofficially notified the Confederate Commissioners, through Justice Campbell of the Supreme Court, that Sumter would be yielded at once to the Southern Confederacy. Meanwhile, Captain G. V. Fox had suggested a plan for throwing reinforcements into Sumter. On this same fifteenth day of March, Fox was sent by Mr. Lincoln to obtain “accurate information in regard to the command of Major Anderson.” March 21, after dark, upon the parapet of Fort Sumter, Fox held a private conversation with Anderson. The latter

at once earnestly condemned any proposal to send him reinforcements. He asserted that it was too late; he agreed with General Scott that an entrance by sea was impossible; and he impressed upon Captain Fox his belief that any reinforcements coming would at once precipitate a collision and inaugurate civil war, and to this he manifested the most earnest opposition. (Genesis of the Civil War, pp. 369–371. By Major-General S. W. Crawford who, in 1861, was an officer under Major Anderson in Fort Sumter. The above statements are based upon Fox’s personal letters to Crawford.)

Every hour now tended to strengthen the belief that the garrison was to be withdrawn, and the preliminary steps to be taken were considered upon both sides. The public press as well as private advices from Washington, all seemed to place the fact of withdrawal beyond doubt. The engineer officer had made his arrangements and had reported to his chief [Major Anderson] his intentions, and had received from that official his instructions as to the disposition to be made of the property. (Crawford’s Genesis of the Civil War, p. 373.)

March 25 brought Colonel Ward H. Lamon of Washington to Fort Sumter. He obtained permission from Governor Pickens to visit Major Anderson upon the representation that he had come as “confidential agent of the President,” to make arrangements for the removal of the garrison. “The impression produced upon Major Anderson [by Lamon] as well as upon the officers and men of the garrison, was that the command was to be withdrawn.” Lamon informed Governor Pickens “that the President professed a desire to evacuate the work.” After Lamon’s return to Washington he sent a written message to Pickens, that he “hoped to return in a very few days to withdraw the command.”*

[Note] * Crawford’s Genesis, pp. 373, 374.

Meanwhile, the radical Republican leaders began to make protest against the surrender of Sumter. After the Cabinet meeting of March 29 Mr. Lincoln ordered a naval expedition to be in readiness to move by the 6th of April; at the same time he disavowed the promise of withdrawal made by Lamon. Nevertheless, on April 7 Seward made written renewal of his assurance, as follows: “Faith as to Sumter fully kept—wait and see.” On that same day, April 7 a courier was already drawing nigh to Charleston with a message from President Lincoln himself, announcing to Governor Pickens that an effort would be made to throw supplies into Sumter, and that “if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or ammunition will be made without further notice, or in case of an attack upon the fort.”†

[Note] † Ibid, 340, 394–396.

Pickens soon received advices that the naval flotilla was steaming southward to enforce President Lincoln’s policy. At once the cry was raised in the South that the Federal Administration had been guilty of equivocating conduct; that negotiation had been flung aside, and war declared, in sending the naval armaments to relieve Forts Sumter and Pickens. When Beauregard, in obedience to orders from Montgomery, Alabama, opened fire on Sumter in the early morning of April 12, 1861, the Federal war vessels, with provisions, troops, and arms aboard, were just reaching the outer bar of Charleston harbour. In the opinion of the people of the South, Beauregard’s guns expressed nothing more than the defensive attitude of the Southern Confederacy against the approach of actual armed invasion.

Meanwhile, the Border States were playing the part of peacemakers. An ordinance of secession submitted to the Virginia Convention, March 17 was rejected by a vote of ninety to forty-five. Mr. Lincoln at once requested an interview with a representative of the Convention, and the fourth day of April found J. B. Baldwin in conference with the President. Baldwin has stated under oath that Mr. Lincoln greeted him with the assertion that he had come too late. The President was deaf to Baldwin’s entreaties that he should yield the Southern forts, and thus maintain peace. Another committee from the Convention arrived in Washington April 12 Their mission was to ascertain, definitely, the policy proposed by the President. Mr. Lincoln’s written answer to the committee, April 14 was “distinctly pacific, and he expressly disclaimed all purpose of war.” The railway train which bore the committee to Richmond the following day carried the President’s proclamation asking the various Governors for an army of men.* April 15, 1861, Mr. Lincoln issued an official call to the States for seventy-five thousand volunteers to overcome “combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.” Immediately the Border States flamed up in wrath; they declared that Mr. Lincoln had inveigled them into the policy of inaction, and had then inaugurated a war of invasion. The Virginia Convention at once passed the ordinance of secession, April 17 North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas followed Virginia’s example, and a few weeks saw the people of eleven States fused together in the Southern Confederacy, ready, they declared, to wage only a war of defence. At the same time, the people of the Northern States sprang to arms to “save the Union.” The North and the South stood opposed in deadly hostility, each charging the other with the guilt of aggression.

[Note] * Crawford’s Genesis, pp. 310–312.

War had arisen at the last, from certain misunderstandings as to questions of fact. One of these was centred about President Lincoln’s governmental theory of original consolidation. In the Inaugural Address this view made its first appearance; and again in the message to Congress, July 4, 1861, it was expanded in these terms:

The States have their status in the Union; and they have no other legal status. If they break from this, they can only do so against law and by revolution. The Union, and not themselves separately, procured their independence and their liberty. By conquest or purchase, the Union gave each of them whatever of independence and liberty it has. The Union is older than any of the States, and, in fact, it created them as States. Originally, some independent Colonies made the Union; and, in turn, the Union threw off their old dependence for them and made them States, such as they are. Not one of them ever had a State Constitution independent of the Union.

It is scarcely necessary to say again that this consolidation theory cannot stand for one moment in the light of the actual historical facts. When Mr. Lincoln proposed this view of the origin of the Federal Government as the basis of his alleged “war power,” the difference between him and the people of the Southern States was far more hopeless than that between Charles Stuart and his Parliament. When Mr. Lincoln offered peace on the basis of this theory, the Southern people with one voice interpreted that peace to mean their submission to an unprecedented form of centralised government.

A second misunderstanding was concerned with the extent and character of the secession movement in the South. Among the Republican officials and legislators in Washington, it was maintained that the withdrawal of the Southern States was due to a few conspirators, who had used trickery in securing the passage of the secession ordinances in opposition to the will of the majority of the people. Davis and Toombs, who were in fact adherents of the postponement wing of secessionists until late in December, 1860, were pointed out as the arch-conspirators who had stirred up “rebellion” on the part of the slave-holding minority in each seceding State. In the message of July 4, 1861, President Lincoln said: “It may well be questioned whether there is to-day a majority of the legally qualified voters of any State, except, perhaps, South Carolina, in favour of disunion. There is much reason to believe that the Union men are in the majority in many, if not in every other one, of the so-called seceding States.”

Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy By Henry Alexander White CHAPTER V.


Mr. Lincoln totally misunderstood the attitude of the postponement party among the secessionists. This explains his attitude during the month of March, 1861. When the Virginia Convention voted largely against immediate secession, he supposed that the majority gave complete acquiescence in the theory of Federal consolidation announced in the Inaugural Address. Whereas, these Virginians were only awaiting the President’s policy with reference to the Confederate Government at Montgomery. When he called for volunteers to suppress sovereign States designated as unlawful “combinations,” the former Union men of Virginia were enraged. The delegates yielded at once to the unanimous demand of the people of the State, and secession was immediate. John B. Baldwin, an Ulsterman, representing the Valley of Virginia, where few slaves were held, and who voted against secession on April 17, at once signed the ordinance, and, later, wrote these words: “There are now no Union men in Virginia. But those who were Union men will stand to their arms and make a fight which shall go down in history as an illustration of what a brave people will do in defence of their liberties, after having exhausted every means of pacification.” In the four States of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas, with the sole exception of the districts of western Virginia and eastern Tennessee, there was but one heart and one voice among slave-holders and non-slave-holders alike; as one man, they were ready for battle against the invasion threatened by President Lincoln. The adherence of the entire mass of the Southern people was accorded to their State governments and to the government of the Confederacy at Montgomery, with an enthusiasm not excelled by that of the Swiss Cantons in the hour of Austrian invasion, nor by the Highland clans at the call of Roderick Dhu. With reference to the unanimity existing among the people of the South, we quote the recent words of Mr. J. F. Rhodes:

Had the North thoroughly understood the problem; had it known that the people in the Cotton States were practically unanimous; that the action of Virginia and North Carolina and Tennessee was backed by a large and genuine majority, it might have refused to undertake the seemingly unachievable task. . . . It is impossible to escape the conviction that the action of the North was largely based on a misconception of the strength of the disunion sentiment in the Confederate States. The Northern people accepted the gage of war and came to the support of the President on the theory that a majority in all of the Southern States, except South Carolina, were at heart for the Union. (History of the United States, iii. 404–5.)

The censure heaped upon Buchanan for failing to imitate the “Jacksonian policy” of coercion, indicates that this misapprehension continues to exist. It is beyond doubt that an army or a fleet from Washington sent to subdue Charleston during the last days of Buchanan’s Administration would have driven the entire brotherhood of Southern States into immediate secession.

President Lincoln’s call for an army to subdue the Southern States found Colonel R. E. Lee at Arlington. After the execution of John Brown, he had remained in Washington until midwinter. On January 15, 1860, by permission of the War Department he was hurrying away to Richmond at the request of a legislative committee to throw the light of his experience on the matter of organising and arming the Virginia militia, although he had already written the protest, “My limited knowledge can be of little avail.” From army headquarters, February 9, came the order assigning him to the command of the Military Department of Texas. The entry in his diary for February 10, is thus briefly made: “At 6 A.M., left Arlington and its dear inhabitants for Texas.” From February 20, 1860, the day when he assumed command at San Antonio, until February 13, 1861, the day when he laid down his authority at Fort Mason and repaired to Washington at the call of the Secretary of War, Lee was occupied with the passing excitements and monotony of frontier garrison life. The early part of these twelve months was spent in pursuit of the brigand Cortinas, who would steal across the Rio Grande, burn the homes and drive off the horses of the ranchmen, and then retire to his lair in Mexico. Lee manifested great energy in pushing across the wastes of western Texas; his chief daily concern was the search for grass and water, and he spent some time, also, in a fruitless correspondence with the authorities in certain Mexican towns. The summer months from June to December, 1860, were spent in San Antonio. He was always alert and busy. The Episcopal Church building in the town was hurried forward by liberal contributions from Lee; his private business in Virginia was at the same time receiving due attention through correspondence.

Lee’s political views began to find expression, January 23, 1861, as follows:

I received from Major Nicholl, Everett’s Life of Washington . . . and enjoyed its perusal very much. How his spirit would be grieved, could he see the wreck of his mighty labours. I will not, however, permit myself to believe, until all the ground for hope has gone, that the fruit of his noble deeds will be destroyed and that his precious advice and virtuous example will so soon be forgotten by his countrymen. As far as I can judge from the papers, we are between a state of anarchy and civil war. May God avert both of these evils from us. I fear that mankind for years will not be sufficiently Christianised to bear the absence of restraint and force. I see that four States have declared themselves out of the Union; four more apparently will follow their example. Then, if the Border States are dragged into the gulf of revolution, one half of the country will be arrayed against the other. I must try and be patient and await the end, for I can do nothing to hasten or retard it.

On the same day he wrote in these terms to his son:

The South, in my opinion, has been aggrieved by the acts of the North, as you say. I feel the aggression, and am willing to take every proper step for redress. It is the principle I contend for, not individual or private benefit. As an American citizen I take great pride in my country, her prosperity, and her 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 Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honour for its preservation. I hope therefore, that all Constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labour, wisdom and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It is intended for “perpetual Union,” so expressed in the preamble,* and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution, or the consent of all the people in Convention assembled. It is idle to talk of secession; anarchy would [otherwise?] have been established, and not a government, by Washington, Hamilton, Jeflferson, Madison and all the other patriots of the Revolution. . . . Still, 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 for the welfare and progress of mankind. 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 defence will draw my sword on none.

[Note] * Lee was mistaken in this statement. The term “perpetual Union” does not occur in the preamble to the Constitution nor anywhere in the Constitution itself. It did occur in the Articles of Confederation which were annulled by the secession of eleven States in 1787.

After the withdrawal of Texas from the Union, Lee was recalled to Washington. As he passed through San Antonio, February 16, he saw the Federal troops marched out of the place, and the public property handed over to the commissioners representing the Convention of the people of Texas. As the shades of evening were gathering about Arlington, March 1, he alighted at the gate from the carriage that had borne him from Alexandria.

As Lee entered his home, his heart was full of love for the old Union which his father had helped to establish. He did not believe in secession as a legal method for the redress of grievances. As to slavery, he said that “if he owned all the negroes in the South, he would gladly yield them up for the preservation of the Union.” But he also loved his own people and his native State, and for Virginia, first and last, he was ready to sacrifice property and life itself. At Arlington, therefore, he kept anxious watch during the first forty days of President Lincoln’s Administration.

April 18, Francis P. Blair, at the suggestion of Mr. Lincoln, came to offer Lee the command of the proposed army of invasion. Afterwards (February 25, 1868) Lee thus described the interview:

After listening to his remarks, I declined the offer he made me to take command of the army that was to be brought into the field, stating, as candidly and courteously as I could, that though opposed to secession and deprecating war I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States.

I went directly from the interview with Mr. Blair to the office of General Scott,—told him of the proposition that had been made to me and my decision. Upon reflection after returning home, I concluded that I ought no longer to retain any commission I held in the United States army, and on the second morning thereafter I forwarded my resignation to General Scott.

At the time I hoped that peace would have been preserved—that some way would be found to save the country from the calamities of war; and I then had no other intention than to pass the remainder of my life as a private citizen.

Two days afterward, on the invitation of the Governor of Virginia, I repaired to Richmond, found that the Convention then in session had passed the ordinance withdrawing the State from the Union, and accepted the commission of commander of its forces, which was tendered me. These are the simple facts of the case.

That which drove Lee from the United States army was President Lincoln’s preparation to invade the South. The service required of him he declared unworthy, and at once resigned his office and retired to his own home. From that home, as a citizen, he was summoned by the voice of the people of his native State to lead them on the field of battle.

April 20, Colonel Lee sent to General Scott his official resignation, adding that

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 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 a 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 merit 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.

To his sister in Baltimore, on the same day, Lee expressed these sentiments:

The whole South is in a state of revolution, into which Virginia, after a long struggle, has been drawn; and though I recognise 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.

To his brother, Sidney Smith Lee, he sent a message, April 20, as follows:

The question which was the subject of my earnest consultation with you on the 18th inst. has in my own 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 till the ordinance of secession should be acted on 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 the defence of my native State, I have no desire ever again to draw my sword.

What were the events characterised by Lee as war already commenced? They were the armament sent by sea to relieve Sumter and Pickens; President Lincoln’s call for the militia to move against the Southern States; the encampment around the Federal Capitol, April 18, of a regiment from Pennsylvania; the invasion of Maryland, April 19, by a regiment from Massachusetts, and the President’s proclamation, April 19, declaring the ports of seven Southern States in a state of blockade and closed against the commerce of the world. The President of a league government had assumed the functions of the Congress of lawmakers, under the alleged military necessity which he had himself created, and the bayonets of his army were already gleaming about the Capitol, when Lee resigned on the morning of April 20.

When Lee reached Richmond, April 22, the Convention placed him in command of the military forces of Virginia. The twenty-third day of April, 1861, saw Major-General Lee introduced to the Convention. The weight of fifty-four years had not bent the tall, well-knit frame, nor had they engraved any lines in the handsome features. Lee’s manner was grave; a great modesty tempered all his words and all his actions. The admiration that fell upon him from every eye in that standing throng of Virginians was more trying to the quiet officer than the fire from a battery of guns. President John Janney stood with Governor Letcher and Vice-President A. H. Stephens at his right hand, and expressed to General Lee the welcome accorded to him by the Convention. After references to the patriotic sons of Westmoreland County and to Lee’s own achievements in Mexico, Janney thus concluded:

Sir, we have by this unanimous vote expressed our convictions
that you are at this time among the living citizens of Virginia “first
in war.” We pray to God most fervently that you may [so] conduct the operations committed to your charge, that it will soon be said of you that you are the “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.” When the Father of his country made his last will and testament, he gave his swords to his favorite nephews, with the injunction that they should never be drawn from their scabbards except in self-defence, or in defence of the rights and principles of their country, and that, if drawn for the latter purpose, that 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 in all things you will keep it to the letter and spirit, that you will draw it only in defence, and that you will fall with it in your hand rather than that the object for which it is placed there should fail.

To this address, General Lee made reply in these terms:

Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Convention: Deeply impressed with the solemnity of the occasion on which I appear before you, and profoundly grateful for the honour conferred upon me, I accept the position your partiality has assigned me, though I would greatly have preferred that your choice should have fallen on one more capable. Trusting to Almighty God, an approving conscience, and the aid of my fellow-citizens, I will devote myself to the defence and service of my native State, in whose behalf alone would I have ever drawn my sword.


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