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Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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Vol. I
p462
Chapter XXVII

Virginia Looks to Lee

From the train-shed at 17th and Broad Streets, on the afternoon of April 22, 1861, Colonel Lee made his way to a carriage and rode through Richmond streets to the Spotswood Hotel at the southeast corner of 8th and Main Streets, where he took a room.1 The conversation he overheard, as he walked through the lobby and as he ate his supper, was all of defense against invasion, of preparation, and of speedy alliance with the Southern Confederacy. The day before, while the ministers had been dismissing their anxious, prayerful congregations, the tocsin had been sounded from the guard house in the Capitol Square, and word had quickly spread that the Pawnee, a Federal warship, was steaming up James River to bombard the unprotected city. The volunteer companies had rushed to arms, the Fayette artillery had galloped with its field guns to an eminence overlooking the stream, the governor himself had gone to the waterfront, the soldiery had lined the riverbank, old men had taken down their fowling pieces, and curious, unarmed thousands had hurried to the hill-tops to watch for the coming of the sloop. She had not appeared, though the martial waiting had been continued until nightfall. Then Richmond had been told that the rumor had originated in a misreading of telegrams.2 The excitement of this first of Richmond's many war "scares" had not died away when Lee arrived.

The town was buzzing, also, over the arrival of Alexander H. Stephens, Vice-President, as special commissioner from the Confederate States of America to the commonwealth of Virginia, with letters of credence, authorizing him to "negotiate of and p463 concerning all matters and subjects interesting to both Republics."3 All secessionists welcomed Mr. Stephens and advocated a speedy union of Virginia with the other Southern States. Most Whigs, now that war was upon them, favored the same course. Virginia, as they saw it, could not remain neutral. Would the convention, which had been sitting in secret session, display the same spirit and vote Virginia into the Confederacy, pending final action by the people on the ordinance of secession? In the hotels and in the streets every man was a constitutional lawyer, as he debated this question and discussed Stephens's mission.

Lee's military instinct told him that the crowd was right: Virginia alone could not resist. If there must be war there must be alliance with the South. He did not mingle with the noisy debaters, however. Instead, he hastened to the capitol, where he met Virginia's governor. John Letcher was then fifty-eight, a bald-headed, florid, bottle-nosed lawyer from Rockbridge County, in the Shenandoah Valley. Not a brilliant man, he was a level-headed conservative Democrat, and he had refused to endorse secession until Lincoln had called for troops. Lee was to see much of Letcher during the next few months and he was to profit by Letcher's integrity, his determination, his common sense, and his familiarity with the mind of the Virginia people. Letcher did not flatter himself that every politician was a soldier. During that tempestuous April week he was one of the few public men who did not have on his tongue the very plan by which victory could be achieved, quickly and surely.

The governor had an explanation to make; an explanation to make and a question to ask. The state convention, he said, had provided by an ordinance of April 19 for the appointment of a "commander of the military and naval forces of Virginia," with the rank of major general, and with authority to direct the organization and operations of the troops, under the governor's constitutional control.4 The advisory council had recommended Lee for this post.5 Letcher had formally tendered it to him on April 21 and had sent a messenger,6 whom Lee had probably passed on p464 the road. Would Lee accept the office created by the convention?

That was the question Letcher put, so directly and with so little dramatic touch, that neither the language of his tender nor of Lee's reply has been preserved.

Lee's answer had been shaped by the very reasons that had led him to resign from the army. He felt that his first allegiance was to Virginia. When he had said he would unsheathe his sword only in her defense, that was equivalent to saying that when she called, he would respond. There was, consequently, no hesitation now; in a few brief words he accepted the task of defending his native state. Doubtless he told the governor that he had not resigned in the expectation or in the desire of further military service, and he probably added that he wished an abler man had been found for the task Virginia assigned.

That was all. Before the convention adjourned its night session Lee's name was sent in by Governor Letcher for confirmation, with a simple note that Lee had determined to resign from the United States army before the convention had created the office to which Lee was nominated.7 The convention at once and unanimously approved the choice;8 word that Lee would take command was telegraphed to Norfolk, then considered the most threatened point in the state,9 and the weary new general retired to his bed in the Spotswood Hotel with a greater burden than he had ever borne.


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Facsimile of entry in the Executive Minute Book of Governor John Letcher, of Virginia, covering the nomination and confirmation of General Robert E. Lee "as commander of the military and naval forces of Virginia."
From the original in the Virginia State Library.

The next morning, April 23, Lee opened a temporary office either in the Richmond Post-office or in the old state General Court building.10 Without an adjutant, or even a clerk, he drafted his General Order No. 1, announcing that he had assumed command, and Governor Letcher made a statement to the same effect.11 Before Lee was able to do much more, a committee from the convention waited on him to escort him to the capitol, where he was to receive formal notice of his appointment. Accompanied by four members of the convention, Marmaduke Johnson of Richmond, P. C. Johnston, representing Lee and Scott Counties, W. T. Sutherlin of Danville, and John Critcher of his own native p465 county of Westmoreland, Lee climbed the hill shortly before noon and entered the capitol, where the convention was sitting behind closed doors.

When he arrived some necessary motions were under discussion on the floor, and there was a brief delay in the rotunda. Lee's mind was running ahead to the exactions of the hour and to the necessities of united action by all the Southern states. Virginia came first in his devotion, but he saw plainly that neither her defense nor the triumph of her cause could be assured unless the South halted all centrifugal tendencies and remained one republic. In this thought, as he waited, Lee looked up at the ivory-tinted statue of his great hero, Washington, a marble that exhibits the perfect poise and all the high determination of an early revolutionary — and he said aloud: "I hope we have seen the last of secession." Some, at least, of those who stood around him did not understand what he meant.12

The doors were opened. Lee entered on the arm of Marmaduke Johnson. A crowded room greeted his eye, the same room in which his father, pleading vainly against the Virginia resolutions of 1798, had affirmed that he would share the calamities he could not prevent. The convention rose to receive him. On the speaker's platform stood the president of the convention, John Janney. To his right was the emaciated, unhealthy figure of Vice-President Stephens, his eyes shining, his thin lips taut. Beyond him was Governor Letcher. On the left of Janney was Judge John J. Allen, president both of the court of appeals and of the governor's advisory council. By his side were the other two members of the council, Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Francis H. Smith, superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, and a keen-eyed man with a great dome of a head and pleasant composure of countenance, Matthew Fontaine Maury, the oceanographer who had resigned his post at the Naval Observatory in Washington to share in the defense of his native Virginia.13

This much Lee observed at first glance. Then, when they were p466 three short paces within the entrance,14 Johnson announced: "Mr. President, I have the honor to present to you, and to the convention, Major General Lee."

Lee halted. The members of the convention took their seats again. President Janney remained standing and, a moment later, addressed Lee in full and rounded periods. "Major General Lee," he said solemnly, "in the name of the people of your native state, here represented, I bid you a cordial and heartfelt welcome to this Hall, in which we may almost yet hear the echo of the voices of the statesmen, the soldiers and sages of by-gone days, who have borne your name, and whose blood now flows in your veins.

"We met in the month of February last, charged with the solemn duty of protecting the rights, the honor and the interests of the people of this Commonwealth. We differed for a time as to the best means of accomplishing that object; but there never was, at any moment, a shade of difference amongst us as to the great object itself; and now, Virginia having taken her position, as far as the power of this Convention extends, we stand animated by one impulse, governed by one desire and one determination, and that is that she shall be defended; and that no spot of her soil shall be polluted by the foot of an invader.

"When the necessity became apparent of having a leader for our forces, all hearts and all eyes, by the impulse of an instinct which is a surer guide than reason itself, turned to the old county of Westmoreland. We knew how prolific she had been in other days of heroes and statesmen. We knew she had given birth to the Father of his Country; to Richard Henry Lee, to Monroe, and last, though not least, to your own gallant father,15 and knew well, by your own deeds, that her productive power yet exhausted.

"Sir, we watched with the most profound and intense interest the triumphal march of the army led by General Scott, to which you were attached, from Vera Cruz to the capital of Mexico; we read of the sanguinary conflicts and the blood-stained fields, in all of which victory perched upon our own banners; we knew of p467 the unfading lustre that was shed upon the American arms by that campaign; and we know, also, what your modesty has always disclaimed, that no small share of the glory of those achievements was due to your valor and your military genius.

"Sir, one of the proudest recollections of my life will be the honor that I yesterday had of submitting to this body the confirmation of the nomination made by the governor of this state, of you as Commander in Chief of the military and naval forces of this Commonwealth. I rose to put the question, and when I asked if this body would advise and consent to that appointment, there rushed from the hearts to the tongues of all the members, an affirmative response, that told with an emphasis that could leave no doubt of the feeling whence it emanated. I put the negative of the question for form's sake, but there was an unbroken silence.

"Sir, we have, by this unanimous vote, expressed our conviction that you are at this day, among the living citizens of Virginia, 'first in war.' We pray 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 '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 his swords to his 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 her defense, and that you will fall with it in your hand rather than that the object for which it was placed there shall fail."16

p468 Lee had anticipated no such welcome as this and must have been embarrassed by Janney's praise. He had never made a speech in his life, but he saw that he was expected to reply and he answered, slowly and distinctly: "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 had your choice fallen on 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."17

The chair was thereupon vacated, and the members gathered about him,18 to congratulate him and to voice their confidence in him. His previous reputation and his fine appearance made a most favorable impression upon them. Said Stephens: "All the force which personal appearance could add to the power and impressiveness of words . . . was imparted by his manly form and the great dignity as well as grace in his every action and movement. All these, combined, sent home to the breast of every one the conviction that he was thoroughly impressed himself with the full consciousness of the immense responsibility he had assumed."19 Wrote Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jubal A. Early, member from Franklin and later one of Lee's corps commanders: "Those who witnessed his appearance before the convention, saw his manly bearing, and heard the few grave, dignified and impressive words with which he consecrated himself and his sword to the cause of his native state, can never forget that scene. All felt at once that we had a leader worthy of the State and the cause."20

As soon as the news of Lee's appointment and acceptance reached the larger public, it aroused high enthusiasm and evoked much praise. The Richmond Enquirer quoted with satisfaction a report that General Winfield Scott had said he had rather have p469 received the resignation of every general other than that of Lee.21 "A more heroic Christian, noble soldier and gentleman," said The Richmond Dispatch, "could not be found."22 And again, "Of him it was said before his appointment, and of him it may be well said, no man is superior and all that constitutes the soldier and the gentleman — no man more worthy to head our forces and lead our army. There is no one who would command more of the confidence of the people of Virginia than this distinguished officer, and no one under whom the volunteers and militia would more gladly rally. His reputation, his acknowledged ability, his chivalric character, his probity, honor, and — may we add to his eternal praise — his Christian life and conduct make his very name a 'tower of strength.' . . . "23 The Lynchburg Virginian was no less laudatory: "We rejoice that this distinguished officer and worthy son of Virginia has withdrawn from Lincoln's army and thrown himself upon the bosom of his native State. It was what we expected of the man. Captain Maury had done likewise; and thus, these two noble men, the very flower of the Army and Navy of the late United States, respond to the call of their glorious old Mother. . . ."24 In different strain, the wife of ex-President Tyler wrote: "Col. Lee, a splendid man every inch of him, is in command of the Virginia forces. . . . He can only lead to victory, if this shocking war continues."25 J. M. Broadus, addressing his brother, John A. Broadus, a minister of high prestige, expressed faith in Lee as "a prudent and skillful warrior. I hope he may not precipitate hostilities. Virginia is not ready for a conflict, but she is making herself so as rapidly as possible."26 In the North, issues overshadowed men. Lee's resignation and his acceptance of the Virginia command attracted little attention for a few weeks. Then denunciation of the "traitor" became general, and Lee's personal honor and private conduct were assailed in libellous crescendo. James G. Blaine, looking back upon it, expressed the belief that Lee's assumption of command "was a powerful incentive with many to vote against the Union."27

p470 Some of the very qualities that Lee's admirers saw in him were put to the test within a few hours after he left the convention hall and went to his office to begin work. A message came that Vice-President Stephens wished to see him that evening at the Ballard House. Lee called. He found the Confederate emissary perplexed but candid. The Confederacy, Stephens explained, of course desired an immediate military alliance with Virginia, and hoped that the Old Dominion would join the other Southern states as soon as the voters ratified the ordinance of secession. This would involve the control of military operations in Virginia by the Confederate authorities — a manifest necessity of war. The Confederacy had no military rank at the time higher than that of brigadier general; Lee, a Virginia major general, might find himself under orders of a titular subordinate. The Virginia convention, Stephens went on, would certainly see that this contingency might arise and, if Lee raised any question of rank, the convention might refuse to enter into a military agreement.

What did Lee propose to do? "He understood the situation fully," to use Stephens's own language. "With a clear understanding of its bearing upon himself personally, he expressed himself as perfectly satisfied, and as being very desirous to have the alliance formed. He stated, in words which produced thorough conviction in my mind of their perfect sincerity, that he did not wish anything connected with himself individually, or his official rank or personal position, to interfere in the slightest degree with the immediate consummation of that measure which he regarded as one of the utmost importance in every possible view of public considerations."28

With this assurance, Lee bade good-evening to Stephens, who prepared to press with renewed confidence for an early alliance. Lee started for the Spotswood Hotel fully committed to the Confederate cause. His first thought had been of Virginia. He had even resented the belligerent attitude of some of the leaders in the cotton states during the preliminaries of secession. These men, he had believed, were trying to involve the other border states in their quarrel. Now it was different. It was increasingly plain that Virginia would be assailed; in her exposed position she would p471 need the assistance of the South. Virginia's welfare — the very factor that had made him almost hostile to the cotton states — now put him on the side of alliance and common effort.

As he tramped back from the Ballard House, through the shadows of the spring night, did he reflect how fast and how far the Southern revolution had carried him? On Saturday morning he had written to General Scott, to Smith Lee, and to Mrs. Marshall. He had hoped then that he would have to take no part in the quarrel that had forced his resignation. Now it was Wednesday evening and he was a major general in arms against the United States, urging the affiliation of the commonwealth with the militant new Confederacy. The rapid approach of war had quickly and inexorably revealed which were the deepest loyalties of his soul.


The Author's Notes:

1 Cf. Lee to Mrs. Lee, May 16, 1861; R. E. Lee, Jr., 31.

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2 Sally Brock: Richmond during the War (cited hereafter as Miss Brock), 24; T. C. De Leon: Four Years in Rebel Capitals (cited hereafter as De Leon), 104; George Cary Eggleston: A Rebel's Recollections (cited hereafter as Eggleston), 24; 42 S. H. S. P., 121; O. R., 51, part 2, p24.

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3 O. R., 51, part 2, pp18, 24; IV O. R., 1, 242.

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4 Ordinances Adopted by the Convention of Virginia in Secret Session in April and May, 1861, p9.

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5 O. R., 51, part 2, p21.

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6 MS. Executive Journal of Virginia, April 21, 1861.

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7 Journal of the Virginia Convention of 1861, pp184‑85.

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8 Journal of the Virginia Convention of 1861, pp184‑85.

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9 O. R., 2, 774.

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10 Cooke, op. cit., 40, named the post-office. Earle Lutz's researches indicate the court building.

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11 O. R., 2, 775‑76.

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12 John Critcher, quoted in the Memoirs of John S. Mosby, 379.

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13 Southern Generals, Who They Are and What They Have Done [Anonymous] (cited hereafter as Southern Generals), 42 The Early Life, Campaigns and Public Service of Robert E. Lee [and] . . . His Companions in Arms, by a Distinguished Southern Journalist, 54.

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14 So affirmed Colonel John Bell Bigger, long-time clerk of the house of delegates of Virginia, who got his information from John L. Eubank, secretary of the convention. Contemporary accounts state that Lee halted about midway of the short, central aisle.

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15 The services of "Light-Horse Harry" Lee had been described to the general assembly (p467)of Virginia by admirers only a few weeks before, and an appropriation had been made on March 28 to remove his body from Cumberland Island to the grounds of the Virginia Military Institute (Acts of the General Assembly of Virginia, 1861, p58).

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16 Journal of the Virginia Convention of 1861, pp186‑88. The text of this address, with that of Lee's reply, is very inaccurately printed in Long. Most of the biographers have followed Long, whose errors, of course, are attributable to and excused by his blindness.

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17 Journal of the Virginia Convention of 1861, p188. It is probable that Lee had been told that a response was in order, for his words were too well chosen to have been fashioned without deliberation. It is hardly necessary to point out how they echo the language of his letters of April 20 to his kinspeople and to General Scott. Perhaps, also, he unconsciously adopted the style of Washington's farewell to Congress, Dec. 23, 1783, which he had read in Texas, from Everett's Life of Washington, 150‑53.

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18 Southern Generals, 42.

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19 A. H. Stephens: A Constitutional View of the War between the States (cited hereafter as Stephens), 2, 384.

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20 Quoted in Jones, 2.

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21 Richmond Enquirer, April 27, 1861, p2, col. 1.

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22 Richmond Dispatch, April 26, 1861, p3, col. 2.

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23 Richmond Dispatch, May 1, 1861, p2, col. 4.

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24 Quoted in Richmond Enquirer, April 25, 1861, p2, col.6.

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25 Letters and Times of the Tylers, 2, 648.

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26 A. T. Robertson: Life and Letters of John A. Broadus, 183‑84.

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27 J. G. Blaine: Twenty Years of Congress, 1, 302‑3.

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28 2 Stephens, 385.


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