Short URL for this page:
"Our country," Lee had written one of his sons before he left Texas, "requires now everyone to put forth all his ability, regardless of self."1 That maxim he applied in the bewildering situation he faced when he reached home. On the Virginia side of the Potomac opinion was divided concerning the occasion for secession, but there was almost complete agreement touching the right. North of the river, just half-an‑hour's ride from Arlington, cross-currents of sentiment were sweeping. In Congress and at the White House efforts were still being made to avert war; in the departments preparations were under way to face any emergency. President Buchanan was fighting to save states for the Union; General Scott and the politicians interested in the army were angling for individual soldiers whose knowledge would be useful should the conflict come. The atmosphere in which many officers were received by their superiors had suddenly changed. There was unconcealed interest in the probable course that would be followed by captains and colonels the prospect of whose resignation, in ordinary times, would have been heard with rejoicing because promotion would be opened to other men.
Lee was not aware of this change when he called at General Scott's office soon after he reached him. In the outer room he met his friend Lieutenant Colonel Erasmus D. Keyes, associate of his West Point superintendency, and the man whom Scott had named as his military secretary when Lee had declined that post.
The two shook hands. "Lee," said Keyes, "it is reported that you concurred in Twiggs's surrender in Texas. How's that?"
Lee became serious on the instant, but without showing any resentment of the suggestion of disloyalty, he said calmly: "I am here to pay my respects to General Scott; will you be kind enough, Colonel, to show me to his office?"
p432 Keyes said no more, but ushered Lee into Scott's room.2 The door was shut, and for three hours the old General and his favorite lieutenant talked together. What they said to each other, in the confidence of long and trustful association, neither ever afterwards revealed. All the evidence regarding their conversation is negative in character or is reported at second-hand. But Scott's known opinion of secession, his admiration for Lee, and his desire to assure good leadership for the army make it possible to reconstruct the substance of at least a part of what was said. Scott told Lee that he was soon to be made a colonel, and then, probably, he hinted that if he found himself too feeble to take the field he would recommend Lee as his second in command. There can be little doubt that Scott deliberately sought to appeal to Lee's ambitions, but that, knowing Lee as he did, Scott did not try to buy his allegiance with promises, which, indeed, Scott was not authorized to make.3 If Lee replied to Scott's overtures it was to report what he had said to Charles Anderson in Texas — that if Virginia seceded, he would follow her course because he considered that his first obligation was to her.4 Scott, of course, was of a temper to argue this and probably ended a lengthy oration with the request that Lee go home, think the subject over, and await further developments.5 When Lee left, Scott's manner was "painfully silent."6
p433 Lee went home and in agony of spirit watched the course of events. At the time of his interview with Scott, the peace conference had risen and had suggested a constitutional amendment that Congress was in no mood to pass, but a different amendment, preserving slavery in the states that had it, had been approved by the House on February 28, and received a two-thirds vote in the Senate the day after Lee reached home.7 In Virginia, volunteers were drilling and the fire-eaters were predicting early secession, but the state convention was safely under the control of a conservative majority that was as anxious as Lee himself to preserve the Union. Virtually the only point of agreement between the radical secessionists and the Southern Whigs in the convention was that all of them were determined that Virginia would not be party to the "coercion" of any Southern state for its withdrawal from the Union. The situation in the Old Dominion seemed further stabilized by the fact that no matter what the convention did, the people of the state would be the final judges of secession. Every Virginian, however, held his breath on March 4, when Lincoln delivered his inaugural. His views on many aspects of the crisis were those of Lee. The new President was cautious in the utterances, but his announcement of his purpose to hold government property in the South and to collect taxes there was accepted by Virginians as a threat of force.8
All the while Scott probably was quietly at work, seeing if he might not hold Lee to the Union. Keyes thought that Scott did not expect Lee to fight against the South, but that the General believed it possible to put Lee at the head of an army so powerful that war could be prevented.9 General Twiggs was dismissed from the army on March 1 for his surrender of Texas.10 Colonel E. V. Sumner of the 1st Cavalry was named brigadier general to succeed him on March 16. Lee was at once made colonel and was given Sumner's regiment.11 This commission, which was signed by Abraham Lincoln, Lee did not hesitate to accept when, on March 28, it was forwarded to him.12
Between the date he was promoted and the time he received p434 his commission, Lee probably got a letter written him on March 15 by L. P. Walker, Confederate Secretary of War. This was a direct offer of a commission as brigadier general, the highest rank then authorized, in the army the South was raising. "You are requested," the letter read, "to signify your acceptance or non-acceptance of said appointment, and should you accept you will sign before a magistrate the oath of office herewith and forward the same, with your letter of acceptance to this office."13 After the long years of slow promotion the honors were coming fast — a colonelcy in one army and a like offer of a generalship in the rival service, all in a breath! There is no record of any reply by Lee to this tender from the new Confederacy. It is probable that he ignored the offer, and it is certain that he was not lured by the promise of high position. He owned allegiance to only two governments, that of Virginia and that of the Union, and there could be no thought of a third so long as these two did not conflict and Virginia did not throw in her destiny with the Confederate States.
For a few days it seemed as if the conflict of allegiance might be avoided. As late as April 3 the expectation was general that Fort Sumter would be evacuated and a clash avoided.14 On April 4 a test vote in the Virginia convention showed a majority of two-to‑one against secession.15 Lee would not despair of the Union. He was for forbearance to the last, recognizing no necessity for recourse to arms.16 The maintenance of slavery meant nothing to him. He felt that if he owned all the slaves in the South he would cheerfully give them up to preserve the Union.17 He would hold to the army and to the flag as long as he could in honor do so.18 But during those days of suspense, Lee was confirmed in his point of view. He had been determined from the outset that he would adhere to Virginia and defend her from any foe. Now, fully, he realized that though he considered secession neither more nor less than revolution, he could not bring himself to fight against the states that regarded secession as p435 a right. He could not think of himself as fighting with the South against the Union, unless Virginia's defense were involved, but neither, as the possibility seemed to be brought nearer, could he reconcile himself to fighting with the Union against the South. "That beautiful feature of our landscape," he said sadly one day, as he pointed to the capitol across the Potomac, "has ceased to charm me as much as formerly. I fear the mischief that is brewing there."19
This was Lee's state of mind when, on April 7, his old comrade of Mexican days, P. G. T. Beauregard, took a decisive step at Charleston, S. C., where he was then in command of the Confederate forces. Believing that Fort Sumter was about to be reinforced, Beauregard ordered supplies of fresh food cut off from the Federal garrison. The next day, April 8, a confidential messenger from President Lincoln announced to Governor Pickens of the Palmetto State that Sumter would be revictualed by United States ships. On the instant all the passions that had been rising since 1830 in South Carolina suddenly overflowed, and at daylight on April 12 the bombardment of Fort Sumter began.a On the 14th Sumter surrendered without the loss of a single life on either side. The next day, to a nation that had gone mad, Lincoln issued his proclamation calling for 75,000 volunteers "to suppress combinations" and "to cause the laws to be duly executed."20
The North and the South were arrayed, and blows had passed, though no blood had yet been shed — what would the border states do? What would be the action of Virginia? For the answer, Lee turned his eyes from Sumter to Richmond, where the convention was still in session. He was at a distance and knew little of the inner workings of that body. All his information was derived from the newspapers, which were too excited to be explicit.
Late on April 16, or on the 17th, he heard that the Virginia convention had gone into secret session. That was the only news from Richmond; but from Washington, on the 17th, there arrived a letter and a message. The letter bore Scott's signature and requested Lee to call at his office on the 18th. The message p436 was conveyed in a note from a Washington cousin, John Lee. It was that Francis P. Blair, Sr., a publicist of Lee's acquaintance, formerly editor of The Congressional Globe, desired Lee to meet him the next morning at his house in Washington.
What was afoot now? Were the two calls related? The answer, in its entirety, Lee did not learn during his lifetime. He never realized how anxious some men high in office and influence had been to save his services to the United States army. In addition to what General Scott had done, Francis P. Blair, Sr., father of Colonel Lee's Missouri friend, Montgomery Blair, had been at work. He had been to President Lincoln, who had authorized him to "ascertain Lee's intentions and feelings."21 Blair had also discussed the subject with Secretary Cameron and had been directed by him to make a proposition to Lee. It was to explain this that Blair had sent the message to Arlington.22
Duly on the morning of April 18 Lee rode over the bridge and up to the younger Blair's house on Pennsylvania Avenue, directly opposite the State, War and Navy Building,23 where he found the old publicist awaiting him. They sat down behind closed doors. Blair promptly and plainly explained his reason for asking Lee to call. A large army, he said, was soon to be called into the field to enforce the Federal law; the President had authorized him to ask Lee if he would accept the command.
Command of an army of 75,000, perhaps 100,000 men; opportunity to apply all he had learned in Mexico; the supreme ambition of a soldier realized; the full support of the government; many of his ablest comrades working with him; rank as a major general — all this may have surged through Lee's mind for an instant, but if so, it was only for an instant. Then his Virginia background and the mental discipline of years asserted themselves. He had said: "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." There he stood, and in that spirit, after listening to all Blair had to say, he made the fateful reply that is best given in his own p437 simple account of the interview: "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 as courteously as I could, that though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States."24 That was all, as far as Lee was concerned. He had long before decided, instinctively, what his duty required of him, and the allurement of supreme command, with all that a soldier craved, did not tempt him to equivocate for an instant or to see if there were not some way he could keep his own honor and still have the honor he understood the President had offered him. Blair talked on in a futile hope of converting Lee, but it was to no purpose.25
Bidding farewell to Blair, Lee went directly to Scott's office. He sensed Scott's deep interest in his action, and as soon as he had arrived he told him what Blair had offered and what he had answered.26 "Lee," said Scott, deeply moved, "you have made the greatest mistake of your life; but I feared it would be so."27
Deep as was the difference between the two men on a public question that made personal enemies of many lifelong friends, Scott did not stop with this sad observation, but expressed the belief that if Lee were going to resign he ought not to delay. "There are times," Scott is reported to have said, "when every officer in the United States service should fully determine what course he will pursue and frankly declare it. No one should continue in government employ without being actively employed." And again, "I suppose you will go with the rest. If you purpose to resign, it is proper that you should do so at once; your present attitude is equivocal."28
p438 This added a complication that Lee pondered as he left his old commander for the last time. He loved the army and the Union too well to leave either until he was in honor compelled to do so. Though willing to resign rather than to fight against the South, he had clung to the hope that he would not have to act unless Virginia seceded and the people voted affirmatively on an ordinance of secession. But Scott had now said that he should not remain in the army if he was unwilling to perform active duty. These 75,000 soldiers, of whom Blair had talked, would not have been asked of the states if they had not been intended for early service in the field. And if they were so intended, Lee, as an officer of the army, might be called upon immediately for duty he could not conscientiously perform. Then he would have to resign under orders.29 That was a disgrace to any soldier.
As his brother Smith was on duty in Washington, Lee stopped to discuss this new question with him. They could come to no immediate conclusion on it and parted in the expectation of meeting again before either of them took any action. At length, over the route he had so often travelled, Lee rode out of Washington, across the bridge and up the quiet hills to the home whose white columns he could see for most of the way. He was never again to make that journey in that same fashion. The next time he was to cross the Potomac, it was to be upstream, from the south, with bands playing and a victorious, a cheering army around him.
But he did not leave his problem behind him as he turned his back on his country's capital. He carried it with him; he wrestled with it. Was his position equivocal? Ought he to resign at once, regardless of what Virginia did? He felt that Scott was right, but his own mind was so opposed to secession, and his devotion to the Union and to the army proved so strong, now it was put to the p439 test, that he delayed the actual writing of his resignation, hoping against hope.
All this time he had not known what had happened after the Virginia convention had gone into secret session on the 16th. The Washington Star of April 18 contained an unverified report that the Virginia convention had passed an ordinance of secession and had caused three ships to be sunk at the mouth of the Elizabeth River, but The Alexandria Gazette of the same day contained a dispatch from Richmond, dated April 17, 5 P.M., affirming that the convention was still in secret session and that no ordinance withdrawing the state from the Union had been passed.
The next morning, April 19, Lee went into Alexandria on business and there he read the news he had hoped he would never see: Virginia had seceded!30 To his mind that meant the wreck of the nation, "the beginning of sorrows," the opening of a war that was certain to be long and full of horrors. But of all that he thought and felt in the first realization that his mother state had left the Union, his only recorded observation is one he made to a druggist when he went into a shop to pay a bill. "I must say," he remarked sadly, "that I am one of those dull creatures that cannot see the good of secession."31
If Lee had any doubt of the truth of the report in the Alexandria paper that morning, it was soon removed. That afternoon, The Washington Star took the news for granted.32 By nightfall on the 19th, Lee had no alternative to believing it. When other hopes had failed him before this time, Lee had told himself that secession could not become an accomplished fact until the voters of Virginia had passed on the ordinance of secession, as they had specifically reserved the right to do, but now Lee's judgment told him that war would not wait on a referendum. Virginia would certainly consider that her safety required the seizure of Federal depots within her borders. Had not Texas similarly provided for p440 a referendum on secession, and had not he, with his own eyes, seen how the Texas committee of safety had committed an act of war by seizing United States property without waiting for the people to confirm or disavow the ordinance of the convention? The Federal Government, for its part, would certainly take prompt action since the state just across the river from its capital had left the Union. As one of the senior field officers in Washington, he might be summoned at any hour to defend Washington by invading Virginia — which he could not do. Duty was plain. There could be no holding back. The time had come. All the Lees had been Americans, but they had been Virginians first. From Richard the emigrant onward, the older allegiance had been paramount with each of them until the Revolution came. Had not his own father called Virginia "my native country"? In a crisis that seemed in his day to threaten the Union, had no "Light-Horse Harry" said: "Should my efforts . . . be unavailing, I shall lament my country's fate and acquiesce in my country's will . . . "?33 Now revolution and the older allegiance were the same. The son must be as the sire. Washington, his great model, had embraced a revolutionary cause. Dearly as Lee loved the Union, anxious as he was to see it preserved, he could not bear arms against the South. Virginia had seceded and doubtless would join the South; her action controlled his; he could not wait for the uncertain vote of the people when war was upon him. So after midnight on the 19th he sat down and wrote this letter, not more than fifteen hours after he had received positive information that Virginia had seceded:
FACSIMILE OF LEE'S FATEFUL RESIGNATION FROM THE ARMY OF THE UNITED STATES, WITH THE ENDORSEMENTS AND ACCEPTANCE OF THE RESIGNATION BY SIMON CAMERON, SECRETARY OF WAR
(For the endorsements, see below, after the text of the letter.)
Arlington, Virginia (Washington City P.O.)
20 April 1861.
Hon. Simon Cameron
Secty of War
I have the honor to tender the resignation of my commission as Colonel of the 1st Regt. of Cavalry.
Very resp'y Your Obedient Servant.
R. E. Lee
Col 1st Cav'y.34
p441 His resignation was not prompted by passion, nor did it carry with it resentment against the Union he left. On the contrary, if there was any resentment, it was against the authors, Northern and Southern, of the consummate wickedness of bringing about division within the Union. There was a pang and a heartache at the separation from brother officers whose patriotism he had seen vindicated in the hardships of campaigning and in the dangers of battle. He was willing to defend Virginia, whatever her allegiance, but he did not desire to fight against the flag under which he had served. If he must see the Union wrecked by men who would not forbear and plead for justice through constitutional means, if he must tear himself from the service of a nation of which he had been proud, then the hope of his heart was that he might never again be called to draw a sword which only Virginia could command. It was in this spirit that he wrote farewell to General Scott, that loyal old friend, who had admired him, taught him, and advanced him. He penned this letter:
Arlington, Va., April 20, 1861.
Since my interview with you on the 18th inst. I have felt that I ought no longer to retain my commission in the Army. I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance. I would have presented it at once, but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life and all the ability I possessed.
During the whole of that time — more than a quarter of a century — I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors and 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 meet your approbation. I shall carry to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, and your name and fame will always be dear to me.
Save in defence of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.
R. E. Lee.35
He came downstairs when he had finished the letters. Mrs. Lee was waiting for him. She had heard him pacing in the room above her and had thought she had heard him fall on his knees in prayer. "Well, Mary," he said calmly, "the question is settled. Here is my letter of resignation and a letter I have written General Scott."36
She understood. Months later she wrote a friend, "My husband has wept tears of blood over this terrible war, but as a man of honor and a Virginian, he must follow the destiny of his state."37 The other members of the family understood, also. Arlington became as still and gloomy as if a death had occurred, because as one of his daughters confided to a kinswoman the following Sunday, "the army was to him home and country." Rooney, who hastened to consult his father as soon as the state seceded, was in deep depression as he saw how jubilant the people were. They had lost their senses, he held, and had no conception of what a terrible mistake they were making. Custis was no believer in secession. Had he been able to dictate policy, he said, he would have called the movement revolution and would forthwith seized and fortified Arlington Heights.38
Lee dispatched his resignation to General Scott that morning, probably by special messenger, and before night it had been forwarded to the Secretary of War.39
p443 After he had sent off the paper, he sat down to explain his act to his sister, Mrs. Marshall, and to his brother Smith. Mrs. Marshall's husband was Unionist in his sympathies. Her son was now a captain in the United States army. She herself sided with her husband and son, though she could not quite forget her Virginia uprearing. Lee took her situation into account and wrote her as tactfully as he could:
Arlington, Virginia, April 20, 1861.
My Dear Sister:
I am grieved at my inability to see you. . . . I have been waiting for a "more convenient season," which has brought to many before me deep and lasting regret. Now we are in a state of war which will yield to nothing. The whole south is in a state of revolution, into which Virginia, after a long struggle, has been drawn; and, though I recognize no necessity for this state of things, and would have forborne and pleaded to the end for a redress of grievances, real or supposed, yet in my own person I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my native state.
With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defence of my native state, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword. I know that you will blame me; but you must think as kindly of me as you can, and believe that I have endeavored to do what I thought right.
To show you the feeling and struggle it has cost me, I send you a copy of my letter of resignation. I have no time for more. May God guard and protect you and yours and shower upon you everlasting blessings, is the prayer of your devoted brother,
R. E. Lee.40
He had left Smith Lee on the 18th with the understanding that they would confer again regarding their course of action. He p444 therefore wrote to explain why he had resigned before consulting with him further:
Arlington, Virginia, April 20, 1861.
My Dear Brother Smith: The question which was the subject of my earnest consultation with you on the 18th inst., has in my 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 until 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 defence of my native state, I have no desire ever again to draw my sword. I send you my warmest love.
Your affectionate brother,
R. E. Lee.41
Lee gave no advice to Smith regarding his own course, nor did he counsel Custis, who was as loath as he to quit the service of the United States. "Tell Custis," he subsequently wrote, "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."42
"It is probable that the secession of Virginia will cause an immediate p445 resignation of many officers of the Army and Navy from this State. We do not know, and have no right to speak for or anticipate the course of Colonel Robert E. Lee. Whatever he may do, will be conscientious and honorable. But if he should resign his present position in the Army of the United States, we call the immediate attention of our State to him, as an able, brave, experienced officer — no man his superior in all that constitutes the soldier and the gentleman — no man more worthy to head our forces and lead our army. There is no man 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.' It is a name surrounded by revolutionary and patriotic associations and reminiscences."43
It was not a pleasant article for a modest man to read, and it was disquieting, besides, with its assurance that some, at least, were looking to him to lead the army of Virginia, against Union and the old flag, if war came. . . He could only pray it would not.
During the day Lee saw his neighbor and friend, John B. Daingerfield, and showed him a copy of his letter of resignation. The rest of that fateful 20th of April was doubtless spent at Arlington. Nothing of consequence occurred except the receipt, late in the evening, of a letter from Judge John Robertson, of Richmond. The judge was then in Alexandria and asked for an interview the next day. Lee set 1 o'clock as the hour and offered to meet him in town.44 Meantime, Lee waited and pondered. Surrounded by objects familiar through thirty years of tender association, and with his invalid wife in her chair, he must have realized that if hostilities came, war and invasion would soon bring Arlington within the lines of the Union army. The Federals p446 could not long permit so commanding a position, so close to the capital, to remain unguarded. But in none of his letters prior to his resignation and in none of his reported conversation is there even a hint that he had any selfish regard for the fate of Arlington, either in delaying his resignation until Virginia's secession, or in deciding to leave the army when he did.
Sunday morning, April 21, dressed in civilian clothes, Lee went into Alexandria with one of his daughters to attend service at Christ Church. The town was wild. Overwhelmingly Southern in their sentiment, the people rejoiced at the secession of Virginia as if it meant deliverance from bondage. In their enthusiasm they fancied they were repeating the drama of 1776 and that the spirit of a Washington gave its benediction to a new revolution.
In all this rejoicing Lee took no part. His resignation was not generally known as yet, though his neighbors and friends had been waiting to see what he would do.45 His sorrow, his sense of the fitness of things, and his knowledge that war would be long and terrible kept him from any statement of his action. In the church, as he prayed, it must have been for his divided country. When the Psalter for the morning of the 21st day was read, he doubtless felt there was more than coincidence in these verses and the responses:
"13 What time as they went from one nation to another: from one kingdom to another people;
"14 He suffered no man to do them wrong; but reproved even kings for their sakes. . . ."46
At length the service was over. The congregation stopped to talk of the inevitable theme, and then straggled slowly into the churchyard. When Lee reached the open air he became engaged in serious conversation with three men, who were unknown to the congregation and whose identity has never been established. His neighbors and friends thought the strangers were commissioners from the governor of Virginia,47 but it seems more probable that p447 they were companions of Judge Robertson, who explained that the judge had gone to Washington and had been detained there but would soon arrive to keep his appointment. Lee had not been in communication with the state convention or with the governor. He had no information as to the military plans. Perhaps the visitors acquainted him with what had happened and intimated that his service was desired by his mother state, but in Judge Robertson's absence there could have been nothing official. Lee waited and chatted several hours and then, concluding that Robertson would not return, rode back to Arlington.
That evening a messenger arrived at the mansion with a letter from Robertson. He apologized for his delay and — this was the important item — invited Lee, in the name of the governor, to repair to Richmond for conference with the chief executive.48 Lee realized, of course, that this meant participation in the defense of Virginia, but he did not hesitate an hour. The very reason that had impelled him to resign from the United States army, his allegiance to Virginia, prompted him to sit down at once and to write an answer to Robertson. Virginia's action in withdrawing from the Union carried him with her, and if she called him now it was his duty to obey. In a few words he notified the governor's representative that he would join him in Alexandria the next day in time to take the train for Richmond.49 There was no questioning, no holding back, no delay. The road from Arlington, though lit with glory, led straight to Appomattox. But Lee never regretted his action, never even admitted that he had made a choice. With the war behind him, with the South desolate and disfranchised, and with her sons dead on a hundred battlefields, he was to look back with soul unshaken and was to say: "I did only what my duty demanded. I could have taken no other course without dishonor. And if it all were to be done over again, I should act in precisely the same manner."50
1 Letter of Feb. 16, 1861; Jones, 387‑88.
2 Keyes, 205‑6. Keyes gave no date for this interview, but the circumstances indicate it occurred soon after Lee's return.
3 The papers (Library of Congress) of Joseph Holt, Secretary of War under Buchanan in 1861, show no correspondence between him and Scott regarding Lee.
4 The evidence on which these conclusions are based is as follows: 1. After the war, Lee wrote Reverdy Johnson (R. E. Lee, Jr., 27): "I never intimated to any one that I desired the command of the United States Army; nor did I ever have a conversation with but one gentleman, Mr. Francis Preston Blair, on the subject, which was at his invitation." If the only conversation was with Blair, then, obviously, to the best of Lee's recollection, there had been no discussion of the subject with Scott. 2. An unnamed kinswoman of Mrs. Lee is quoted by Long (op. cit., 92) as stating: "[Mrs. Lee] mentioned that General Scott, in one of their interviews, said that in the event of his resignation, which from his advanced age must soon become a necessity, if Robert had remained with the North he (General Scott) believed he would be given the command of the Union army." 3. Charles Anderson, Lee's friend in Texas, said (op. cit., 33) that Scott subsequently told of an interview with Lee after that officer's return. According to Anderson, Scott said he informed Lee that, in addition to his speedy promotion to the rank of colonel, he, Scott, was authorized to offer Lee the command of the armies, second only to Scott himself. Anderson stated that Lee thanked Scott and then told him precisely what Lee had stated to Anderson as they had walked together to the storage merchant's in San Antonio.
5 Lee's orders were that he should report April 1. On that date (Lee to A. G., MS., April 1, 1861, MSS. A. G. O.), Lee duly informed the War Department that he had reported to Scott and was then at Arlington.
6 Keyes, 206.
7 3 Rhodes, 306‑13.
8 3 Rhodes, 318 n.
9 Keyes, 206.
11 MS. A. G. O., G. O. 7, March 20, 1861.
12 Lee to A. G., MS., March 30, 1861; A. G. O., 1861.
14 3 Rhodes, 337.
15 Journal of the Committee of the Whole, Virginia Convention, 1861, pp31‑33.
16 Lee to Mrs. Marshall, April 20, 1861; R. E. Lee, Jr., 25, 26.
17 Long, 92‑93, quoting one version, probably rhetorical and overdrawn, of the interview with Francis P. Blair.
18 Long, 91, quoting Mrs. Lee.
19 Thomas B. Bryan, to whom he addressed this remark, in Military Essays and Recollections, 3, 14.
21 4 Nicolay and Hay: Abraham Lincoln, 98.
22 Simon Cameron gave two somewhat contradictory versions of the offer to Lee, but there seems no valid reason to criticise the essential accuracy of the statement of 1887, quoted in Jones, L. and L., 130.
23 No. 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue.
24 Lee to Reverdy Johnson, Feb. 25, 1868; R. E. Lee, Jr., 27‑28.
26 Lee to Reverdy Johnson, loc. cit.
27 Mason, 73, doubtless on the authority of Mrs. Lee.
28 E. D. Townsend: Anecdotes of the Civil War, 29. The writer has hesitated to cite Townsend as a witness, because all the internal evidence is against his account of the interview of April 18. He erred in the following particulars: (1) He stated Lee was on leave; (2) he assumed that Scott knew little or nothing of Lee's movements, though Keyes testified that Lee had previously been to Scott's office and Mrs. Lee stated, though indirectly, that there were several meetings between them; (3) he gave the wrong date for the interview; (4) he failed to mention what it is hard to see how, if he heard the whole conversation, he could have forgotten, namely, that Lee told Scott he had been offered command of the Federal army and had declined the post. Moreover, after his frank statements of his intentions, Lee would hardly have said at the end of the interview, as Townsend alleged: "The property belongs to my children, all they possess, lies in Virginia. They will be ruined if I do not go with their state. I cannot raise my (p438)hand against my children." The italicized sentence does not sound like Lee, though the rest may well have come from his lips. At the same time, what Townsend quoted Scott as saying to Lee is what might have been expected from an old officer to a younger friend. Probability is lent to the substantial accuracy of this part of Townsend's otherwise doubtful account, by the fact that Lee in his letter of April 20 to Scott, said: "Since my interview with you on the 18th inst., I have felt that I ought no longer to retain my commission. . . ." In order that the reader may judge for himself whether it is permissible to accept as authentic these sentences from a document that otherwise is suspect, the full quotation from Townsend is printed in Appendix I‑2.
29 R. E. Lee to Smith Lee, April 20, 1861; Jones, L. and L., 134.
30 The ordinance had been passed on the afternoon of April 17 in secret session, but had not been announced until shortly before noon the next day (Journal of the Virginia Convention of 1861, p164). Every effort was made to keep the state's action from becoming known until troops could seize the Federal navy-yard at Gosport and the arsenal at Harpers Ferry.
31 John S. Mosby: Memoirs, 379. The druggist took pains to write down Lee's words on his journal opposite the entry of the payment.
32 Joseph E. Johnston, in his Narrative of Military Operations (cited hereafter as Johnston's Narrative), 10, stated that April 19 was the earliest date on which the secession of Virginia was known in Washington.
34 MS. A. G. O., 69, L., 61.
35 R. E. Lee, Jr., 24‑25. This is a text slightly different from and seemingly superior to that in Jones, 132‑33. In the version printed by E. G. Booth (In War Time, 59) there is a final "(all with highest manifestations)."
36 Jones, L. and L., 133, quoting Mrs. Lee's own account of the incident. There is no foundation for the story (18 S. H. S. P., 143) that he was prompted to his decision by the statement of "an old lady" that "the path of duty is the path of sacrifice."
37 December, n. d., 1861; quoted in 1 Macrae, 225.
38 "War Time in Alexandria," South Atlantic Quarterly, July, 1905, vol. 4, no. 3, p235.
39 Endorsements on Lee to Cameron, MS., April 20, 1861 (MS. A. G. O., 69L61). The bureau chiefs endorsed that all Lee's accounts were clear. The second auditor stated that Lee settled monthly (ibid.). Formal announcement of the resignation was made in G. O. 119, April 27, and the resignation was there stated to have been accepted to take effect as of April 25. This was probably the date when the resignation was reached after it had gone the rounds of the bureaus and had been returned to the office of the adjutant general. Lee was surprised when he learned that acceptance of his resignation was dated April 25, and he explicitly directed that no pay or allowance be accepted for any time after April 20 (Lee to Mrs. Lee, May 2, 1861, R. E. Lee, Jr., 30).
40 R. E. Lee, Jr., 25‑26.
41 R. E. Lee, Jr., 26‑27.
42 Lee to Mrs. Lee, May 15, 1861; Fitz Lee, 94. In the summer of 1868, Harper's Weekly charged that Lee had remained on General Scott's "staff" to the last minute in order to learn that officer's plan of operations. Major Sidney Herbert, editor of The Troy Messenger and Advertiser, denied this libel and wrote Lee on the subject. Lee, of course, confirmed the denial and pointed out that except when with the general staff in Mexico he had never been a member of General Scott's military family. See Columbus (Ga.) Inquirer, quoting Lee to Herbert, June 29, 1870; reprinted in The Alexandria Gazette, July 14, 1870.
43 The Alexandria Gazette, April 20, 1861.
44 John Robertson to Governor John Letcher, MS., April 23, 1861; MSS. Va. State Library, for an abstract of which document, now missing from its place in the archives, the writer is indebted to Professor Charles W. Ramsdell of the University of Texas.
45 Mrs. Burton Harrison: Recollections Grave and Gay (cited hereafter as Mrs. Burton Harrison), 24‑25.
46 Psalm 105.
47 Robertson to Letcher, MS., April 23, 1861, loc. cit.; "War Time in Alexandria," in South Atlantic Quarterly, July, 1905, 235; Mrs. Powell, 249. It was assumed, subsequently, by all Lee's Alexandria neighbors that the visitors, in Letcher's name, formally (p447)offered Lee the command of the Virginia forces. The chronology of events, however, disproves this. For sundry other details, probably in part apocryphal, of Lee's movements after church, see Wedderburn, op. cit.
48 Robertson to Letcher, MS., April 23, 1861, loc. cit.
50 To Wade Hampton, June, 1868; Jones, 142.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Robert E. Lee
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 26 Jan 15