Robert E. Lee’s “Severest Struggle”

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One April afternoon in 1861, a proud man in his early fifties strode nervously across the portico of his home, too distracted to appreciate its sweeping view of the Potomac. He had an elegant military bearing and dark looks of a stage star, but on this day his genial face was shadowed by worry. His unsettled demeanor surprised several onlookers, accustomed to his normally composed nature. A family slave, Jim Parks, described his master pacing “backwa’d and fo’ward on de po’ch, steddyin’.” A young cousin puzzled as his relative circulated slowly through the garden, lost in uneasy reflection. The tension increased over the next two days: now the troubled footsteps could be heard treading across the upstairs chambers, punctuated by the sounds of fervent prayer. As his family gathered below in apprehension, Colonel R.E. Lee of the U.S. Army agonized over both his own future and that of the nation.

This is an enormously charged moment, a scene worthy of Shakespeare. Few decisions would carry more consequence than Lee’s determination to join the secessionists as the Union split apart. In the months following this anguish Lee would also begin a metamorphic journey, shedding long-held loyalties, his privacy—even his former identity. Once a respected, but little-known officer, he was now the object of public comment. Newspapers began calling him “Robert E. Lee”—a name neither he nor his family ever used. His appearance altered radically. By November 1861 the black curls and square chin were lost beneath a beard and rapidly whitening mane. His acquaintances later wrote that they were stunned by such marked changes in a man they thought they knew.

The true drama of the moment, however, lies in Lee’s own desperation. As his wife would attest, it was the “severest struggle of his life.” Yet part of the tradition surrounding Lee is that his decision to fight for Virginia was virtually foreordained. Historians have traditionally portrayed it as an inevitable historic moment—a “no-brainer” in the words of one contemporary writer. But a close examination of neglected private papers, including two tantalizing trunkfulls of long-forgotten family letters, shows not only that Lee suffered intensely as the nation skidding into war, but that his personal battle was extremely complicated.

He was not a victim of fate; nor was he a captive of family expectations or rigid codes of conduct. Indeed he had numerous options—options that many of his relatives and fellow army officers exercised. As Lee would find, there was nothing predictable about the paths that lay ahead.

Born 200 years ago in Westmoreland County, Virginia, Robert Edward Lee was bred in households that supported a strong Union, capable of defending its principles as well as its territory. The son of Revolutionary War hero “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Robert graduated from West Point in 1829 and two years later married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. Home for the couple and their seven children was Arlington, the Custis family seat, just across the river from Washington D.C. The army trained Lee to view his profession as a national responsibility and in his 35-year career he served all over the country—in frontier cities like St. Louis, fighting Indians on the Texas plains, or building eastern seaboard fortifications. Although he remained powerfully attached to his native state, in 1857 Lee told a brother-in-law that his patriotism encompassed “the whole country” and that its limits “contained no North, no South, no East no west, but embraced the broad Union, in all its might & strength, present & future.”

Nonetheless, the increasingly shrill tone of the abolitionists and the attitude of the North’s majority population worried Lee, as it did many Southerners. He also owned human property and believed that a master/slave relationship was the best that could be expected between the races. A multiracial society with egalitarian overtones was not just unattractive to Lee, it was unthinkable. Most Americans, including Abraham Lincoln, agreed.

Lee had specific reasons, however, to fear an uncontrolled black populace. In the late 1850s, while executor of the large Custis estate, he had faced a group of slaves who resisted his authority, possibly with the encouragement of local abolitionists. The slaves had been freed by his father-in-law, in a messy will. Recently discovered court records show that Lee aggravated the situation by trying to postpone the bondsmen’s liberation. Believing they were entitled to their freedom, and alarmed at the way Lee was breaking up their families by hiring the able-bodied far from Arlington, the slaves banded together and tried to overpower him physically, shouting that they were as free as he was. Angered by the slaves’ defiance, Lee resorted to increasingly harsh measures to maintain control.

A few months later Lee commanded the marines that captured abolitionist John Brown during his attempted insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Though he directed a nearly flawless operation, the experience again chilled him. He was in the room when Brown uttered a bold warning of the cataclysm to come. “You may dispose of me very easily . . . ,” Brown said, “but this question is still to be settled—this negro question, I mean—the end of that is not yet.” The ordered world Lee knew was disintegrating before his eyes.