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Robert E. Lee’s “Severest Struggle”
New research shows that Lee's momentous decision to fight for the South was far from inevitable
Winter 2008 | Volume 58, Issue 3
Lee left almost no record of what went on in his mind during this time. He told Smith that he must decide quickly, for resigning because of unwelcome orders was considered “dishonorable” in military circles. Yet Lee rarely uses the word “honor” in discussing his predicament; indeed its multiple meanings under the circumstances may have made the word too weighty for him to choose. In southern society honor was bound up with family and a desire to avoid public shame. In the army it had to do with larger allegiances and obligations. Lee certainly shared his fellow Southerners’ humiliation at the abolitionists’ hounding, and may have reacted to it. Yet there was no clear path to rectitude in Lee’s case—every avenue was strewn with irreconcilable principles. At the same time, Lee was trying to avoid the disgrace of untimely resignation, for example, he contemplated dishonoring vows he had repeatedly made during his thirty-five-year career.
And so his family waited as he wrestled with himself. The slaves watched their master and concluded, “He didn’t cahr to go. No . . . he didn’t cahr to go.” One cousin tells us Lee consulted the Bible. At midnight on April 20, the house was still ablaze with lights, as the family gathered with miserable anticipation in the parlor. Finally Lee bowed his head and wrote his resignation, as well as a short explanatory letter to General Scott. Then he slowly walked down the staircase and handed the letters to his wife. “Mary,” he said, “your husband is no longer an officer of the United States Army.”
Lee developed an explanation for his decision that he would repeat nearly verbatim to the end of his days. As he often did in times of distress, he crafted it like the formulas dear to his engineer’s hear: simple, unvarying, and seemingly watertight. He told Roger Jones, another cousin in the federal army: “I have been unable to make up my mind to raise my hand against my native state, my relations, my children & my home . . . & never desire again to draw my sword save in defence of my State. I consider it useless to go into the reasons that influenced me. I can give no advice. I merely tell you what I have done that you may do better.”
One Lee biographer called it the “answer he was born to make.” Most other historians have agreed, using such phrases as “it was not that the anguished man had any choice.” Yet everything we know indicates that it was a dreadful moment in Lee’s life. Years later he confessed it was so painful that he held onto his resignation letter for a day before sending it. This scene, when a strong man paced and prayed in despair, is so poignant precisely because it palpably exposes the contradiction in his heart. Even Lee’s tight-lipped language suggests he knew he must cling to his conviction and avoid expressing its contradictions, lest he second-guess his own actions.
For in reality there were numerous options available to him. Winfield Scott was a Virginian, and he dismissed as an insult any suggestion that he would renege on his solemn oath of loyalty. So did another Virginian, George Thomas, with whom Lee had spent Christmases in Texas. Both Thomas and Scott would suffer social ostracism for their choices. Scott was labeled a “free-state pimp;” Thomas’s relatives asked him to change his name. In all, about 40 percent of the officers from Virginia stayed with the federal forces after their state seceded. Others opted not to fight on any side. Dennis Hart Mahan, a famed West Point instructor, and another proud Virginian, chose to sit out the war. North Carolinian Alfred Mordecai resigned his commission, but rejected an offer to lead either the Confederate ordinance service or engineer department.
Lee wanted to avoid pitting himself against his family, but that desire would also remain unfulfilled. Cousin Roger Jones, whom he had declined to advise, decided to fight for the Union. Phillips Lee gave distinguished service in the U.S. Navy until the end of the war. His younger brother, John Fitzgerald Lee, retained his position as judge advocate of the Union army. Cousin John H. Upshur also resisted his family’s “tremendous pressure” in order to defend the Union. A young relative of Mary lee, Laurence Williams, served as aide-de-camp to General George McClellan. Philip Fendall, a cousin who had once supported Lee’s mother, kept his Union loyalties, and had two sons in blue uniform. Lee’s sister Anne lee Marshall also disagreed with her brother. Her son fought with General John Pope against his uncle. No one in that family ever spoke to Lee again. With great reluctance Smith Lee because a Confederate naval officer, where he served without enthusiasm, and as late as September 1963 still “pitched into” those responsible for “getting us into this snarl.” Saying that both the Lees and his in-laws had pressured him with ideas that Virginia came first, he grumbled, “South Carolina be hanged . . . How I did want to stay in the old navy!” Robert E. Lee’s three sons joined the Confederate forces, but only after their father had declared his intentions. If Lee had stayed with the Union he still would have faced confrontation without his border-state family, for numerous cousins fought for the Confederacy. But his assertion that he was acting in solidarity with a likeminded group of relatives cannot be borne out.