- Historic Sites
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
Nor would Lee fulfill the vow never to raise his sword again except in defense of his state. For the first year of the conflict he did work to keep to a defensive strategy in Virginia, but by June 1862 he had adopted the assertive policies of those who believe and offensive war was the only way to achieve southern independence. Far from refusing to take bold action, lee became famous for his aggressive generalship. He was the standard-bearer for two invasions of northern territory, both undertaken when the Confederate government was divided about the wisdom of such incursions. Neither the Maryland nor the Gettysburg campaign could be termed defensive; and each ended most unfortunately for the South.
Two days after tendering his resignation, Lee was visited by a delegation from Richmond, which enticed him to return with them to the capital. The details of what transpired are hazy. Cousins remembered that Lee said he intended to stay out of the hostilities. After the war lee himself gave the not very convincing explanation that he went to Richmond to look over some family property. Whatever the motivation, when the train arrived, the state convention had already voted him commander-in-chief of all Virginia’s forces. Before he had time to reflect, he found himself accepting George Washington’s sword. Was he caught unaware and forced to react too quickly, or was this really the spot where he most longed to be? Lee had grave misgivings about secession, yet excitement and opportunity were in the air, and the sparse plums of the new southern command were quickly being plucked. It is hard to say what exactly defined the moment, for Lee fell back on the courteous platitudes of his era, expressing surprise at the praise and protesting his inadequacy for the job. Nevertheless it please him enough that at his death a newspaper account of this triumph was found in his pocket diary.
Few outside the South believed the decision reflected the noble principles Lee invoked. Honor was in the eye of the beholder in 1861, and from the beginning his motives were criticized. Skeptics believed that those who swore easy oaths in fine times and then abandoned them had shamefully betrayed the country. Upon learning that Lee had spent two days prayerfully searching for a decision, a cousin remarked acidly: “I wish he had read over his commission as well as his prayers.” At West Point someone drew a picture of Lee with his head attached to the body of a louse. “I feel no exalted respect for a man who takes part in a movement in which he can see nothing but ‘anarchy & ruin’ . . . and yet that very utterance scarce passed Robt Lees lips . . . when he starts off with delegates to treat with Traitors,” was the response of Francis Blair’s daughter, who had married into the Lee family. Lincoln would use Lee’s “deceitful” dealings as a justification for his suspension of habeas corpus . While still in frontier Texas, Lee recognized his decision would be based on intangibles. “I know you think and feel very differently, but I can’t help it,” he told friends. In fact it was the personal quality of his struggle that made it emblematic of the nation’s torment. That a pensive, disciplined man made such an emotional decision still affects each American. We intuitively know that history would have been altered if the options presented to Lee—resignation, leadership of the Union troops, acceptance of high command in Virginia—had been decided differently. Lee’s dilemma was not simply an historic wrestling match between patriotism and treachery. It stands as a critical moment in our nation’s pageant because it forces us to consider some very basic questions: What is patriotism? Who commands our first loyalty? Can loyalty be divided and still be true? It is the excruciating gray area that makes these questions universal. Lee tells us that the answer to each is highly subjective, but that they must be faced at the moment an individual is summoned, no matter how unsure or unprepared. And then his decision tells us something more: that following the heart’s truth may lead to censure, or agonizing defeat—and yet be honored in itself.