Robert E. Lee’s “Severest Struggle”

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His anxiety intensified a year later when Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Lee was in San Antonio at the time, chasing Mexican bandits. The mood was bad: the secessionists in the Lone Star State were gaining ground, and malaise among his colleagues was also growing. The regular army was a close-knit institution, which discouraged partisan sentiment or parochialism in its officers. At the same time there was a good deal of sympathy for the South, and slavery was generally tolerated. But the divisive election of November 1860 forced military men to confront their competing allegiances to army, family, and nation.

Many officers were torn by conflicting passions, and stories from 1860-1861 throb with anguish. Albert Sidney Johnston wandered overland in a “desperate” state of mind, after being relieved of command by suspicious authorities in Washington. Virginian Joseph E. Johnston was escorted from the Secretary of War’s rooms in a state of collapse as he resigned his commission. Lee was shocked when local radicals demanded he too resign, and then insisted he turn over the army stores he controlled. He startled his colleagues by exploding with rage at the pressure to abandon his career, and later wept publicly when he heard that Texas had actually left the Union. One of the era’s ironies was Lee’s insistence that the secessionists would have to fight him to get federal property. Had they forced the issue, as they later did at Fort Sumter, the Civil War might have begun in Texas—with Colonel R.E. Lee defending the Union assets.

Lee nearly got his wish that Virginia stay with the Union when a vote for secession failed at the state convention

Lee was jolted into reality by the fanatical actions surrounding him in Texas. Exasperated at both sides, he lambasted the “dictatorial” bearing of the South as much as the North’s aggression. He repeatedly expressed horror at the thought of dismantling the country, maintaining that disunion was “anarchy” and secession “nothing but revolution.” Yet from the start Lee knew his destiny was to follow the fortunes of Virginia. What he hoped was that the Old Dominion would stay with the Union, allowing him to uphold his twin loyalties to nation and state. “I am particularly anxious that Virginia should keep right,” he told his daughter Agnes, adding that since the state had been instrumental in shaping the Constitution, “so I would wish that she might be able to maintain it, to save the union.” As the country became polarized, however, Lee’s words became convoluted expressions of his ambivalence. When he drove away from Texas, a fellow-officer called after him: “Colonel, do you intend to go South or remain North?” Lee stuck his head out of a covered wagon and replied, “I shall never bear arms against the United States—but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in defence of my native State, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty.” In another moment of supreme confliction Lee confusedly declared: “While I wish to do what is right, I am unwilling to do what is not, either at the bidding of the South or the North.”

Part of Robert E. Lee’s dilemma was the clash between real and perceived obligations. He had sworn multiple times to maintain loyalty to the United States “against all enemies or opposers whatsoever.” Yet somehow he had the nagging sense that his first duty was to Virginia. It was a bond with place and patrimony; something perhaps more to do with the smell of lilacs in an old garden, or faces framed in candle shine, than with any patriotic credo. He told a friend he had been educated to believe his state should take precedence, but when his companion recalled the strong unionism of Lee’s father and brothers, asking “from whence was this education,” Lee only responded that he could not help feeling as he did. He may have genuinely believed that his father had followed Virginia’s lead, but this too was a mirage. In fact, the elder Lee had led the U.S. army against rebels during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, the first challenge to federal authority. He had also eloquently defended a Constitution that began “We the People” rather than “We the States.” Harry Lee acknowledged Virginia as “his country,” but unequivocally stated that the nation’s happiness depended “entirely on maintaining our union” and that “in point of right, no state can withdraw itself from the union.”

In 1861 Robert E. Lee argued that there was no justification for secession (though after the war he would execute mental loop-the-loops to prove that his decision to side with the South has been based on Constitutional principles). In the elaborate mythology surrounding Lee, he has often been portrayed as fighting for beliefs he did not really hold, sometimes heralded as a unionist or an emancipator. His own letters belie this. While maintaining that the founding fathers had never intended disunion, Lee agreed with the secessionists on virtually every other point. He resented the North’s badgering and feared southern impotence at the hands of its majority population. He spoke out for the Crittenden Compromise, which would have guaranteed the permanent existence of slavery, declaring it deserved “the support of every patriot.” Even though the nation had been designed around “perpetual union,” he told daughter Agnes, if the bond could “only be maintained by the sword and bayonet . . . its existence will lose all interest with me.”