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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 nearly got his wish that Virginia would remain with the Union. Though it had the largest slave population of any southern state, in the 1850s Virginia’s economy had become increasingly diversified. With an influx of northern immigrants, the growth of railroads, and political reforms that were beginning to challenge the old seigniorial class, it had more in common with Maryland, which stayed in the Union, than with the Cotton States. There were some notably outspoken personalities in the Old Dominion, but overall there was no great leap to embrace the risky policies of South Carolina. Before Lee returned from Texas on March 1, 1861, Virginia had already held a secession convention and the pro-South faction had failed to win the day.
On arrival in Washington, Lee found the capital nervously preparing for the Lincoln administration. In theory Lee had been recalled to sit on a board revising the army’s regulations, but Lee and others were aware that he was being considered for higher responsibility. Lincoln was starting to assemble his military machine, making appointments and reassigning troops. Lee’s capabilities—and his allegiance—were among those under discussion. An aide to Simon Cameron, the new secretary of war, recalled a meeting at which Cameron asked General Winfield Scott if he had confidence in Lee’s loyalty. “Entire confidence, sir,” was Scott’s typically booming reply. “He is true as steel, sir, true as steel!” A week later, on March 28, Lee received news that Lincoln had promoted him to full colonel of the 1st Regiment of Cavalry—a coveted position. Lee accepted, once more swearing allegiance to the Union.
But within days Lee and the rest of the nation were caught up in events moving swiftly beyond anyone’s control. In early April Lincoln made the difficult decision to re-supply Fort Sumter, which was holding out against a rebel blockade in Charleston harbor. He apprised southern officials of his intention and essentially gave them an ultimatum: would it be peace or war? They chose war, firing at the fort on April 12. In the ensuing panic Lincoln made another fateful choice, this time calling for 75,000 soldiers to defend federal property.
The two actions galvanized both sides: the North feared wholesale revolution and Southerners believed Lincoln was preparing to invade their homes. The fury of the moment overturned the fragile peace crafted by Virginia moderates. Virginia Senator Robert M.T. Hunter waved away those who lamented the growing radicalization. “My dear lady,” he told a friend of the Lee’s, “you may place your little hand against Niagara with more certainty of staying the torrent than you can oppose this moment.” On April 17 the question was again put to the convention in Richmond. This time they chose secession.
At Arlington Lee learned with dismay of the decision. The verdict was not yet final—that would depend on a popular referendum scheduled for May 23—but few doubted the outcome. Heartsick, he apparently dined that night with his brother Smith Lee and their first cousin Phillips Lee, both U.S. naval officers. The navy men joked about the conflict, waging mock battles at the table, but Robert remained miserable and mute. Phil Lee believed his cousin’s silence showed indecision, and hurried into the War Department the next morning, warning his superiors that they might lose him unless they acted quickly. One of Lincoln’s closes advisers, Francis Preston Blair, summoned Lee to his offices. Another message requested his presence at General Scott’s headquarters.
The next day Blair told Lee that Lincoln intended to offer him command of an army being called up to defend the Union. Years later lee told a friend that Blair had been “very wily and keen,” playing on his sense of responsibility and his ambition. Lee declined the offer on the spot. He saw nothing but “anarchy & ruin” in secession, he admitted, yet he could not bring himself to raise his hand against his home and heritage. From Blair’s office Lee marched straight to see Scott, uncharacteristically pushing past the general’s staff in his agitation.
Available accounts indicate that Scott tried to persuade Lee that Union forces would be big enough to stifle the South’s will to resist, making offensive action unnecessary. Lee replied that aggression was inevitable and that he could not lead an invasion of the South. When Lee raised the idea of sitting out the conflict at Arlington, Scott said he had no room in his army for equivocal officers. If he wanted to resign, Scott brusquely informed him, he better do it right away, before he received official orders. “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life, but I feared it would be so,” Scott reportedly said. It was a searing rebuke for Lee, and a terrible parting from a mentor he had greatly admired. A journalist was told the two men stood grasping each other’s hands, “too full of feeling to find utterance for one word.”
On March 28, 2861, Abraham Lincoln promoted Lee to command of the 1st Cavalry. The Virginian acceted and again swore allegiance to the Union.
People on the street noted Lee’s grim countenance and the contrast between the sober Arlington household and the secessionists’ exuberance. Lee’s son Rooney remarked that the people of Virginia had gone mad; daughter Agnes said Arlington felt “as if there had been a death in it, for the army was to him home and country.” For the next two dreadful days Lee contemplated the matter. Mary Lee, as torn as her husband, said she would support whatever decision he made.