Perhaps the greatest General of the Civil War on either side of the conflict, Confederate "Gray Fox" Robert E. Lee was engaged in his own inner battle before the war was even declared. Lee was one of the many United States soldiers faced with the painful choice between the Union they had served all their lives- and their Southern home state. Having been born in Virginia, Lee had close ties to his fellow Southerners and was reluctant to lead the charge against them.
A Virginian gentleman in title only, Lee was not for the secessionist cause, and he was no more supportive of the institution of slavery. He had once declared, when fighting in the Mexican Wars, "I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union, and I am prepared to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation." These were not the words of a man who planned to aid the Confederates in their split from the Union! As for slavery, Lee’s opinions on this issue were just as firm. He believed that slavery was a "political and moral evil." He did own slaves himself, but would free them before the end of the Civil War.
Even Lee’s father had left his militant son with a legacy of support for the Union. A planter of the First Families of Virginia, Lee’s father was a Revolutionary war hero. He had been present when Patrick Henry had tried to persuade Virginians to vote against the ratification of the Constitution. Uncowed by Henry, Lee’s father had declared, "The people of America, sir, are one people. I love the people of the North... because I fought with them as my countrymen... In all local matters I shall be a Virginian; in those of a general nature, I shall never forget that I am an American."
Like his father, Lee felt strong ties with all Americans. And like his father, Lee was a potent force on the battlefield. Thus, at the urging of Winfield Scott, Lincoln offered Lee command of the Union Army. The offer reached Lee on April 18th. The same day, however, Lee learned that Virginia, his beloved home state, had seceded from the Union.
Were Lee to accept the commission, he would be leading the Union forces to "subdue" the South. Torn between his conflicting loyalties, Lee stayed up all night trying to decide what to do. Yet despite all of his pondering, Lee knew his decision had been truly made when Virginia had left the Union. He felt that, "I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, and my children." He declined the offer of commander of the Union Army, and also resigned from the army entirely. Lee had vowed that, "...I shall return to my native state, and share the miseries of my people. Save in her defense, I will draw my sword no more."
Lee had now determined to enlist in the Virginia regiment of the Confederate Army. When he informed Winfield Scott, a fellow Virginian who stayed allied with the Union, of his decision, the US General in Chief was disappointed. He said to Lee, "You have made the greatest mistake of your life, but I feared it would be so."
Would time prove Scott correct in his view that Lee had made the mistake of his life by taking the side of the Confederates? It is certainly true that the Confederates lost the war, despite having the great general Lee on their side. And it is quite probable that were Lee to have accepted the commission as general of the Union forces, the war would have been more expedient, with fewer casualties on both sides. The moral effect on Lee from his decision must also be considered. He had chosen to fight in the name of causes he did not, and could not, believe in. How many nights might he have stayed awake in his tent, questioning his decision and hating the collapse of the Union he helped to fight for? Evidence of his inner conflict may well have manifested in some of his wartime actions, such as freeing all of his own slaves.
Yet this is mere speculation. Whether Lee had made a tremendous error in his decision or not, the fact remains that he had returned to Virginia. Indeed, "perhaps the greatest asset that Virginia brought to the cause of southern independence was Robert E. Lee." (McPherson 280) On April 23rd, Lee was accepted as commander in chief of Virginia’s forces, and but three weeks latter he was made a brigadier general in the main Confederate Army. His rank would only rise as the war progressed...
This text is also archived for academic purposes on my personal website at http://www.geocities.com/warfacts
- Freeman, Douglass Southall. Lee. Touchstone Press, 1997.
- Lee, Robert E. (Captain)Letters and Recollections of General Robert E. Lee. 2002.
- McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom. Oxford University Press, 1998.