Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Robert E. Lee and secession

For most purposes, I have given up on the New York Times. This article,
The General in His Study, from the opinion pages shows that they still can present exciting material.

Like many border-state families, the Lees and their friends were sharply divided on the issues. When Lee consulted his brothers, sister and local clergymen, he found that most leaned toward the Union. At a grim dinner with two close cousins, Lee was told that they also intended to uphold their military oaths. (Samuel Phillips Lee would become an important admiral in the Union navy; John Fitzgerald Lee retained his position as judge advocate of the Army.) Sister Anne Lee Marshall unhesitatingly chose the northern side, and her son outfitted himself in blue uniform. Robert’s favorite brother, Smith Lee, a naval officer, resisted leaving his much-loved berth, and Smith’s wife spurned her relatives to support the Union cause. At the same time, many of the clan’s young men, such as nephew Fitzhugh Lee, were anxious to make their mark for the South in the coming conflict, creating a distinct generational fault line.

Matters became more complicated when, on April 18, presidential adviser Francis P. Blair unofficially offered Lee the command of the thousands of soldiers being called up to protect Washington. Fearing that such a post might require him to invade the South, Lee immediately turned down the job. Agitated, he went to tell his mentor, Gen. Winfield Scott, the Army’s commander in chief. Another dramatic scene followed. Scott, though a proud Virginian, had dismissed as an insult any hint that he himself would turn from the United States. When Lee offered to sit out the troubles at his home, Arlington, the general told him bluntly: “I have no place in my army for equivocal men.” Greatly distressed, Lee returned to Arlington to contemplate his options.

Although his wife called it “the severest struggle of his life,” historians have long trivialized Lee’s decision. It was “the answer he was born to make,” biographer Douglas Southall Freeman put it. “A no-brainer,” said another. But daughter Mary’s letter, along with other previously unknown documents written by his close family and associates, belies such easy assessments. These newly found sources underscore just how complex and painful a choice it was to make.
The conventional wisdom holds, for example, that Lee disdained secession, but once his state took that step he was duty bound to follow. But these documents show that he was not actually opposed to disunion in principle. He simply wanted to exhaust all peaceful means of redress first, remarking in January 1861 that then “we can with a clear conscience separate.”

Nor was he against the pro-slavery policies of the secessionists, despite postwar portraits of the general as something of an abolitionist. He complained to a son in December 1860 about new territories being closed to slaveholders, and supported the Crittenden Compromise, which would have forbidden the abolition of slavery. “That deserves the support of every patriot,” he noted in a Jan. 29, 1861 letter to his daughter Agnes. Even at the moment he reportedly told Francis Blair that if “he owned all the negroes in the South, he would be willing to give them up…to save the Union,” he was actually fighting a court case to keep the slaves under his control in bondage “indefinitely,” though they had been promised freedom in his father-in-law’s will.
But what is most astonishing about Mary Custis Lee’s letter is that it shows how Lee made his decision despite the feelings of his own wife and children. Lee at first did not tell his immediate circle that he had resigned, and when the announcement finally came, he apologized. “I suppose you will all think I have done very wrong,” he lamented. Noting that she was the sole secessionist in the group, and that her mother’s allegiance to the Union was particularly strong, Mary described how the words left them stunned and speechless.

All those Lees fighting for the Union. I had no idea.

Thanks to Folo Watkins for alerting me.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. I also did not know so many Lees fought for the Union. So much for 'no-brainers'.