A Question of Duty

Events of the past few months seem to indicate that one of America’s most controversial figures is Confederate General Robert E. Lee. As commander of the South’s premier force, the Army of Northern Virginia, it is true he led the Confederacy in its epic struggle for independence. Today, however, many only choose to see him as representative of slavery, and by extension white supremacy. As a result, they think it a disgrace to allow statues of him and to permit schools to have his name. It is often forgotten though that Lee hated slavery. Why, then, would he fight to preserve human bondage? Simple — that is not what took him down the path he took. For him, the war was not about slavery; it was not even about secession. It was about defending his native Virginia, and those he loved, from Northern invaders. In the mid-1800s, most people in the United States still identified primarily with their state. Thus, when forced to choose between allegiance to the United States and allegiance to Virginia, Lee knew there was only one path he could take. This is the story of how he ultimately chose Virginia, and the Confederacy, over the nation he had faithfully served for over thirty years.

As the scion of one of Virginia’s foremost families, Robert E. Lee always did his duty to his family, his state, and his nation. The son of Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, one of George Washington’s premier cavalry officers, the future Confederate was born on January 19, 1807 at the Lee’s ancestral estate of Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Sadly, due to his father’s poor aptitude for business, the family had to move to Alexandria when Robert was three. After “Light-Horse Harry” died in 1818, eleven-year-old Robert shouldered the responsibilities of caring for his mother and managing the household. (Alexandrians often saw him taking Mrs. Lee on carriage rides and visiting the market.) The town, which prided itself on its association with George Washington, also encouraged Robert to ardently revere the “Father of his Country,” an admiration made all the more real by his father’s lifelong friendship with the first president. No doubt inspired by tales his father’s military exploits during the Revolution, and determined to follow in his footsteps, Lee applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1824. Admitted to the academy in June 1825, he quickly adapted to military life, and over the next four years, he garnered a distinguished academic and military record, ending his education as corps adjutant, the academy’s highest honor. Even more impressive, he earned the distinction of never receiving a single demerit, or black mark — a feat which led cadets to nickname him the “marble model.” He graduated second in the Class of 1829 and joined the Army’s Corps of Engineers as a second lieutenant.

His military career officially began that November when he travelled to Cockspur Island, Georgia to construct a fort. The aristocratic young officer soon found himself doggedly fighting the elements as he and his men trudged through the mud. After a year and a half, he returned to Virginia with a posting to Fort Monroe at the tip of the peninsula formed by the York and James Rivers. It was during this period Lee married Mary Custis, only daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington’s adopted son. (The couple eventually had seven children, all of whom survived to adulthood — an impressive feat at a time when child mortality was high.) As his family grew so did his reputation. Over the next decade, he oversaw projects across the country, successfully rerouting the Mississippi River at St. Louis, Missouri and improving New York’s harbor defenses. In 1843 he returned to West Point to design a new cadet dormitory and the following year assisted in the examination of cadets. While there he met Winfield Scott and so impressed the general he was assigned to Scott’s staff during the 1846-48 U.S.-Mexican War. In March 1847 Lee first tasted combat, and glory, when he directed the bombardment against the port city of Veracruz. A few weeks later he distinguished himself yet again at the Battle of Cerro Gordo when he reconnoitered a path around the Mexican left flank — barely escaping capture by hiding under a log while Mexican troops hovered above him. He then led an American column over the same ground, forcing the Mexicans to fall back. In the weeks to come, Lee was in the vanguard of the advance on Mexico City, and there, outside the city, he undertook “the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual, in my knowledge, pending the campaign,” according to General Scott, when he not only found a way across a lava field, which allowed the Americans to outflank the enemy, but then made the same trek twice more in a cold rain to coordinate attacks the next day. He was also vital in planning the attack on the bastion of Chapultepec, which delivered the city into American hands, and on September 14, 1847 he rode triumphantly into the capital alongside Scott.

Four years after returning home in 1848 covered in glory, Lee received one of the Army’s plumbest assignments — superintendent of West Point. He proved a diligent administrator and a fatherly mentor to his students. Among those he took an interest in were future subordinates Jeb Stuart and John Bell Hood. His tenure was not a long one. In 1855 he was ordered to the plains of Texas as lieutenant colonel of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry — finally moving from the engineering ranks to an active field command. Over the next two years, Lee led troops in campaigns against hostile Indians, but his service was cut short in 1857 by news of his father-in-law’s death. He returned to Arlington and took control of the estate. He was still there in October 1859 when abolitionist John Brown led a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, intent on igniting a slave uprising. Dispatched to the scene with two companies of Marines, Lee quickly defeated Brown and his men. (Brown was subsequently tried and hung in December.) In February 1860 Lee returned to Texas to temporarily command the department, and it was in that capacity, he watched the nation begin to divide over slavery.

Throughout his life, Robert E. Lee was a staunch opponent of slavery. He vehemently denounced those pro-slavers who maintained the institution was a positive good. During the 1850s, as the debate intensified, he declared “slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country,” adding “my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the [African-Americans].” Vocally supportive of liberation, he argued the “course of the final abolition of human slavery is onward, and we give it the aid of our prayers and all justifiable means in our power.” However, as a devout Christian, he advised Americans to leave the “result in his hands who sees the world, who chooses to work by slow influences, and with whom two thousand years are but as a single day.” Such conviction led Lee to reject abolitionists’ cries for immediate emancipation. In his mind, fiery rhetoric could only lead to violent clashes between slaves and masters, such as what almost happened with John Brown, or worse, civil war. He was desperate to avoid both. While Abraham Lincoln believed the country “could not endure permanently half slave and half free,” Lee prayed national leaders could forge a compromise that would save the United States from a devastating war.

As the 1860 election heated up, however, Lee watched the nation teeter on the edge of the abyss. The Democratic Party split along sectional lines, and Southern states threatened secession if Republicans won. When Abraham Lincoln was elected on November 6th “the Southern States seem[ed] to be in a convulsion” and quickly called secession conventions. From his base at Fort Mason, Texas, he distressingly wrote, “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation.” Looking to the founders for help, Lee recalled that “in 1808 secession was termed treason by Virginia statesmen. What can it be now?” It was with horror, therefore, that Lee watched as South Carolina seceded on December 20th. Six more states soon followed, including Texas on February 1, 1861. Within days, David Twiggs, commander of the department, surrendered all U.S. property in the state, outraging Lee who would have “determined to defend his post at all hazards.” Disgusted, he hurriedly left and reached Arlington on March 1st. Promoted to full colonel, Lee met with General Scott on March 5th and with President Lincoln on March 12th. He made it clear to both men he wanted “no other flag than the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and no other air than ‘Hail Columbia.’”

Despite this desire, his long, devoted service, and his familial connections to America’s founding, Lee already knew what his course of action would be — loyalty to Virginia above all. Even before returning home, he decided “if the Union is dissolved and the government disrupted, I shall return to my native state and share the miseries of my people and save in her defense will draw my sword no more.” For now, Virginia remained with the Union, voting against secession 90-45 on April 4th. Then on April 14th, following a thirty-three hour Confederate bombardment, Major Robert Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, leading President Lincoln to call for seventy-five thousand soldiers to end the rebellion. Four days later, on April 18th, Francis P. Blair, a Washington insider and father of Cabinet member Montgomery Blair, invited Lee to his home. There, at Lincoln’s behest, Blair offered command of the Union army to Robert E. Lee. His entire life had come down to this moment. After a brief hesitation, the son of “Light Horse Harry” Lee, and son-in-law of George Washington’s adopted son, said, “I look upon secession as anarchy,” adding “if I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union.” But, he asked, “how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?” Sighing, he looked at Blair and replied he “could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States.” With a heavy heart and seeing no other alternative, Lee called on Scott who looked at his protégé and disappointingly declared “you have made the greatest mistake of your life.” Returning across the Potomac to Arlington, where he learned Virginia had passed an ordinance of secession, Lee penned his resignation from the U.S. Army. On April 22nd he left the majestic home for the last time. Union forces soon took control and eventually turned it into Arlington National Cemetery.

With his course now set, Robert E. Lee devoted himself to Virginia and the Confederacy. During 1861, he served as President Jefferson Davis’ military advisor and commanded forces in western Virginia and along the Southern coast. In June 1862, following the wounding of his old West Point classmate Joseph Johnston, he took command of the Army of Northern Virginia and drove George McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac from Richmond. A string of spectacular victories followed — defeat of John Pope at Second Manassas in August, pounding of Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg in December, and crushing of Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville in May 1863. In July he clashed with George Meade at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and after three days of carnage, he was forced to retreat. The next year, 1864, he met his match when Ulysses S. Grant took command of Union forces and engaged Lee across Virginia, from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania to Cold Harbor and finally to Petersburg. Throughout this contest, Lee refused to give up and remained dedicated to his soldiers, and to the Confederacy at large. Finally, in April 1865, Grant seized control of Petersburg and Richmond and pursued Lee to Appomattox Court House. There, on April 9th, Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, ending four years of war. With the war over, he traded life as a warrior for life as president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. The “Hero of the Lost Cause,” as he was called, Robert E. Lee died on October 12, 1870 and was mourned across the South.

Throughout his life, Robert E. Lee lived by the creed he later imparted to others — “Duty is the sublimest word in the English language. You should do your duty in all things. You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less.” Even when he believed that duty required him to leave the service of the land to which he had devoted his life, he never abandoned his own ideas of liberty for all. He did not join the Confederacy in support of slavery. He did it because he believed his highest allegiance was to his state. Despite the intense turmoil he endured as he wrestled with the decision, once committed, he gave himself wholeheartedly to his call and won admiration throughout the South, and indeed even among those on the other side, for his devotion. Today, we may not agree with that cause, but Robert E. Lee deserves admiration for his devotion to duty and for the honorable way he lived that out. Georgia’s Benjamin Hill said it best — “He was a Caesar without his ambition, a Frederick [the Great of Prussia] without his tyranny, a Napoleon without his selfishness, and a Washington without his reward.”

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “A Question of Duty

  1. Professor, you really knocked it out of the park with this “Take.” You presented an incredibly concise summary of a life well lived. As you well know, the “Duty is the sublimest word” is a quote your dad and I learned as smacks back in 1974 and it is one of the quotes that I have carried with me ever since. I wish more people would take the time to become more aware of Lee’s beliefs and maybe, just maybe, some of the current stupidity would cease. Thank you Jake — well done!

  2. Lynda Stansell

    Jake, Thank You for your well written and researched post on Robert E. Lee. You have always amazed me with your beautiful mind and history knowledge, but today; My admiration for you, swells to such degrees that I have hope for America. Thank You for articulating the truth about this great American Hero, who always did his duty to his family, his state, and his nation!

  3. Mark Bushell

    Jake! Just getting to this – Wow! You really do have a knack for drawing out ‘the person’ behind the legends- which in this case is particularly challenging given all that has been written about Lee and all the films he’s been portrayed in… Way to go Jake- Thank you. 🙂

  4. Rebecca Stone

    Jake, this is an outstanding post on a true American hero. With my mother being from Virginia, we understood what a true gentleman Lee was…we even had a portrait of him in our home. People fail to realize that during that time, his first commitment was to his state of Virginia. I think it is telling that Grant and his officers saluted Lee after the surrender…indicative of their great respect for a great man. So many people do not realize that Lee lost his entire home in the War, but hopefully, many Americans realize that his sacrifice is an ongoing national honor to present-day heroes. Also, cadets at VMI continue to honor this great man by saluting him as they pass by his final resting place. Thank you for defending this hero in our “present day” history.

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