Chapter XI. Lee at the Parting of the Ways
While Grant was thus striving to reenter the army, Lee was having a struggle of a very different sort. Summoned from his distant post in Texas, where only an occasional rumble of the coming tempest reached his ears, he suddenly found himself in the center of the storm which threatened to wreck the Republic. In the far South seven states had already seceded; in Washington, Congressmen, Senators, and members of the Cabinet were abandoning their posts; in the army and navy his friends were daily tendering their resignations; and his own state, divided between love for the Union and sympathy with its neighbors, was hovering on the brink of secession.
The issue in Lee's mind was not the existence of slavery. He had long been in favor of emancipation, and Virginia had more than once come so close to abolishing slavery by law that its disappearance from her borders was practically assured within a very short period. All his own slaves he had long since freed and he was gradually emancipating his father-in-law's, according to the directions of Mr. Custis's will. But the right of each state to govern itself without interference from the Federal Government seemed to Lee essential to the freedom of the people. He recognized, however, that secession was revolution and, calmly and conscientiously examining the question, he concluded that, if force were used to compel any state to remain in the Union, resistance would be justifiable. Most Virginians reached this decision impulsively, light-heartedly, defiantly or vindictively, and more or less angrily, according to their temperaments and the spirit of the times, but not so Lee. He unaffectedly prayed God for guidance in the struggle between his patriotism and his devotion to a principle which he deemed essential to liberty and justice. He loved his country as only a man in close touch with its history and with a deep reverence for its great founder, Washington, could love it; he had fought for its flag; he wore its uniform; he had been educated at its expense; and General Scott, the Commander of the army, a devoted Union man, was his warm personal friend. Patriotism, personal pride, loyalty and even gratitude, therefore, urged him toward the support of the Union, and only his adherence to a principle and the claims of his kinsmen and friends forbade.
For a time Virginia resisted every effort to induce her to cast her lot with the Confederacy. Indeed she actually voted against secession when the question was first presented. But when Fort Sumter resisted attack on April 12, 1861, and the President called upon the various states to furnish troops to enforce the national authority, practically all affection for the Union disappeared and by a decisive vote Virginia determined to uphold the Southern cause.
At that crisis President Lincoln made a strong effort to induce Lee to support the Union, for he actually offered him the command of the United States Army which was about to take the field. The full force of this remarkable tribute to his professional skill was not lost upon Lee. He had devoted his whole life to the army, and to be a successor of Washington in the command of that army meant more to him than perhaps to any other soldier in the land. Certainly, if he had consulted his own ambition or been influenced by any but the most unselfish motives, he would have accepted the call as the highest honor in the gift of the nation. But to do so he would have been obliged to surrender his private principles and desert his native state, and it is impossible to imagine that a man of his character would, even for an instant, consider such a course. Gravely and sadly he declined the mighty office, and two days later he tendered his resignation from the service he had honored for almost six and thirty years.
For this and his subsequent action Lee has been called a traitor and severely criticized for well-nigh fifty years. But, when a nation has been divided against itself upon a great issue of government, millions upon one side and millions upon the other, and half a century has intervened, it is high time that justice be given to the man who did what he thought right and honorably fought for a principle which he could have surrendered only at the expense of his conscience and his honor. Lee was a traitor to the United States in the same sense that Washington was a traitor to England. No more and no less. England takes pride to-day in having given Washington to the world. Americans deprive their country of one of her claims to greatness when they fail to honor the character and the genius of Robert Lee.
It was in a letter to his old commander, Scott, that Lee announced his momentous decision, and its tone well indicated what the parting cost him.
"Arlington, Va., April 20, 1861.
"Since my interview with you on the 18th inst., I have felt that I ought not longer to retain my commission in the army. I, therefore, tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted the best years of my life and all the ability I possessed. During the whole of that time...I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors and a most cordial friendship from my comrades. To no one, General, have I been as much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness and consideration.... Save in the defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword."