A LIFE OF GEN. ROBERT E. LEE.
BY JOHN ESTEN COOKE.
"Duty is the sublimest word in our language."
"Human virtue should be equal to human calamity." LEE. 1876
LEE'S EARLY LIFE.
VI. Lee and Scott
Lee found the country burning as with fever, and the air hot with contending passions. The animosity, long smouldering between the two sections, was about to burst into the flame of civil war; all men were taking sides; the war of discussion on the floor of Congress was about to yield to the clash of bayonets and the roar of cannon on the battle-field.
Any enumeration of the causes which led to this unhappy state of affairs would be worse than useless in a volume like the present. Even less desirable would be a discussion of the respective blame to be attached to each of the great opponents in inaugurating the bitter and long-continued struggle. Such a discussion would lead to nothing, and would probably leave every reader of the same opinion as before. It would also be the repetition of a worn-out and wearisome story. These events are known of all men; for the political history of the United States, from 1820, when the
slavery agitation began, on the question of the Missouri restriction, to
1861, when it ended in civil convulsion, has been discussed, rediscussed, and discussed again, in every journal, great and small, in the whole country. The person who is not familiar, therefore, with the main points at issue, must be ignorant beyond the power of any writer to enlighten him. We need only say that the
election of Abraham Lincoln, the nominee of the Republican party, had determined the Gulf States to leave the Union. South Carolina accordingly seceded, on the 20th of December, 1860; and by the 1st of February, 1861, she had been followed by Mississippi,
Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. The struggle thus approached. Military movements began at many points, like those distant flashes of lightning and vague mutterings which herald the tempest. Early in February
Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi, was elected President of the
Confederate States, at Montgomery. On the 13th of April Fort Sumter surrendered to
General Beauregard, and on the next day, April 14, 1861,
President Lincoln issued his proclamation declaring the Gulf States in rebellion, and calling upon the States which had not seceded for seventy-five thousand men to enforce the Federal authority.
Tip to this time the older State of Virginia had persistently resisted secession. Her refusal to array herself against the General Government had been based upon an unconquerable repugnance, it seemed, for the dissolution of that Union which she had so long loved; from real attachment to the flag which she had done so much to make honorable, and from a natural indisposition to rush headlong into a conflict whose whole fury would burst upon and desolate her own soil. The proclamation of
President Lincoln, however, decided her course. The convention had obdurately refused, week after week, to pass the ordinance of secession. Now the naked question was, whether Virginia should fight with or against her sisters of the Gulf States. She was directed to furnish her quota of the seventy-five thousand troops called for by
President Lincoln, and must decide at once. On the 17th of April, 1861, accordingly, an ordinance of secession passed the Virginia Convention, and that Commonwealth cast her fortunes for weal or woe with the Southern Confederacy.
Such is a brief and rapid summary of the important public events which had preceded, or immediately followed, Lee's return to Washington in March, 1861. A grave, and to him a very solemn, question demanded instant decision. Which side should he espouse--the side of the United States or that of the South? To choose either caused him acute pain. The attachment of the soldier to his flag is greater than the civilian can realize, and Lee had before him the brightest military prospects. The brief record which we have presented of his military career in Mexico conveys a very inadequate idea of the position which he had secured in the army. He was regarded by the authorities at Washington, and by the country at large, as the ablest and most promising of all the rising class of army officers. Upon
General Winfield Scott, Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Army, he had made an impression which is the most striking proof of his great merit. General Scott was enthusiastic in his expressions of admiration for the young Virginian; and with the death of that general, which his great age rendered a probable event at any moment, Lee was sure to become a candidate for the highest promotion in the service. To this his great ability gave him a title at the earliest possible moment; and other considerations operated to advance his fortunes. He was conceded by all to be a person of the highest moral character; was the descendant of an influential and distinguished family, which had rendered important services to the country in the Revolution; his father had been the friend of Washington, and had achieved the first glories of arms, and the ample estates derived from his wife gave him that worldly prestige which has a direct influence upon the fortunes of an individual. Colonel Lee could thus look forward, without the imputation of presumption, to positions of the highest responsibility and honor under the Government. With the death of Scott, and other aged officers of the army, the place of commander-in-chief would fall to the most deserving of the younger generation; and of this generation there was no one so able and prominent as Lee.
[Footnote 1: "General Scott stated his purpose to recommend Lee as his successor in the chief command of the army."--_Hon. Reverdy Johnson_.]
The personal relations of Lee with General Scott constituted another powerful temptation to decide him against going over to the Southern side. We have referred to the great admiration which the old soldier felt for the young officer. He is said to have exclaimed on one occasion: "It would be better for every officer in the army, including myself, to die than Robert Lee." There seems no doubt of the fact that Scott looked to Lee as his ultimate successor in the supreme command, for which his character and military ability peculiarly fitted him. Warm personal regard gave additional strength to his feelings in Lee's favor; and the consciousness of this regard on the part of his superior made it still more difficult for Lee to come to a decision.