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.
VII. Lee resigns
It is known that
General Scott used every argument to persuade Lee not to resign. To retain him in the service, he had been appointed, on his arrival at Washington, a full colonel, and in 1860 his name had been sent in, with others, by Scott, as a proper person to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Brigadier-General Jessup. To these tempting intimations that rapid promotion would attend his adherence to the United States flag, Scott added personal appeals, which, coming from him, must have been almost irresistible.
"For God's sake, don't resign, Lee!" the lieutenant-general is said to have exclaimed. And, in the protracted interviews which took place between the two officers, every possible argument was urged by the elder to decide Lee to remain firm.
The attempt was in vain. Lee's attachment to the flag he had so long fought under, and his personal affection for General Scott, were great, but his attachment to his native State was still more powerful. By birth a Virginian, he declared that he owed his first duty to her and his own people. If she summoned him, he must obey the summons. As long as she remained in the Union he might remain in the United States Army. When she seceded from the Union, and took part with the Gulf States, he must follow her fortunes, and do his part in defending her. The struggle had been bitter, but brief. "My husband has wept tears of blood," Mrs. Lee wrote to a friend, "over this terrible war; but he must, as a man and a Virginian, share the destiny of his State, which has solemnly pronounced for independence."
The secession of Virginia, by a vote of the convention assembled at Richmond, decided Lee in his course. He no longer hesitated. To General Scott's urgent appeals not to send in his resignation, he replied: "I am compelled to. I cannot consult my own feelings in this matter." He accordingly wrote to General Scott from Arlington, on the 20th of April, enclosing his resignation. The letter was in the following words:
GENERAL: Since my interview with you, on the 18th instant, 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 all the best years of my life, and all the ability I possessed.
During the whole of that time--more than a quarter of a century--I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors, and the most cordial friendship from my comrades. To no one, general, have I been as much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness and consideration, and it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation. I shall carry to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, and your name and fame will always be dear to me.
Save in defence of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword. Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness and prosperity, and believe me, most truly yours,
R.E. LEE. LIEUTENANT-GENERAL WINFIELD SCOTT, _Commanding United States Army_.
In this letter, full of dignity and grave courtesy, Lee vainly attempts to hide the acute pain he felt at parting from his friend and abandoning the old service. Another letter, written on the same day, expresses the same sentiment of painful regret:
ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA, _April 20,1861_.
MY DEAR SISTER: I am grieved at my inability to see you ... I have been waiting "for a more convenient season," which has brought to many before me deep and lasting regret. Now we are in a state of war which will yield to nothing. The whole South is in a state of revolution, into which Virginia, after a long struggle, has been drawn, and, _though I recognize no necessity for this state of things_, and would have forborne and pleaded to the end for redress of grievances, real or supposed, yet in my own person I had to meet the question, _whether I should take part against my native State_. With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have, therefore, resigned my commission in the army, and, save in defence of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword.
I know you will blame me, but you must think as kindly of me as you can, and believe that I have endeavored to do what I thought right. To show you the feeling and struggle it has cost me, I send a copy of my letter to General Scott, which accompanied my letter of resignation. I have no time for more.... May God guard and protect you and yours, and shower upon you every blessing, is the prayer of your devoted brother,
The expression used in this letter--"though I recognize no necessity for this state of things"--conveys very clearly the political sentiments of the writer. He did not regard the election of a Republican President, even by a strictly sectional vote, as sufficient ground for a dissolution of the Union. It may be added here, that such, we believe, was the opinion of a large number of Southern officers at that time. Accustomed to look to the flag as that which they were called upon to defend against all comers, they were loath to admit the force of the reasoning which justified secession, and called upon them to abandon it. Their final action seems to have been taken from the same considerations which controlled the course of Lee. Their States called them, and they obeyed.
In resigning his commission and going over to the South, Lee sacrificed his private fortunes, in addition to all his hopes of future promotion in the United States Army. His beautiful home, Arlington, situated upon the heights opposite Washington, must be abandoned forever, and fall into the hands of the enemy. This old mansion was a model of peaceful loveliness and attraction. "All around here," says a writer, describing the place, "Arlington Heights presents a lovely picture of rural beauty. The 'General Lee house,' as some term it, stands on a grassy lot, surrounded with a grove of stately trees and underwood, except in front, where is a verdant sloping ground for a few rods, when it descends into a valley, spreading away in beautiful and broad expanse to the lovely Potomac. This part of the splendid estate is apparently a highly-cultivated meadow, the grass waving in the gentle breeze, like the undulating bosom of Old Atlantic. To the south, north, and west, the grounds are beautifully diversified into hill and valley, and richly stored with oak, willow, and maple, though the oak is the principal wood. The view from the height is a charming picture. Washington, Georgetown, and the intermediate Potomac, are all before you in the foreground."
In this old mansion crowning the grassy hill, the young officer had passed the happiest moments of his life. All around him were spots associated with his hours of purest enjoyment. Each object in the house--the old furniture and very table-sets--recalled the memory of Washington, and were dear to him. Here were many pieces of the "Martha Washington china," portions of the porcelain set presented to Mrs. Washington by Lafayette and others--in the centre of each piece the monogram "M.W." with golden rays diverging to the names of the old thirteen States. Here were also fifty pieces, remnants of the set of one thousand, procured from China by the
Cincinnati Society, and presented to Washington--articles of elaborate decoration in blue and gold, "with the coat-of-arms of the society, held by Fame, with a blue ribbon, from which is suspended the eagle of the order, with a green wreath about its neck, and on its breast a shield representing the inauguration of the order." Add to these the tea-table used by Washington and one of his bookcases; old portraits, antique furniture, and other memorials of the Lee family from Stratford--let the reader imagine the old mansion stored with these priceless relics, and he will understand with what anguish Lee must have contemplated what came duly to pass, the destruction, by rude hands, of objects so dear to him. That he must have foreseen the fate of his home is certain. To take sides with Virginia was to give up Arlington to its fate.
There is no proof, however, that this sacrifice of his personal fortunes had any effect upon him. If he could decide to change his flag, and dissolve every tie which bound him to the old service, he could sacrifice all else without much regret. No one will be found to say that the hope of rank or emolument in the South influenced him. The character and whole career of the man contradict the idea. His ground of action may be summed up in a single sentence. He went with his State because he believed it was his duty to do so, and because, to ascertain what was his duty, and perform it, was the cardinal maxim of his life.