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.
VIII. His Reception at Richmond
No sooner had intelligence of Lee's resignation of his commission in the United States Army reached Richmond, than Governor Letcher appointed him major-general of the military forces of Virginia. The appointment was confirmed by the convention, rather by acclamation than formal vote; and on the 23d of April, Lee, who had meanwhile left Washington and repaired to Richmond, was honored by a formal presentation to the convention.
The address of President Janney was eloquent, and deserves to be preserved. Lee stood in the middle aisle, and the president, rising, said:
"MAJOR-GENERAL LEE: In the name of the people of our native State, here represented, I bid you a cordial and heart-felt welcome to this hall, in which we may almost yet hear the echoes of the voices of the statesmen, the soldiers, and sages of by-gone days, who have borne your name, and whose blood now flows in your veins.
"We met in the month of February last, charged with the solemn duty of protecting the rights, the honor, and the interests of the people of this Commonwealth. We differed for a time as to the best means of accomplishing that object, but there never was, at any moment, a shade of difference among us as to the great object itself; and now, Virginia having taken her position, as far as the power of this convention extends, we stand animated by one impulse, governed by one desire and one determination, and that is, that she shall be defended, and that no spot of her soil shall be polluted by the foot of an invader.
"When the necessity became apparent of having a leader for our forces, all hearts and all eyes, by the impulse of an instinct which is a surer guide than reason itself, turned to the old county of Westmoreland. We knew how prolific she had been in other days of heroes and statesmen. We knew she had given birth to the Father of his Country, to Richard Henry Lee, to Monroe, and last, though not least, to your own gallant father, and we knew well, by your deeds, that her productive power was not yet exhausted.
"Sir, we watched with the most profound and intense interest the triumphal march of the army led by
General Scott, to which you were attached, from
Vera Cruz to the capital of Mexico. We read of the sanguinary conflicts and the blood-stained fields, in all of which victory perched upon our own banners. We knew of the unfading lustre that was shed upon the American arms by that campaign, and we know, also, what your modesty has always disclaimed, that no small share of the glory of those achievements was due to your valor and your military genius.
"Sir, one of the proudest recollections of my life will be the honor that I yesterday had of submitting to this body confirmation of the nomination, made by the Governor of this State, of you as commander-in-chief of the military and naval forces of this Commonwealth. I rose to put the question, and when I asked if this body would advise and consent to that appointment, there rushed from the hearts to the tongues of all the members an affirmative response, which told with an emphasis that could leave no doubt of the feeling whence it emanated. I put the negative of the question, for form's sake, but there was an unbroken silence.
"Sir, we have, by this unanimous vote, expressed our convictions that you are at this day, among the living citizens of Virginia, 'first in war.' We pray to God most fervently that you may so conduct the operations committed to your Charge that it may soon be said of you that you are 'first in peace,' and when that time comes you will have earned the still prouder distinction of being 'first in the hearts of your countrymen.'"
The president concluded by saying that Virginia on that day intrusted her spotless sword to Lee's keeping, and Lee responded as follows:
"MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN OF THE CONVENTION: Profoundly impressed with the solemnity of the occasion, for which I must say I was not prepared, I accept the position assigned me by your partiality. I would have much preferred had your choice fallen upon an abler man. Trusting in Almighty God, an approving conscience, and the aid of my fellow-citizens, I devote myself to the service of my native State, in whose behalf alone will I ever again draw my sword."
Such were the modest and dignified expressions of Lee in accepting the great trust. The reply is brief and simple, but these are very great merits on such an occasion. No portion of the address contains a phrase or word denunciatory of the Federal Government, or of the motives of the opponents of Virginia; and this moderation and absence of all rancor characterized the utterances of Lee, both oral and written, throughout the war. He spoke, doubtless, as he felt, and uttered no expression of heated animosity, because he cherished no such sentiment. His heart was bleeding still from the cruel trial it had undergone in abruptly tearing away from the old service to embark upon civil war; with the emotions of the present occasion, excited by the great ovation in his honor, no bitterness mingled--or at least, if there were such bitterness in his heart, he did not permit it to rise to his lips. He accepted the trust confided to him in terms of dignity and moderation, worthy of Washington; exchanged grave salutations with the members of the convention; and then, retiring from the hall where he had solemnly consecrated his life to his native Commonwealth, proceeded at once to energetic work to get the State in a posture of defence.
The sentiment of the country in reference to Lee was even warmer than that of the convention. For weeks, reports had been rife that he had determined to adhere to the Federal Government in the approaching struggle. Such an event, it was felt by all, would be a public calamity to Virginia; and the general joy may be imagined when it was known that Lee had resigned and come to fight with his own people. He assumed command, therefore, of all the Virginia forces, in the midst of universal public rejoicing; and the fact gave strength and consistency to the general determination to resist the Federal Government to the last.