April 18, 1861 – U.S. Colonel Robert E. Lee met with influential statesman Francis P. Blair and received an offer to command the Federal army.
Blair, former editor of The Congressional Globe, traveled from his plantation at Silver Spring, Maryland to Washington on the 16th to meet with President Abraham Lincoln. According to Lincoln’s secretary, the men discussed potential commanders for the Federal forces.
U.S. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, was too old for active field command, and his strategy for defeating the Confederacy lacked aggression. Lincoln agreed with Blair’s idea to promote Colonel Lee, whom Scott called “the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.”
Through Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Lincoln directed Blair to “ascertain Lee’s intentions and feelings,” and make him an offer. Scott sent Lee a letter requesting an interview on the 18th. The letter included a message from Lee’s cousin, John Lee, stating that Blair also requested a meeting with Lee on the same day.
On the afternoon of the 18th, Lee left his home at Arlington to meet with Blair at the statesman’s townhouse across the street from the White House. Blair explained that the Lincoln administration would field an army of 75 to 100,000 troops, and he had been authorized by Lincoln to offer Lee overall command. This was the highest rank a president could bestow upon a military officer.
Lee told Blair, “I look upon secession as anarchy,” and if he had power over every slave, he would “sacrifice them all to the Union.” However, Lee later recalled telling Blair “as candidly and courteously as I could that though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern states.” Moreover, considering that the Virginia Convention had just voted to secede (pending a popular vote), Lee asked, “How can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?”
After the meeting, Lee went to Scott’s office to visit with the general-in-chief. Lee described his meeting with Blair and Lee’s decision. Scott said, “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life; but I feared it would be so.” Lee hoped to stay in the army until the referendum on Virginia’s secession took place on May 23, but Scott advised, “If you propose to resign, it is proper that you should do so at once; your present attitude is equivocal.”
With that, Lee returned to Arlington House, where he would “share the miseries of my people and save in defense will draw my sword on none.”
The next day, delegates to the Virginia Convention approved authorizing appointment of a “commander of the military and naval forces of Virginia.” The commander would have the rank of major-general and authority to lead military operations and troop organization under the governor’s overall authority. The convention committee in charge of the decision recommended Colonel Robert E. Lee for the position.
Meanwhile Lee learned of Virginia’s secession, and while friends and family gathered at the Arlington House to discuss the matter, Lee retired alone to the garden to consider what he would do. He later returned home and paced in his room for several hours. Early next morning, Lee wrote his letter of resignation to General-in-Chief Scott, after 32 years of service in the U.S. army: “Sir–I have the honour to tender the resignation of my Commission as Colonel of the 1st Regt of Cavalry.” Lee explained:
“Since my interview with you on the 18th instant I have felt that I ought not longer 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 & all the ability I possessed…”
The decision had to be made quickly before Lee received orders from his superiors in the Federal government to act against the Confederacy. Lee’s decision was made not because he supported either slavery or secession, but because he believed his first duty was to his home state of Virginia, which had opted for secession.
Virginia Governor John Letcher dispatched Judge John Robertson to formally offer a major-general commission to Robert E. Lee in accordance with the ordinance passed on the 19th. Lee accepted and left Arlington on the morning of April 22. He took a train from Alexandria to Gordonsville and then completed his journey to the state capital on the Virginia Central Railroad.
After checking into the Spotswood Hotel, Lee met with Letcher and officially accepted the governor’s appointment. That evening, delegates to the Virginia Convention unanimously approved Letcher’s choice of Lee as “Commander-in-Chief of the military and naval forces of the Commonwealth” of Virginia.
Major General Lee opened a temporary office in Richmond on the 23rd. Before he could assemble a staff, he issued General Order No. 1 announcing that he now commanded all Virginia forces. A committee from the Virginia Convention escorted Lee to the convention hall, where Marmaduke Johnson introduced him: “Mr. President, I have the honor to present to you, and to the Convention, Major General Lee.”
Lee was welcomed into the hall, “in which we may almost yet hear the echo 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.” Convention President John Janney delivered a speech:
“Sir, we have, by this unanimous vote, expressed our conviction that you are at this day, among the living citizens of Virginia, ‘first in war.’ We pray God most fervently that you may so conduct the operations committed to your charge, that it will 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…'”
Lee rose and addressed the delegation: “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… 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.”
- Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 224-25, 231-32
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 5759
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- Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 50-52, 283
- White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q261