The Very Best Soldier Goes South

Francis P. Blair’s powerful influence on American politics dated all the way back to President Andrew Jackson. He had also been the well-known editor of The Congressional Globe and other major publications. One of his sons served in President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, and another was working to keep Missouri in the Union. On the 16th, Blair left his plantation at Silver Spring, Maryland, to meet with Lincoln. According to Lincoln’s secretary, Blair intended to advise Lincoln on possible commanders for the Federal forces being raised.

Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, had been in the service since before the War of 1812 and was too old for active field command. Blair recommended that Lincoln promote Colonel Robert E. Lee, who had recently returned from cavalry service in Texas to his home state of Virginia. Lee had served under Scott during the Mexican War, and Scott called Lee “the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.”

Lincoln acted on Blair’s recommendation and had Secretary of War Simon Cameron instruct Blair to “ascertain Lee’s intentions and feelings” regarding the potential conflict with the Confederacy, and to 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.

U.S. Colonel Robert E. Lee | Image Credit:

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.” But as Lee later recalled, he told 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.” And considering that the Virginia Convention was about to vote to secede, 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 told Scott of his meeting with Blair, as well as his final decision. Scott was a Virginian himself, but he did not have the same loyalty to his home state that Lee had. 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 the 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. It began: “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…”

Lee further explained his decision in a letter to his sister: “Now we are in a state of war which will yield 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 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.”

The decision had to be made before Lee received orders from his superiors at Washington to take action 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 out of the Union.

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 the 22nd. 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 night, 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 declared that no soil in Virginia “shall be polluted by the foot of an invader” and then turned to Lee. In reference to the eulogy that Lee’s father had given in honor of George Washington, Janney said:

“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.”


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