Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com The Great American Political Divide
Lee’s Loyalty and Interest
“[Royce] maintains that Lee fairly considered and honestly decided the question at issue between Virginia and the United States and was steadfast therein. Charles Francis Adams came to the same conclusion. “As to Robert E. Lee individually,” says Adams, “I can only repeat . . . [that] I hope I should have been filial and unselfish enough to have done as Lee did.”
Now it must be conceded that every man in the seceding States, whether he would or no, had to decide whether he would adhere to his State or to the Nation, and if he decided honestly and put self-interest behind him, he decided right.
With Lee it was not a question of the constitutional right of Virginia to withdraw from the Union; a more trying ordeal confronted him: What should be his action after Virginia actually withdrew? In this situation Lee had no misgivings; his allegiance was to Virginia.
But, in arriving at this decision, he was not dogmatic, for he realized that there might be two sides to the question. In a letter of April 20 to his cousin, Roger Jones, of the United States Army, he stated that he entirely agreed with him in his notions of allegiance, but he could not advise him. “I merely tell you what I have done that you may do better.”
This sentence has been subjected to criticism, yet it is characteristic of the style of Lee and of Southern conservatives generally. Though it is not self-deprecating it is not an admission of error. It does not affirm that there is something better, but that if there is the young man should do it. The sentence is susceptible of another construction: Lee was quietly boasting and implied that there was nothing better! But the context leads to the opposite conclusion. Such under-statements mark the cultured Southerner of the period.
Lee did not complain of Southern officers who felt it their duty to remain in the Union – other might choose this course but he could not. No more could have laid violent hands on Virginia than on his own father. If to fight against the Union caused him to shed tears of blood, to have fought against Virginia would have caused him to lose self-respect.
[George H.] Thomas, a Virginian, remained true to the Union; so did [Montgomery] Meigs of Georgia, and [Winfield Scott . . . That these men were loyal Lee did not doubt. When Thomas was asked how he could fight against Virginia, he replied, “I have educated myself not to feel.”
As to Scott, he was an old man and had no local ties; he was as much at home in London as in Richmond. [Lee’s cousin] Admiral Samuel P.] Lee was once asked the question propounded to Thomas and answered, “When I find the word Virginia in my commission I will join the Confederacy.” This reply seems technical.
If Washington had so concluded, when he read the King’s Commission, he would not have led the Continentals against the Crown. And what Washington did, Lee did. “For,” as Lee declared, “Washington found no inconsistency in fighting, at one time, with the English against the French and, at another, with the French against the English.”
Lee, indeed, saw an analogy between the Revolution of 1776 and the Revolution of 1861. Colonists threw off the yoke of Great Britain, in ’61 eleven Southern States threw off the yoke of the North. In each the act was one of revolution. Lee maintained that a government held together by coercion – such as Lincoln’s call for troops would create – was but the semblance of a government. He remembered that Washington himself had declared, “There is nothing that binds one country or one State to another but interest.”
(Robert E. Lee, a Biography, Robert W. Winston, William Morrow & Company, 1934, pp 94-96)