Colonel Robert E. Lee Resigns

Will Robert E. Lee Be Loyal To The United States Or To Virginia?

Robert E. Lee was born on January 19, 1807, at Stratford in Westmoreland County, Virginia and he spent his youth and adulthood in Northern Virginia. The Lee family roots run deep into the early history of the United States and Virginia. When the Civil War begins, Robert E. Lee will have to decide between giving his loyalty to the state of Virginia, or to the United States of America.

Winfield Scott Recommends Robert E. Lee For United States Army Command

Winfield Scott

General Winfield Scott

Winfield Scott’s long military career was a distinguished one. Scott served the United States in the War of 1812 and in the Mexican-American War, at the beginning of the Civil War, he was general-in-chief of the United States Army. By the time of the Civil War, General Winfield Scott was not the strong and healthy physical specimen he once was. He was now in his mid-seventies and he was unable to lift himself up onto a horse. Although his mind remained sharp, his physical condition meant Scott’s days of field command were behind him.

Winfield Scott knew the Civil War would be a long and difficult conflict that would require more time, men, and resources than was generally believed. General Scott understood it would take a time to raise and train an army before it could be effective in the field. He knew that a plan must be in place for the conduct of the war. Scott developed the Anaconda Plan which included blockading the coast, gaining control of the Mississippi River, take military power into the South. Scott’s plan was a good one and it is basically how the United States fought the Civil War. General Scott also knew the army would need a commander. After Abraham Lincoln’s election, secession fever was in the air as Southern states began steadily seceding from the Union. Scott made a recommendation to Lincoln in April 1861, that Colonel Robert E. Lee of Virginia be made field commander of the new and now forming Union Army outside of Washington. Southern states had seceded from the Union, but Virginia had not left the Union.

Ten States Had Seceded From The Union Through February, 1861

  • Alabama – January 11, 1861
  • Arkansas – May 6, 1861
  • Florida – January 10, 1861
  • Georgia – January 19, 1861
  • Louisiana – January 26, 1861
  • Mississippi – January 9, 1861
  • North Carolina – May 20, 1861
  • South Carolina – December 20, 1860
  • Tennessee – June 8, 1861
  • Texas – February 1, 1861

Virginia Secedes And Robert E. Lee Chooses Virginia Over The United States

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee

Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee was stationed in Texas when it seceded on February 1. Lee received orders from Lieutenant General Winfield Scott to report to him in Washington. On March 1, 1861, Lee arrived at his family home of Arlington, located just across the Potomac River from Washington.

Robert E. Lee served under Winfield Scott during the Mexican War and Scott held Lee in high regard. Scott once said of Lee, “the very finest soldier I’ve ever seen.” Winfield Scott was a Virginian, he wanted his fellow Virginian to stay loyal to the United States and to remain in the United States Army. On March 16, Robert E. Lee was promoted to Colonel of the First United States Cavalry. Although Lieutenant General Winfield Scott could not technically offer Lee the command of United States forces in Washington (that was up to Secretary of War Simon Cameron), discussions between Winfield Scott and Robert E. Lee began that early March. Scott was almost certainly urging Lee to remain loyal and to accept command of the United States Army.

Fort Sumter was lost for the Union when it was surrendered on April 13 and then evacuated on April 14. Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861 (See: Virginia Ordinance Of Secession). On April 18, Robert E. Lee was requested to meet separately with Winfield Scott and Francis Preston Blair. Blair was a journalist and newspaper editor with significant political influence. Blair later said the reason he met with Lee was, “In the beginning of the war Secretary Cameron asked me to sound General Robert E. Lee, to know whether his feelings would justify him in taking command of our army.” During Blair’s meeting with Lee (which was through President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Simon Cameron), Blair offered command of the Federal forces outside of Washington to Robert E. Lee with the goal of suppressing the rebellion.

The question challenging Robert E. Lee was whether he would remain loyal to the United States of America, or would he pledge his loyalty to the state of Virginia, with loyalty to the Confederate States of America to follow. It was not an easy question for Lee to answer.

Robert E. Lee’s roots in the United States of America and its army were deep. Lee was a West Point graduate, he’d ranked second in his West Point 1829 class, he was an officer in the United States Army holding the rank of lieutenant colonel, he’d been Superintendent of West Point, and his father was Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee III who was a Revolutionary War officer, “Light Horse Harry” had given George Washington’s eulogy. But foremost, Robert E. Lee was a Virginian. Lee’s loyalty was to the slave state of Virginia.

Robert E. Lee declined the offer to become the commander of the Federal armies. Early on April 20, 1861, Robert E. Lee resigned from the United States Army with a letter to Secretary of War Simon Cameron. Later the same day, he sent another resignation letter to General-in-Chief Winfield Scott.

Robert E. Lee’s Resignation Letter From The United States Army To Simon Cameron

Robert E. Lee resigns his Commission of Colonel of the 1st Regiment of Cavalry in the United States Army

Arlington, Washington City P.O.
20 April 1861

Honble Simon Cameron
Sect. of War

Sir,

I have the honor to tender the resignation of my Commission of Colonel of the 1st Regt. of Cavalry.

Very respectfully your Ob’t servant

R. E. Lee
Col 1st. Cavalry

 

Robert E. Lee’s Resignation Letter From The United States Army To Winfield Scott

April 20, 1861

Arlington, Washington City P.O., April 20, 1861
Robert E. Lee

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 & all the ability I possessed.

During the whole of that time, more than 30 years, I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors, & the most cordial friendship from my companions. To no one Genl have I been as much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness & consideration, & it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation.

I shall carry with me to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, & your name & fame will always be dear to me. Save in the 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 & prosperity & believe me most truly yours

R. E. Lee

 

Robert E. Lee Takes Command Of The Virginia State Forces

On April 25, the War Department had processed Robert E. Lee’s resignation, making it official. Lee was then summoned to Richmond where he met with Virginia’s Governor John Letcher. Letcher offered Lee a major generalship to take command of the Virginia State Forces. Lee accepted this offer. Brigadier General Irvin McDowell gained the command of the United States troops in Washington.

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Jefferson Davis Resigns From The United States Senate

His Home State of Mississippi Seceded On January 9, 1861

“My own convictions, as to negro slavery are strong, It has its evils and abuses…. We recognize the negro as God and God’s Book and God’s Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him–our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude…. You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be.”

…Jefferson Davis

Those are the ugly words of Jefferson Davis to a northern friend after Davis became president of the Confederacy. They are especially ugly for us to read today.

We have to consider that Davis was a man living in his times and not ours, but that is not meant to justify or excuse him. What other words should we expect to come from the president of the Confederate States of America, the president of a collection of states which seceded from the Union and went to war to preserve slavery? Mississippi’s secession, which Davis supported, led to his resignation from the United States Senate. Jefferson Davis believed that all men are not equal, that slaves were not equal to whites, and his Farewell Address to the United States Senate emphasized his beliefs.

In January, 1861, Jefferson Davis was fifty-three-years-old and his health was poor. He had served the United States as a Congressman, led Mississippi volunteers in the Mexican War and was wounded at the Battle of Buena Vista, was a Senator, and was Secretary of War under Franklin Pearce. Davis was a Democrat and a strong supporter of States’ Rights, and in favor of Mississippi’s secession from the Union. Earlier in life, he had been a slave owner at the Davis family’s Mississippi plantation. Compared to other slave owners, the Davises were known to treat their slaves well, but they thought the slaves to be their private property, that they were inferior to whites, and as a race only suited for servitude.

On January 21, 1861, Jefferson Davis was standing at a podium in the Senate Chamber at the United States Capitol. Now it was time for Davis to resign as a United States senator and return home to Mississippi, now part of the Confederate States of America. He was there to say farewell, or “adieu” as he would say in his emotional speech.

Jefferson Davis’ six-year term as president of the Confederate States of America was cut short. The Union won the Civil War after four years of bloody war and hell on earth. The Union was preserved, the Confederacy failed, and the United States bid “adieu” to the peculiar institution of slavery.

Jefferson Davis’ Farewell Speech to the United States Senate

Senate Chamber, United States Capitol, January 21, 1861

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

“I rise, Mr. President, for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that I have satisfactory evidence that the State of Mississippi, by a solemn ordinance of her people in convention assembled, has declared her separation from the United States. Under these circumstances, of course my functions are terminated here. It has seemed to me proper, however, that I should appear in the Senate to announce that fact to my associates, and I will say but very little more. The occasion does not invite me to go into argument; and my physical condition would not permit me to do so if it were otherwise; and yet it seems to become me to say something on the part of the State I here represent, on an occasion so solemn as this.

“It is known to Senators who have served with me here, that I have for many years advocated, as an essential attribute of State sovereignty, the right of a State to secede from the Union. Therefore, if I had not believed there was justifiable cause; if I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation, or without an existing necessity, I should still, under my theory of the Government, because of my allegiance to the State of which I am a citizen, have been bound by her action. I, however, may be permitted to say that I do think she has justifiable cause, and I approve of her act. I conferred with her people before that act was taken, counseled them then that if the state of things which they apprehended should exist when the convention met, they should take the action which they have now adopted.

“I hope none who hear me will confound this expression of mine with the advocacy of the right of a State to remain in the Union, and to disregard its constitutional obligations by the nullification of the law. Such is not my theory. Nullification and secession, so often confounded, are indeed antagonistic principles. Nullification is a remedy which it is sought to apply within the Union, and against the agent of the States. It is only to be justified when the agent has violated his constitutional obligation, and a State, assuming to judge for itself, denies the right of the agent thus to act, and appeals to the other States of the Union for a decision; but when the States themselves, and when the people of the States, have so acted as to convince us that they will not regard our constitutional rights, then, and then for the first time, arises the doctrine of secession in its practical application.

“A great man who now reposes with his fathers, and who has been often arraigned for a want of fealty to the Union, advocated the doctrine of nullification, because it preserved the Union. It was because of his deep-seated attachment to the Union, his determination to find some remedy for existing ills short of a severance of the ties which bound South Carolina to the other States, that Mr. Calhoun advocated the doctrine of nullification, which he proclaimed to be peaceful, to be within the limits of State power, not to disturb the Union, but only to be a means of bringing the agent before the tribunal of the States for their judgment.

“Secession belongs to a different class of remedies. It is to be justified upon the basis that the States are sovereign. There was a time when none denied it. I hope the time may come again, when a better comprehension of the theory of our Government, and the inalienable rights of the people of the States, will prevent any one from denying that each State is a sovereign, and thus may reclaim the grants which it has made to any agent whomsoever.

“I therefore say I concur in the action of the people of Mississippi, believing it to be necessary and proper, and should have been bound by their action if my belief had been otherwise; and this brings me to the important point which I wish on this last occasion to present to the Senate. It is by this confounding of nullification and secession that the name of a great man, whose ashes now mingle with his mother earth, has been invoked to justify coercion against a seceded State. The phrase “to execute the laws,” was an expression which General Jackson applied to the case of a State refusing to obey the laws while yet a member of the Union. That is not the case which is now presented. The laws are to be executed over the United States, and upon the people of the United States. They have no relation to any foreign country. It is a perversion of terms, at least it is a great misapprehension of the case, which cites that expression for application to a State which has withdrawn from the Union. You may make war on a foreign State. If it be the purpose of gentlemen, they may make war against a State which has withdrawn from the Union; but there are no laws of the United States to be executed within the limits of a seceded State. A State finding herself in the condition in which Mississippi has judged she is, in which her safety requires that she should provide for the maintenance of her rights out of the Union, surrenders all the benefits, (and they are known to be many,) deprives herself of the advantages, (they are known to be great,) severs all the ties of affection, (and they are close and enduring,) which have bound her to the Union; and thus divesting herself of every benefit, taking upon herself every burden, she claims to be exempt from any power to execute the laws of the United States within her limits.

“I well remember an occasion when Massachusetts was arraigned before the bar of the Senate, and when then the doctrine of coercion was rife and to be applied against her because of the rescue of a fugitive slave in Boston. My opinion then was the same that it is now. Not in a spirit of egotism, but to show that I am not influenced in my opinion because the case is my own, I refer to that time and that occasion as containing the opinion which I then entertained, and on which my present conduct is based. I then said, if Massachusetts, following her through a stated line of conduct, chooses to take the last step which separates her from the Union, it is her right to go, and I will neither vote one dollar nor one man to coerce her back; but will say to her, God speed, in memory of the kind associations which once existed between her and the other States.

United States Capitol under construction in 1860

United States Capitol under construction in 1860.

“It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races. That Declaration of Independence is to be construed by the circumstances and purposes for which it was made. The communities were declaring their independence; the people of those communities were asserting that no man was born–to use the language of Mr. Jefferson–booted and spurred to ride over the rest of mankind; that men were created equal–meaning the men of the political community; that there was no divine right to rule; that no man inherited the right to govern; that there were no classes by which power and place descended to families, but that all stations were equally within the grasp of each member of the body-politic. These were the great principles they announced; these were the purposes for which they made their declaration; these were the ends to which their enunciation was directed. They have no reference to the slave; else, how happened it that among the items of arraignment made against George III was that he endeavored to do just what the North has been endeavoring of late to do–to stir up insurrection among our slaves? Had the Declaration announced that the negroes were free and equal, how was the Prince to be arraigned for stirring up insurrection among them? And how was this to be enumerated among the high crimes which caused the colonies to sever their connection with the mother country? When our Constitution was formed, the same idea was rendered more palpable, for there we find provision made for that very class of persons as property; they were not put upon the footing of equality with white men–not even upon that of paupers and convicts; but, so far as representation was concerned, were discriminated against as a lower caste, only to be represented in the numerical proportion of three fifths.

“Then, Senators, we recur to the compact which binds us together; we recur to the principles upon which our Government was founded; and when you deny them, and when you deny to us the right to withdraw from a Government which thus perverted threatens to be destructive of our rights, we but tread in the path of our fathers when we proclaim our independence, and take the hazard. This is done not in hostility to others, not to injure any section of the country, not even for our own pecuniary benefit; but from the high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights we inherited, and which it is our sacred duty to transmit unshorn to our children.

“I find in myself, perhaps, a type of the general feeling of my constituents towards yours. I am sure I feel no hostility to you, Senators from the North. I am sure there is not one of you, whatever sharp discussion there may have been between us, to whom I cannot now say, in the presence of my God, I wish you well; and such, I am sure, is the feeling of the people whom I represent towards those whom you represent. I therefore feel that I but express their desire when I say I hope, and they hope, for peaceful relations with you, though we must part. They may be mutually beneficial to us in the future, as they have been in the past, if you so will it. The reverse may bring disaster on every portion of the country; and if you will have it thus, we will invoke the God of our fathers, who delivered them from the power of the lion, to protect us from the ravages of the bear; and thus, putting our trust in God and in our own firm hearts and strong arms, we will vindicate the right as best we may.

“In the course of my service here, associated at different times with a great variety of Senators, I see now around me some with whom I have served long; there have been points of collision; but whatever of offense there has been to me, I leave here; I carry with me no hostile remembrance. Whatever offense I have given which has not been redressed, or for which satisfaction has not been demanded, I have, Senators, in this hour of our parting, to offer you my apology for any pain which, in heat of discussion, I have inflicted. I go hence unencumbered of the remembrance of any injury received, and having discharged the duty of making the only reparation in my power for any injury offered.

“Mr. President, and Senators, having made the announcement which the occasion seemed to me to require, it only remains to me to bid you a final adieu.”

Source: The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 7, pp. 18-23.

Notes and Comments to the Speech:

  • John C. Breckinridge was Vice President of the United States from 1857–1861, he was president of the United States Senate.
  • Mississippi seceded from the Union on January 9, 1861.
  • Jefferson Davis is resigning, and he wants to take the opportunity to speak to the Senate for Mississippi.
  • Davis has believed that a state has the right to secede, and that Mississippi was justified in seceding.
  • He says that secession is proper because Mississippi has been denied its constitutional rights.
  • John C. Calhoun’s essay Exposition and Protest, explained the idea of nullification. Nullification meant that states had the sovereign right to nullify (veto) national law that the state believed impinged on its interests. Calhoun died in 1850.
  • Jefferson Davis says that a state is not controlled by outside forces, that a state has greater status, authority, and power than the Federal government. A state has the right to secede.
  • Because Mississippi has seceded, United States laws now have no power over it. Mississippi is a separate entity and free from control by the United States.
  • Anthony Burns was a escaped slave living in Boston. By the Fugitive Slave law, Burns was captured in 1854 and returned to slavery in Virginia.
  • Jefferson Davis says that slaves are not referenced or considered as having equality in the Declaration of Independence or in the Constitution. He says that slaves are not equal to white men, and that slaves are not free, but are property.
  • Mississippi rights have been denied, so Mississippi secedes.
  • Jefferson Davis says that he wants relations to be peaceful between seceded Mississippi and the United States, but disaster will follow if there is not peace. God will protect Mississippi.
  • Jefferson Davis gives his goodbye to the Senate, and adds that he has no personal offense with him regarding other Senators, and he offers an apology to any he has offended in the past.

Audio Version of Jefferson Davis’ Farewell Speech

NOTE: There is an error in this audio version. In the first sentence of the last paragraph, the reader does not read these opening words: “In the course of my service here, associated at different times with a great variety of Senators,” Other than this error, this reading is accurate and an excellent resource.

Selected Speech Snippets

“[…]I have satisfactory evidence that the State of Mississippi, by a solemn ordinance of her people in convention assembled, has declared her separation from the United States. Under these circumstances, of course my functions are terminated here.”

“[…]I have for many years advocated, as an essential attribute of State sovereignty, the right of a State to secede from the Union.”

“[…]I, however, may be permitted to say that I do think she has justifiable cause, and I approve of her act.”

“Secession belongs to a different class of remedies. It is to be justified upon the basis that the States are sovereign. There was a time when none denied it.”

“The laws are to be executed over the United States, and upon the people of the United States. They have no relation to any foreign country. It is a perversion of terms, at least it is a great misapprehension of the case, which cites that expression for application to a State which has withdrawn from the Union. You may make war on a foreign State. If it be the purpose of gentlemen, they may make war against a State which has withdrawn from the Union; but there are no laws of the United States to be executed within the limits of a seceded State.”

“It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision.”

“When our Constitution was formed, the same idea was rendered more palpable, for there we find provision made for that very class of persons as property; they were not put upon the footing of equality with white men–not even upon that of paupers and convicts; but, so far as representation was concerned, were discriminated against as a lower caste, only to be represented in the numerical proportion of three fifths.”

“Then, Senators, we recur to the compact which binds us together; we recur to the principles upon which our Government was founded; and when you deny them, and when you deny to us the right to withdraw from a Government which thus perverted threatens to be destructive of our rights, we but tread in the path of our fathers when we proclaim our independence, and take the hazard.”

“I therefore feel that I but express their desire when I say I hope, and they hope, for peaceful relations with you, though we must part. They may be mutually beneficial to us in the future, as they have been in the past, if you so will it. The reverse may bring disaster on every portion of the country; and if you will have it thus, we will invoke the God of our fathers, who delivered them from the power of the lion, to protect us from the ravages of the bear; and thus, putting our trust in God and in our own firm hearts and strong arms, we will vindicate the right as best we may.”

“Mr. President, and Senators, having made the announcement which the occasion seemed to me to require, it only remains to me to bid you a final adieu.”

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