Robert E. Lee Caught Between Nation and State

15 May 2015

Ethnic Studies | History

Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, remains a person who inspires great interest and debate to this day, not least due to the complexity of his character and loyalties. This is demonstrated by one of the shorter letters in American History, 1493-1945: From the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. In it, Lee reports for military duty in Washington and says he awaits his orders from Union command. Twenty three days later, he had resigned his post and taken a commission from newly seceded Virginia.

Image © The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Lee’s letter was sent in good faith. It was written on April 1 1861, when Virginia was still in the Union and Abraham Lincoln was gathering forces against those states that had already seceded. Lincoln was determined to preserve the Union, and in this regard he had the backing of Lee, who wrote several times that he saw no good in secession. He preferred a peaceful means for resolving differences between north and south.

This became less likely following the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter to Confederate forces in South Carolina. As war loomed, those border states that had been wavering were forced to choose sides. On April 17, Virginia provisionally seceded from the Union. A day later, Robert E. Lee was presented with the most difficult choice of his life. He was offered the position of Major General in the Union Army, and command of the defence of Washington. However, accepting such a commission would mean potentially bearing arms against his native Virginia, something he refused to do. On April 20 he resigned his position, joining the Virginian forces three days later.


Image © The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The enormity of the decision Lee faced should not be underestimated. He typified the contradictions of the South’s northern states. He had inherited slaves through his father-in-law, but openly stated that slavery was a great evil. He treated some slaves harshly, but ultimately freed those he owned. He cherished the Union and the men who had founded it, but loved his state more. His wife supported the Union, while his daughter favoured the Confederacy. The fact that roughly 40% of Virginian officers in the U.S. Army fought for the Union demonstrates that many others faced the same choice between split loyalties.

Few of them had the impact of Robert E. Lee. What the outcome would have been if he had fallen on the other side of the divide is impossible to know. What is certain is that the Army of Northern Virginia never would have had its most brilliant military commander, a man who was responsible for many of the Confederate army’s successes throughout the war.

Module 2 Civil War, Reconstruction and the Modern Age: 1860-1945 of American History, 1493-1945: From the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is released in June 2015. Module 1 Settlement, Commerce, Revolution and Reform: 1493-1859 is available now. Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a license.

About the Author

Ben Lacey

Ben Lacey

I joined Adam Matthew in September 2013. My academic background is in medieval history, although I enjoy learning about all historical periods. I have worked on a wide range of projects since joining the company, with the American History and Colonial America resources being recent highlights.

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.