In Richmond, there’s a movement afoot to rename the Robert E. Lee Memorial Bridge. At Charlottesville, a statue to the Confederate general was removed last year. In Abilene, Texas, Lee Park, named after the general, has been changed to that of a local football coach.
The list could go on and on, as we’ve all seen.
But let’s step back from all the dither. Remember George C. Scott, the star of Patton (1970)?
In 1976, the country’s Bicentennial year, NBC’s Today show featured, every Friday, a full two-hour program highlighting one of the fifty states. The show focusing on Virginia offered local scenery, historical highlights and personal glimpses.
Scott presented one of them. As backdrop for his monologue, Scott led a walking tour of the campus of Washington and Lee University in Lexington. As he did so, he talked about General Lee before entering the Chapel to stand beside Valentine’s famed recumbent statue.
“What are you and I supposed to learn from or feel about the world and the character of a man like R. E. Lee?” he asked. “He’s cold. We’re cool. He’s passe. We’re avant. He’s out of it. We’re up to here in it.”
“Well,” Scott continued, “there are a few qualities this remarkable creature had which may serve us too, if we consider them.”
Quiet good humor.
Adoration of children.
Respect for hard work.
Dedication to an ideal.
Love of animals.
Appreciation of duly constituted authority—coupled with an abhorrence of authoritarianism.
A devotion to history, for, as General Lee said, “It is history that teaches hope.”
Gentleness, and the aspiration to achieve gentlemanliness.
Understanding of the state of being young.
Courtesy toward the conditional frailty of advanced age.
Acceptance of responsibility.
With that, Scott ended. His monologue was so instantly popular that W & L was besieged with reprint requests. The University contacted Scott, secured his text and reprinted it as a pamphlet (which is how I obtained it).1
I believe that Scott’s assessment of Lee’s character, which is still shared by millions of Americans, should outshine and overshadow all the kerfuffle about Lee being a “rebel,” a slaveholder and all the other stuff we’ve been hearing.
A lot of people these days are bemoaning the scarcity of heroes today in America. I answer that all one has to do to find them is to look back to history and its leading figures…especially Robert E. Lee. As for slavery, yes, Lee was a slaveholder by inheritance, but he eventually freed his slaves. As for the South’s peculiar institution, Lee, as John M. Taylor has recently written, was one “of enlightened Americans who deplored slavery but who could see no immediate solution.”2 As early as late 1856, Lee was confiding to Mary that he did not see the possibility of peaceable emancipation, but rather that abolition “can only be accomplished by them through the agency of a civil and servile war.”3 Besides, like many others, Lee could not foresee an answer to the question of what to do with the freed people?
I return to Ezra J. Warner’s declaration in Generals in Gray that Lee is “perhaps the most universally revered of American soldiers.”4 That was in 1959. I believe it still is.
No more salient reflection of Lee’s character is to be seen than in how Lee responded to the secession crisis of 1861, in particular to the departure from the Union of his home state of Virginia. Lee opposed the concept of state secession, but as early as January 29, 1861, he had written to Rooney, his second eldest son, that “a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and civil war that are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.”5
By the time of Fort Sumter, seven Southern states had seceded. Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion prompted a convention in Richmond to pass an ordinance of secession on April 17.6 “Now Virginia had forced him to act,” writes Earl Scheck Miers. At the time Lee was at Arlington, across the river from Washington. There he received a request from Francis Blair, close friend of Lincoln, and also from General Scott, to meet them the next day. Lincoln had authorized Blair to “ascertain Lee’s intentions and feelings.”7
Lee went first to the Blair home on Pennsylvania Avenue. There, by order of Secretary of War Simon Cameron, he offered Colonel Lee promotion and command of the U.S. Army for the purpose of putting down the insurrection.8
Various of Lee’s biographers have tried to reconstruct the two officers’ conversation, which centered on Lee’s declaration of intent to resign from the service. John Esten Cooke, writing just a year after Lee’s death, has Blair exclaim, “For God’s sake, don’t resign, Lee!”9 “If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South, I would give them all up to save the Union, but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?” Mary Williamson (1895) has Lee asking.10 Similarly, in a biography billed as “for boys and girls,” J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton and Mary Thompson Hamilton, writing in 1917, have Lee telling Scott, “If I owned four millions of slaves, I would cheerfully sacrifice them for the preservation of the Union, but to lift my hand against my own State and people is impossible.”11
In 1934 there appeared the first volume of Douglas Southall Freeman’s long-awaited biography of Lee. Dr. Freeman captures Scott’s reaction to Lee’s statement of intent: “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life; but I feared it would be so.” Scott went on, advising the fifty-four year-old colonel that he should resign at once: “your present attitude is equivocal.”12
Most historians, though, focus not on what Colonel Lee said to General Scott, but what he wrote to him. The Rev. J. William Jones, pastor of Lexington’s Baptist Church during Lee’s tenure as president of Washington College, wrote one of the early biographies of the General. In it he quotes in full the letter Lee wrote Scott two days after their meeting, in which Lee announced his resignation from the United States Army. He explained that he would have submitted it sooner “but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted the best years of my life and all the ability I possessed.”13 Fitzhugh Lee, the General’s nephew, quotes it as well in his biography of 1894.14 Another ex-Confederate, Walter H. Taylor (AG for the ANVa), alludes to the Lee-Scott exchange, too, in his General Lee: His Campaigns in Virginia 1861-1865 with Personal Reminiscences.15
Thomas Nelson Page (1853-1922), known primarily as a Southern novelist popular even in the North during the 1880s, turned his attention to Lee in a biography appearing in 1911. In a chapter titled, “The Choice of Hercules,” Page quotes from the letter Lee wrote to Reverdy Johnson, a Baltimore attorney, in 1868: “I declined the offer he made me to take command of the army in the field, stating as candidly and courteously as I could that, though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in the invasion of the Southern States.”16
Lee’s letter to Reverdy Johnson has become a staple of the Lee literature. It’s in Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy by Henry Alexander White, a history professor at Washington and Lee (published in 1897), J. William Jones, Life and Letters of Robert Edward Lee Soldier and Man (1906), as well as other works.17
Gamaliel Bradford dug up a primary source in his Lee the American (1912). Citing Gen. Edward D. Townsend as the only witness to the Lee-Scott meeting, and Townsend’s Anecdotes of the Civil War (1883), Bradford gives this account of the event:
General Scott knew that he [Lee] was at Arlington Heights, at the house of his father-in-law, Mr. Custis, and one day asked me if I had ever seen or heard of him lately. I replied in the negative, except that he was on leave and at Arlington Heights. Said the general, “It is time he should show his hand and if he remains loyal should take an important command.” I then suggested that I should write a note to Lee and ask him to call at the general’s headquarters. “I wish you would,” replied the general. The note was written and the next day, April 19, 1861, Colonel Lee came to the office. The general’s was the front room of the second story. His round table stood in the center of the room and I had a desk in one corner. The aides were in an adjoining room with a door opening into the general’s. When Lee came in, I was alone in the room with the general and the door to the aides’ room was closed. I quietly arose, keeping my eye on the general, for it seemed probable he might wish to be alone with Lee. He, however, secretly motioned me to keep my seat and I sat down without Lee having a chance to notice that I had risen. The general having invited Lee to be seated, the following conversation, as nearly as I can remember, took place. Gen. Scott: “You are at present on leave of absence, Colonel Lee?” –Col. Lee: “Yes, General, I am staying with my family at Arlington.”—Gen. Scott: “These are times when every officer in the United States service should fully determine what course he will pursue and frankly declare it. No one should continue in government employ without being actively employed.” (No response from Lee.)—Gen. Scott (after a pause): “Some of the Southern officers are resigning, possibly with the intention of taking part with their States. They make a fatal mistake. The contest may be long and severe, but eventually the issue must be in favor of the Union.” (Another pause and no reply from Lee.)—Gen. Scott (seeing evidently that Lee showed no disposition to declare himself loyal or even in doubt): “I suppose you will go with the rest. If you purpose to resign, it is proper you should do so at once; your present attitude is an equivocal one.”—Col. Lee: “the property belonging to my children, all they possess, lies in Virginia. They will be ruined, if they do not go with their State. I cannot raise my hand against my children.”18
Of Scott’s suggestion—demand?—that Lee resign, Clifford Dowdey writes in 1965, “If Lee could not accept an offer to lead a United States Army, he should resign his commission.” And that’s what he did.
General Scott was surely disappointed, as Dowdey observes, “It was known that Scott was finagling to hold a number of Southern officers in the army, that Lee was his favorite soldier.”19
It is interesting that biographer James C. Young doesn’t mention Lee’s meeting with Scott of April 18, but in a chapter entitled “Lee Faces His Tragedy” he dwells on the letter Lee wrote on the night of April 20.
After dinner he asked to be alone, going to his room on the upper floor.
In a room below Mary waited as the man above faced his tragedy. The servants went on tiptoe, the white of their eyes showing large, in the way of the black man when his spirit troubles him. At intervals Mary heard Lee’s voice in the mutter of an invocation for higher guidance. Then his step sounded again, the pace of a soldier, back and forth across the floor.
When he paused, and there was no sound, she went into the hall, expecting him. A long hour passed, yet he failed to come. When had another captain of history undergone such trial? Caesar at the Rubicon, Napoleon debating whether he should save the Revolution, suffered little but the pangs of interest. Lee, the religious man, the patriot, the moralist in his wish “to do right,” suffered profoundly, sorrowing for his country and his honor.
When he did descend he came with resolute face, lighted by the inner fire of the man’s fine soul, burning in a white flame this night. And he said simply, almost cheerfully: “Well, Mary, the question is settled. Here is my letter of resignation, and a letter I have written to General Scott.”
Only the Fates, who looked on to see man and woman in close embrace, could know the import of those words. General Scott, in Washington, received the letter the next day, memorable for its concluding words, “Save in defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.”20
In his life-study of Lee (1934), Robert Winston summarizes Lee’s meeting with Frank Blair and Winfield Scott on April 18, but focuses more on the letter Lee wrote to the aged general on the 20th: “To no one, General, have I been as much indebted as yourself, for uniform kindness and consideration, and it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation. I shall carry to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, and your name and fame shall always be dear to me.”21 “Well, Mary,” Lee told his wife after having composed his letter to Scott, “the question is settled.”22
Lee explained his position in letters to relatives. To his sister Ann he affirmed, “I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home….Save in defence of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may not be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw the sword.”23
With his usual acerbity, Emory Thomas writes of Lee’s decision:
Had Lee chosen to remain in the United States Army or had he resigned and only raised corn while other men fought and died, he would have elected infamy. He would have had to spend the rest of his life explaining his actions to deaf ears. And not the least of a legion of accusers would he been his own wife, who became a fiercely partisan Confederate. Robert Lee would have been most in danger in his own bed.24
Remarkably, Michael Korda, in his recent biography of Lee (2014) misses the drama of this event, writing merely that in his meeting with Scott, “Lee presumably made his position clear.”25
It may not be too much to say that in such breezy asides, modern historians are willfully overlooking the sterling qualities of, as Scott described him, “this remarkable creature.” But every time I travel to Lexington—my grandson is a junior at W & L—you can bet I’m not thinking of the Generals’ chances on the football field (sorry, Hunter!), but on General Lee and the vast and clenching hold he has on my consciousness, and my heart.
1 George C. Scott, Notes on a Visit to Robert E. Lee (Lexington: Washington and Lee University, 1980), 9-10.
2 John M. Taylor, Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E. Lee and His Critics (Dulles VA: Brassey’s, 1999), 41.
3 Allen C. Guelzo, Robert E. Lee: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021), 145.
4 Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959), 179.
5 Michael A. Fellman, The Making of Robert E. Lee (New York: Random House, 2000), 87; Randolph H. McKim, The Soul of Lee (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1918), 25.
6 Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995), 187-88.
7 Earl Schenck Miers, Robert E. Lee: A Great Life in Brief (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), 27; Charles R. Knight, From Arlington to Appomattox: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War Day by Day, 1861-1865 (El Dorado Hills CA: Savas Beatie, 2021), 2.
8 Douglas Southall Freeman, R. E Lee, 4 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934-35), vol. 1, 436-37.
9 John Esten Cooke, Robert E. Lee (New York: G. W. Dillingham, 1871), 28.
10 Mary L. Williamson, The Life of Gen. Robert E. Lee for Children, in Easy Words (Richmond: Johnson Publishing Co., 1895), 41.
11 J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton and Mary Thompson Hamilton, The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917), 95.
12 Freeman, Lee, vol. 1, 437.
13 J. William Jones, Personal Reminiscences of General Robert E. Lee (Richmond: United States Historical Society Press, 1989 ), 138-39.
14 Fitzhugh Lee, General Lee (Wilmington: Broadfoot Publishing Company, 1989 , 88.
15 Walter H. Taylor, General Lee: His Campaigns in Virginia 1861-1865 with Personal Reminiscences (Dayton OH: Press of Morningside Bookshop, 1975 ), 20.
16 Thomas Nelson Page, Robert E. Lee Man and Soldier (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911), 40.
The mythic Hercules had to choose between pleasure and virtue. The strongman’s dilemma was dramatized by Handel in an oratorio (1750).
17 Henry Alexander White, Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy 1807-1870 (New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1968 ), 100; J. William Jones, Life and Letters of Robert Edward Lee Soldier and Man (Harrisonburg VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1986 ), 131-32.
18 Gamaliel Bradford, Lee the American (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912), 30-31.
19 Clifford Dowdey, Lee (Boston Little, Brown and Company, 1965), 130, 133.
20 James C. Young, Marse Robert: Knight of the Confederacy (New York: Rae D. Henkle Co., 1929), 84-85.
21 Robert W. Winston, Robert E. Lee: A Biography (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1934), 90.
22 Burke Davis, Gray Fox: Robert E. Lee and the Civil War (New York: Fairfax Press, 1981 ), 15.
23 Margaret Sanborn, Robert E. Lee: A Portrait [1807-1861], 2 vols. (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1966-67), vol. 1, 314; Frederick Maurice, Robert E. Lee the Soldier (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1925), 56-57.
24 Thomas, Lee, 190.
25 Michael Korda, Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 225.