Why Robert E. Lee's Choice to Side With the South was Rational and Inevitible

September 11, 2017
September 11, 2017

On April 17th, 1861, Colonel Robert E. Lee of the United States Army was summoned to a meeting with Francis Preston Blair, scion of a powerful clan in Missouri politics who represented the more conservative elements in the Republican party which had elected Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency the previous November. Three days earlier, local militia and forces of the self-proclaimed Confederate States of America had opened fire on Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. In response, President Lincoln had issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to “put down the rebellion”. Lee, a protégé of General-in-chief Winfield Scott, was being summoned in order to offer him command of this army.

Much speculation turns on this meeting, where Lee, with family links both to George Washington, and one of his leading lieutenants, turned down the offer, and as history knows, led the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia for nearly four years before being forced to surrender on April 14th 1865, almost four years from the day he turned down command of the Union army.

This speculation has derived not just from the historian’s love of irony. Did Lee, gazing at General Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865, ponder the possibility that it could have been him commanding the Federal army? It also is a central component of the “Lost Cause” mythology. The dual of deification of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, both sectional figures at the time, into “national heroes”, was a key part of reconciliation. It required separating both from the key moral issue of the conflict, slavery, accomplished by stressing Lincoln’s supposed “indifference” to the rights of African Americans, and Lee’s hostility to slavery.  Lee’s offer of command, and the prospect he might have accepted it, has been mythologized into a “what might have been” national tragedy.

As a cultural matter this effort was a spectacular success, perhaps too much so. Until recently, Lee was not a southern or white hero, but an American one. But by playing down the issues which actually divided the sides in the conflict, it has removed context as to why Lee turned down the command. The focus is placed on his sense of honor and loyalty to his home state of Virginia. “Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?,” he is remembered as saying.

That probably is true as far as it goes, but there were obstacles beyond the personal for Lee or any other officer who joined the Confederacy. By making Lee’s decision about a “choice”, historians have ironically implied that joining the Confederate cause was a choice reflecting individual politics, and thereby created the framework for the current campaign to take down confederate monuments. The reality is different.

Few individuals have the option of choosing a side in a Civil War based on politics. For a US army officer from the South, to stay loyal to the Union meant never returning home as if the secession was successful their home, family and friends would be located in a foreign country. A foreign country which would consider them a traitor. For a single man without much family or property, siding with the Union might have been viable, and those who did generally fit that description. But anyone with relatives and connections in the service, property at home, standing in the community, they had little choice. The fate of Croats and Slovenes who failed to leave the Yugoslav army early enough in 1991, in some cases exiles lasting two decades and poverty as ethnic minorities in Serbia, illustrates the dangers of that choice.

Robert E. Lee had greater obstacles. He personally had reason to believe that while his prestige might give encouragement to southern unionists, any war that attracted abolitionist support would be one he would have difficulty leading. In 1859, when the abolitionist John Brown had seized the Federal armory at Harper’s Ferry with the support of most of the Massachusetts social elite, planning to set off a violent slave rebellion, it was Robert E Lee who led US Marines in retaking the armory and capturing Brown who was later hung. At the time, and legally still, John Brown was a traitor and criminal in the eyes of the United States government. But to many abolitionists he was a hero. Union soldiers within a year would march to the tune of the song “John Brown’s Body” which would become the basis for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Could soldiers marching to songs celebrating the martyrdom of John Brown do so under the standard of his “murderer”?

This does not mean the offer was not genuine. But Blair, a major figure in the slave state of Missouri, represented the right-most element of the Republican party, and appointing a Southerner to command was an effort to avoid a wider war, potentially keeping the upper South states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Blair’s own Missouri in the Union. Lee, who believed that Virginia’s departure was a foregone conclusion, might well have wondered how acceptable he would be as the face of a war that was not a repeat of Andrew Jackson’s coercion of South Carolina, but a sectional war between North and South in which abolitionism drove political support for the war and volunteers. Given the aggressiveness the congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War in going after “politically unreliable” generals, it is an open question whether Lee would have found much of a home on that side. By contrast, on the Confederate one he might not agree with the motivations of the cause, but he would be in good company with other previously unionist Southern officers. Lee’s decision was not emotional, but rational. It also reflected one of the interesting dynamics in US military politics in the period.

The Politics of the US Army in 1860


The above analysis of course raises the question, if the political obstacles in the North to Robert E. Lee were so great, why did Lincoln offer him command? To understand this question it is necessary to delve into the politics both of the country and the army during the 1840s and 50s. Between the election of Andrew Jackson, and the disruption of the party system in the late 1850s, America possessed two major political parties. A pro-federalist Whig party generally drawing support from the educated and middle classes, and the Democratic party of the populist(some would say, and did say, demagogue) Andrew Jackson. While the Republican party was technically a new party formed in the North encompassing both former Democrats and Whigs, it was organizationally built on the ruins of the Northern Whig party, which makes sense when one realizes that the Democratic party delayed its sectional split until 1860. Lincoln himself was a former Whig congressman from 1847-49, and had been offered a number of offices, including that of becoming Oregon’s first governor by President Zachary Taylor. William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, had along with Thurlow Weed, run New York’s Whig party, and been Taylor’s de facto Prime Minister. While Lincoln presided over a heterogenous party, it was one dominated by Whigs, and not just any Whigs, but “establishment” Whigs representative of the lawyers, businessman, and professionals. This was in contrast to the religiously motivated “Conscience Whigs” from New England who had become the core of the abolitionist movement.

These political divisions were repeated in the army. During the 1850s, just as American politicians divided over the future direction of the country, American military officers divided over the future of the American army. Some favored a professional model based on extensive academic study of the best practices of European militaries and training officers in military history, while others, pointing to the unique circumstances of the North American continent including a geographic scale that dwarfed Europe and the need for innovative tactics to fight enemies that could range from Plains Indians to European powers, argued for a system favoring intuition on the part of local commanders. Throughout the 1850s, these two factions crystalized around the two dominant figures involved in American military affairs, Winfield Scott, General-in-Chief 1851-1861, and Jefferson Davis, Secretary of the Army, 1853-57.

Both were highly partisan political figures. Scott was the Whig Presidential candidate in 1853. Jefferson Davis was a Mississippi Senator both before and following his tenure, and of course would become the first President of the Confederate States of America. He in fact already was Confederate President in April 1861. Therefore when Lincoln looked for a general, it made sense that he would look for a protégé of both Winfield Scott, who he had campaigned for in 1852, and to avoid selecting a protégé of Jefferson Davis to wage war on him.

In personal terms, the choice was between Robert E. Lee, cultured, wealthy, the descendent of a Revolutionary War general and related to George Washington, and George B. McClellan, the son of a middle class family who chose to enter the army with no familial precedent, graduated top of his class in West Point, and at 31 had already published a number of works on European military tactics, organization, and technology. Lee, a cavalier, was naturally a protégé of Scott’s. McClellan, the working class boy made good, was part of a generation of “smart young men” with no family background who Jefferson Davis promoted during his tenure as part of an effort to “professionalize” the service on Austrian lines(Prussia would have been a better model, and it is ironic in light of Austria’s 1866 defeat, that McClellan’s major work focused on the Hapsburg military system). There were other choices in each group, but McClellan and Lee stood out as the most senior and to pass them over, even if the offer was pro forma, would have been considered an insult.

There was of course an added political element. While the successful opposition to secession in the upper South was generally led by Democrats, the leaders of the Unionist forces in the Deep South were overwhelmingly Whigs. Choosing Lee, even if he declined, and then letting everyone know he had been asked, was a useful political dance for Lincoln.

In the end Lee did refuse. And Lincoln, the old Whig, was forced to rely on Democratic generals and Jefferson Davis protégés for the rest of the war. He eventually tired of McClellan and his “cronyies” from the corp of engineers, but in the end the war was won by two prewar Democrats in Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman(Sherman had been a Davis protégé, Grant had flunked out of the service. A general who drank was the last thing Davis wanted in his professional army). Davis by contrast, ended up being forced to entrust command to officers whose careers he had retarded, especially once his favorite, Albert Sidney Johnson, was killed at Shiloh. Prior to his untimely demise, Johnson had performed about as well Davis’ Northern protégés, after allowing his forces to be chased out of Kentucky, he was desperately attempting to prevent the Union army from ejecting them from the small bit of Tennessee they still held. That Johnson only sought battle for the first time after he had lost two states(three counting Missouri which was technically under his command authority) is a testament to the sort of cautious, competent, and ultimately ineffective leadership George B. McClellan brought to the Federal forces. By contrast, Robert E. Lee sought battle within less than a month of assuming command against a superior foe, and fought for 7 days, before turning to attack another opponent. Scientific planning it was not, nor did it take account of the statistical balance of forces. But it ended up working.

Lincoln’s offer to Lee, and Lee’s refusal therefore provides context to why both Lincoln and Davis had prickly relations with their generals, as well as the events of the first two years of the war. Lincoln and Davis very much wished to swap not just top commanders, but teams. Lincoln made an offer to Lee not because of who Lee personally was, but because of what he represented in the hope that he would bring his patronage network of protégés with him, and that even if he didn’t accept, he would recommend one of his protégés for the job providing cover not to give the job to McClellan.

In hindsight, the same factors that made it impossible for Lee to accept Lincoln’s offer, beyond the political association with the Harper’s Ferry affair, also prevented many others in Scott’s network from doing so. Most were southern, a testament to the extent to which a military career was a rule for Southern descendants of revolutionary generals, but an exception for the sons of Boston Sons of Liberty. Their families, friends, and dependents were Southern, and if the South left they would never be able to return home. Even in the event of a Federal victory they would be viewed as a traitor. It did not require much of a commitment to Slavery in either direction to push them.

That, in fact, is perhaps the most important thing the behavior of the Davis and Scott networks illustrates. Geography and class, and hence social relationships, trumped politics. The Democratic generals loyal to a Southern Democratic patron, nevertheless stayed on the side most hostile to their values because that is where they were from, and the side people like them were on. The same is true of Scott’s protégés. Lee likely would have found the former Whigs Lincoln and Seward more amenable on an intellectual level than the brash Davis, but his family was in Virginia, his property was there, and John Brown’s body lay between him and acceptance.



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