robert e. lee turns down abe lincoln -- 7/20/16

Today's selection -- from On Hallowed Ground by Robert M. Poole. In the days immediately before the outbreak of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln's staff offered Robert E. Lee command of the Union forces. He declined immediately. Within days, he had accepted an appointment in the Confederate Army:

"With his native Virginia still on the fence, [Robert E.] Lee made a slow and sorrowful journey [from his military assignment in Texas back] across the country, wrestling with the hard choices he would face at home. ' If Virginia stands by the old Union,' he told a friend as he prepared to leave Texas, 'so will I. But if she secedes ... then I will still follow my native state with my sword, and if need be with my life.' He expressed similar sentiments in a letter to his son Rooney: 'Things look very alarming from this point of view' he wrote from Texas. 'I prize the Union very highly & know of no personal sacrifice that I would not make to preserve it,' he wrote -- but then added a portentous caveat: 'save that of honour.' At other times, he expressed the unrealistic notion that, in the event of war, he might quit the Army and sit our the storm at Arlington. 'I shall resign and go to planting corn,' he said.

"These conflicting impulses were still stirring in Lee when he arrived home from Texas on March 1, 1861, in time for dinner. 'Found all well,' he noted in his diary. Within days he went to see his old commander and mentor, Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, by then general in chief of the U.S. Army. The two sol­diers, friends since serving together in the Mexican War, met privately in Scott's office for three hours. They must have frankly discussed secession fever, the prospects of war, and the possibility that Lee would take command of U.S. forces in the field. Scott had nothing but admiration for this fellow Virginian, whom he considered 'the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.' Yet the de­tails of their crucial meeting were never revealed: neither man spoke about what transpired between them that day.

"By April 18, as Union troops prepared Washington's defenses and Virginia moved toward secession, Lee was summoned to meet with Scott again. That same day he was invited to sec Francis P. Blair Sr., a close friend and advisor to President Lincoln. Lee met Lincoln's friend first, calling at the pale yellow townhouse since known as Blair House, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the president's mansion. Lincoln had apparently authorized Blair to offer Lee command of the Union forces that day. If he accepted, Lee would be head of a powerful army staffed with colleagues he knew from West Point and the Mexican War. He would be promoted to major general. He would be at the pinnacle of his career, with the ample resources of the federal government at his command. If Lee was tempted by this momentous proposal, he did not show it, taking no more than a few seconds to absorb Blair's offer. Then he declined it.

" 'Mr. Blair,' Lee said, 'I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned 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?' Years later Lee recalled that he had turned down the command 'as candidly and as courteously as I could' before leaving Blair House, crossing Pennsylvania Avenue, and climbing the worn stairs to the War Department to keep his appointment with General Scott.

"Seen together, the elderly, rotund general and the elegant, middle-aged colo­nel made for an odd couple indeed. Sitting behind a desk in Washington had swollen the commanding officer's six-foot-five-inch frame to operatic propor­tions, aggravating the gout that occasionally confined him to a wheelchair. Scabrous and cloudy-eyed, he was nearing the end of his career just as his un­derstudy, at age fifty-four, was reaching his peak. Not yet the familiar graybeard of the war years, the Robert E. Lee of 1861 might have been an advertising poster for military recruiters. He was, said one eager young lieutenant, 'the handsomest man in the army.' Powerfully built, Lee carried himself with the easy dignity and soldierly bearing that had earned him perfect marks for de­portment as a West Point cadet. Even three decades later, Lee stood with his back as straight as a door, his hair and moustache thick and dark, his chin clean­ shaven. The picture of ruddy good health, Lee seemed taller than his five-foot­-eleven-inch height. His eyes, a depthless brown that appeared black in some lights, shone with calm intelligence, and a touch of sadness.

"Lee briefed his old friend on Blair's offer, and on his response to it, which prompted an explosion from General Scott. 'Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life,' he growled, then softened his outburst with a postscript: 'But I feared it would be so.' "


Robert M. Poole


On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery


Bloomsbury USA


Copyright Robert Poole, 2009


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