A Heart-Wrenching Decision?

One of the classic strands of Civil War Entertainment is the story of Lee’s difficult decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army in the wake of Fort Sumter and Virginia’s decision to secede.  We are supposed to revel in the tragedy as Lee realizes that the pull of his state is more influential than the oath to protect and defend the Constitution.  We celebrate his decision even as we ignore any questions of whether there were alternatives, and more importantly, we lose any opportunity to assess Lee’s decision within the context of how other Virginians judged their respective allegiances.  Although I’ve been critical of Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered, I do think that the chapter on Lee’s decision to resign and his subsequent decision to accept a commission from the state of Virginia is worth serious consideration. 

A new article by Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh titled "’I Owe Virginia Little, My Country Much’: Robert E. Lee, the United States Regular Army, and Unconditional Unionism" examines Lee’s decision along with the decisions of other Virginians who were in similar circumstances.  [He teaches history at the Naval Academy and maintains a blog on the L.A. Dodgers.]  The article appears in the recently-released edited volume, Crucible of the Civil War: Virginia from Secession to Commemoration and is edited by Ed Ayers, Gary Gallagher, and Andrew Torget.  The collections brings together essays from former University of Virginia graduates and current PhD candidates in the history department.  I’ve read through about half of the essay and it is clear that this is a strong collection.  Back to Lee.  Here are a few key passages from the article:

Although [Douglas] Freeman and [Charles Francis] Adams cited Lee’s Virginia loyalties as reason enough for his conduct, many other Virginians with regular army backgrounds stayed loyal to the government that they had all at one point or another sworn to serve.  These Unionist officers raise important questions about whether or not we can cite regional origin to explain and, at times, to justify and individual’s conduct during the secession crisis. After all, many of these men experienced the same personal and regional pressures to secede that Lee experienced, but they chose familial estrangement and regional ostracism for the sake of the uniform that Robert E. Lee repudiated. (p. 36)

The author examines the individual experiences of Southern Unionists such as George H. Thomas Rufus Terrill, Philip St. George Cooke, and Winfield Scott.  It’s Wei-Siang Hsieh’s statistical analysis that forces the reader to step back and re-examine what Lee’s decision to resign means. 

Of all Southern officers connected to a seceded state, 60 out of 300 stayed in the Union leaving 200 in Confederate service.  Of the 487 graduates of West Point who were affiliated with a seceded state, 173 stayed loyal to the Union and 251 aligned themselves with the Confederacy. If we consider Lee’s age, length of service and location in the Upper South, the author concludes that a decision to stay in the Union would have seemed more likely:

Twenty-seven of 90 slave-state West Point graduates (30 percent) of the Classes of 1830 and before joined the Confederacy (Lee was in the Class of 1829), while 224 of 397 graduates (56 percent) of the classes of 1831 to 1860 did the same.  Even when we look at Virginians, the statistics continue to point to Lee staying with the Union.  While 9 of 27 (33 percent) Virginian graduates of West Point classes up to  and including the class of 1830 went Confederate, a higher percentage of older graduates stayed with the Union: 13 of 27 (48 percent). Lee’s behavior better fit the profile of a younger West Pointer from Virginia.  Sixty-one of 99 (62 percent) Virginian graduates of the Classes of 1831 to 1860 went Confederate, while 31 of 99 (31 percent) stayed with the Union. (p. 47)

So, what are we to make of the data.  Well, whatever we do with it, it is going to be difficult to view Lee’s decision in a vacuum.  It seems silly to simply reduce the issue down to the level of honor, allegiance to state, etc as a sufficient reason.  A significant minority of Virginians in the military dealt with the very same issues and drew very different conclusions.  The drama behind Lee’s difficult decision (one that we are supposed to believe was the only decision he could make) fades away in the sense that its mere consideration raises his character above all others. Finally, the emphasis on Lee’s infallibility as reflected in this decision highlights the postwar mythologizing that created the "marble man" image and the sanctity that comes along with it. 

Note: My Civil War class has finished with Virginia’s secession (we read William Freehling’s North and South article on this) so we are ready to analyze the mobilization of the armies and the summer of ’61.  Perhaps I will show how Ken Burns treats Lee’s decision to resign and then introduce them to the above data.  This should make for an interesting lesson.

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The Lee family had fallen from the weathy class of Virginians, and Robert E.’s task was to bring honor back to the family name. He married a wealthy woman, whose family were major slave owners. When his father-in-law died, Robert E. handled his father-in-law’s estate and weatlh–much of it in human capital.

Lee’s attachement to slavery is usually overlooked. Further, as commander of the Confederate Arms he authorized the rounding up of escaped slaves and forcibly returned them to their owners. As is usually the case in such characterlogical discussions, a man’s financial motives are usually ignored when the reputation-making machinery wants to elevate someone to the level of myth.

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