Colonel Robert E Lee Makes the Wrong Choice

I never asked for this.

“This unbidden dilemma vexes me to no end.” 

In 1861 United States Army Colonel Robert E Lee was the South’s first choice for a commanding position in the Confederate Army. His outstanding military reputation and patriotic lineage merited a similar offer from the North. Ultimately he chose to resign his commission in the United States Army and sign on with his secessionist home state of Virginia. He was promptly named a General in the Confederate Army and in short order the patriotic brotherhood of the Revolution devolved into the bitter animus of the Civil War.

We will never know what would’ve happened had Lee decided otherwise. We only know the predictable result of his imprudent decision – a prolonged and lethal struggle to defend a state’s right to extend slavery into the territories. Of course I’m not suggesting Robert E Lee was entirely responsible for the abomination of the Civil War. What I am suggesting is that his faulty decision amplified the length and breadth of this irrepressible conflict.


I must remind readers that the Civil War was not about extinguishing slavery in the South where it pre-existed, but about a state’s right to extend it into the territories where it didn’t exist. The agitators in the South decided to elevate this middling territorial issue to an uncompromising line in the sand worthy of a brutal and punishing war – especially to the South. Their leaders demonstrated high-risk behavior with the well-being of their people while playing a dangerous game of chicken with the nation’s unity. It’s as if the more cavalier rebels were backhandedly snapping their kid gloves against the face of Northern conciliation with a reckless dueling challenge: “Yankees, y’all have besmirched our honor and we demand satisfaction.”


This self-satisfied harrumphing only expedited the South’s headlong slide down the slippery slope of diplomacy and into the boiling hot cauldron of war. The North’s more rational response was to coolly explain to their hot-headed brethren, “My friends. You can have all the slaves you want. Just keep them in your neighborhood. We’d prefer you not seed our new neighborhoods with this peculiar institution.”


Is that asking too much? Apparently so. I believe the God-awful Civil War could’ve been avoided altogether, or at least truncated significantly, had Robert E Lee practiced the age old bromide of letting discretion be the better part of valor and remained loyal to the federal Union he so honorably served for 32 years. The Union that provided him both the opportunity and the platform to achieve such an outstanding military reputation (however well-earned it may have been). This misguided man (I say misguided, because I’m sure he wasn’t ungrateful) decided to jettison his entire career and go all in with the South. For what? To support and defend the piddling right to extend slavery into the territories. Really? Yes really.  


So instead of comity and reconciliation, battle lines were drawn, sides were chosen and the drums of war marched 600,000 to their deaths – twice that in casualties (out of a population of about 10 million men).


If Col. Robert E Lee chose restraint over anarchy and remained loyal to the Union, I believe it would’ve cooled the heels of many-a nascent rebel. In doing so, however, he would’ve received few accolades, especially in comparison with the potential honors he might accumulate by leading the underdog Army of Northern Virginia into battle against the Union juggernaut known as the Army of the Potomac. I don’t think this grab for glory was lost on him and it may have influenced his decision. Like most West Point graduates (1st in his class) he was an ambitious man prone to the seductive vanity of having laurel wreaths placed on his head for military service to (as in this case) a new and grateful nation.


Had Col. Lee remained faithful to the North it would’ve resonated mightily with many wavering and chivalrous gentlemen of the South looking for a way to gracefully and honorably step down from this conflict. In witnessing Lee’s rebuff to the South, many potential recruits would have reflected on the propriety of rallying around the Stars and Bars. This in turn could’ve produced a chilling effect in the South, depriving it of patriotic fervor and starving it of manpower. As the cause began to wither perhaps the rush to hostilities may have lost its momentum and history books would have referred to this entire event as just a brotherly dust up over sectional differences solved through diplomacy and forbearance.


If Col. Lee had simply chosen to sit out the conflict or by some fate had chosen to throw his considerable eminence behind the Union, the history books would likely be a lot different. Yeah I know – shoulda, coulda, woulda. All highfaluting speculation corresponding in small measure to the realities of those times. It is, however, the only explanatory tool I have left 155 years after the fact.


I wish a lot of things. I wish Robert E Lee realized the gravity of his decision. By supporting the South he was supporting slavery; a dying and indefensible institution. And that at best, a Confederate victory or a negotiated peace would’ve only prolonged the inevitable demise of slavery. How did he not understand these self-evident signals and behave accordingly?


Incidentally there was ample precedent for compromise on sectional issues. The well-known and Henry Clay-brokered Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850 evidenced as much. Cooler heads also prevailed in the little known Tariff of Abomination issue that flared in 1833 and was also resolved without resorting to war.


When this man of such acknowledged national reputation decided to throw-in with the Confederate Army, it served to further legitimize the states in rebellion, galvanize their cause and lend credence to the outmoded idea of protecting a state’s right to extend slavery into the territories. The train was leaving the station with a whole lotta rebel yells on board and Lee was stoking the engine’s fire with his quiet assuredness and unquestioned stature. His consequential decision set an example for vacillators to follow suit. It was perhaps the crucial domino in prompting legions of other capable military men to fall in line and follow the example of the revered Bobby Lee.


That Col. Lee (soon to be General Lee, CSA) was even in such a position to make such a far-reaching decision, I attribute to the South’s Slavocracy: the self-serving plantation owners who deceived gallant Johnny Reb into fighting for their  country, when in reality they’d be fighting to maintain a dying and immoral institution – the South’s “peculiar institution.”


To repeat: the federal government had no quarrel with leaving slavery unmolested where it pre-existed. The North wasn’t interested in regulating it where it was established. Lincoln said as much in his 1861 Inaugural Address. The South could have their slavery – within the confines of the South. The federal government just didn’t want it extended into new states being carved out of the territories. Great Britain had outlawed slavery in 1833 and the rest of Europe and most of South America followed suit subsequent to that. It was a fading institution. By any measure slavery’s extirpation was preordained.


And while I recognize the demise of slavery would and did birth a new set of problems; maintaining an institution of human chattel is indefensible. It may be unfair to apply a 2016 perspective to 1860 conditions and being against slavery is taking no great stand. It’s like being against small pox or child abuse – you’re not to be congratulated. And I don’t want to get too high on my high horse here. I mean who isn’t against slavery – at least publically? Slavery is beyond the pale in 2016 and was certainly growing much paler in 1860 when the South decided to put some color into its cheeks.  


How the few rebel-rousing plantation owners and idolatrous politicians seduced the eminent Robert E Lee to be their Moses and deliver them from the inconvenient “evil” of confining slavery to the South is beyond me. And to think Colonel Lee deliberated and bought into this unsupportable scheme is doubly exasperating. Didn’t he know he’d be on the wrong side of history? Surely the son of Revolutionary war hero Gen. Henry “Harry Light Horse” Lee and a husband married to the great-granddaughter of George Washington would do the right thing.


In contemplating this momentous decision while sitting atop his baronial plantation in what is now (ironically) Arlington National Cemetery, certainly he recognized the enormous and preventable loss of blood and treasure involved in prosecuting a war of such potential magnitude. Right? Wrong. And rather than be the vehicle for this destructive misery, he’d be sagacious enough to more valorously serve his beloved Virginia by delivering them from the heedless irrationality of challenging the might of the Union Army – an army whose power he was quite familiar with. Right? Wrong.


Was Robert E Lee just an ambitious man who wanted to emulate the Father of our Country, George Washington, by training a ragtag army of fervent rebels to defeat the Yankee oppressors and birth his own country? Or was he more a staunch citizen of the Old Dominion (Virginia) who did not want to see his state imperiled by hostile Union forces? Either way I blame him and the firebrand politicians of the Slavocracy who were all resistant to the profound call of common sense in the Age of Reason.


If I could go back in time I’d plead with him to: “Project into the future. Don’t be a short-sighted agent of darkness. Recognize the handwriting on the wall reference the demise of slavery. Don’t go down with the ship and feel self-satisfied while smugly bonding with like-minded people content to be on the wrong side of history. Please Col. Lee. You’re better than that.”


But, as we all know, he didn’t choose wisely and the rest is history – nasty, frightful history romanticized and sanitized from a distance of 155 years and a few too many cutesy Civil War battle reenactments. To his credit, once General Lee accepted General Grant’s lenient terms of surrender at the Appomattox Court House in April 1865, Lee insisted on ending hostilities once and for all. There’d be no taking to the hills for guerilla warfare. There’d be no state sponsored militias continuing the ill-fated misery of opposing the prowess of the Union. He knew the gigue was up and embraced reconciliation.


To the Union’s credit he was not tried as a war criminal or hung as a traitor. Interestingly his Arlington mansion was confiscated on the somewhat trumped-up charge of failing to pay property taxes. He wouldn’t have wanted to move back there anyway. Its grounds had already been converted into what became Arlington National Cemetery and contained the remains of thousands of Union soldiers.


In the more brutish days of the Civil War era when equivocation was unmanly and stark choices were the norm, there simply wasn’t any antebellum wiggle room for Robert E Lee to operate. The constricting predicament he faced conspired to thwart any bipartisan considerations he may have entertained. He knew that whatever choice he made, the spurned suitor would brand him a traitorous deserter bereft of principle. While the side he chose would lionize him as a defender of the realm and protector of our daughters’ chastity (or whatever flowery language they used in those days). In more prosaic terms Lee was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. But, in my estimation Robert E Lee was damned foolish picking the South.

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