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Why, exactly, did Robert E. Lee fight for the Confederacy?

ROBERT E. LEE should not be understood as a figure defined primarily by his Virginia identity. As with almost all his fellow American citizens, he manifested a range of loyalties during the late-antebellum and wartime years. Without question devoted to his home state, where his family had loomed large in politics and social position since the Colonial era, he also possessed deep attachments to the United States, to the white slaveholding South and to the Confederacy— four levels of loyalty that became more prominent, receded or intertwined at various points. Lee’s commitment to the Confederate nation dominated his actions and thinking during the most famous and important period of his life.

A letter from Lee to P.G.T. Beauregard in October 1865 provides an excellent starting point to examine his conception of loyalty. Just six months after he surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, Lee explained why he had requested a pardon from President Andrew Johnson. “True patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another,” stated Lee, “and the motive which impels them—the desire to do right— is precisely the same. The circumstances which govern their actions change; and their conduct must conform to the new order of things.” As so often was the case, Lee looked to his primary hero, George Washington, as an example: “At one time he fought against the French under Braddock, in the service of the King of Great Britain; at another, he fought with the French at Yorktown, under the orders of the Continental Congress of America, against him.” Although he did not say so explicitly, Lee’s “desire to do right” surely stemmed from his understanding of duty and honor. That understanding placed him in the uniforms of the United States, the state of Virginia and the Confederacy within a period of a few weeks in 1861.

Lee’s loyalty to Virginia certainly predominated during the momentous spring of 1861. A drift toward disaster inaugurated with South Carolina’s secession in December 1860 reached crisis in mid-April. Confederates fired on Fort Sumter on the 12th, the Federal garrison formally capitulated on the 14th and Abraham Lincoln issued a call on the 15th for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion.

On April 18, Lee met separately with Francis Preston Blair Sr. and General Winfield Scott. Empowered by Lincoln to “ascertain Lee’s intentions and feelings,” Blair asked Lee to assume command of the army being raised to put down the rebellion. Lee declined the offer and proceeded immediately to Scott’s office, where he recounted his conversation with Blair and reiterated that he would not accept the proffered command. Tradition has it that Scott, a fellow Virginian, replied, “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life; but I feared it would be so.”

Word of Virginia’s secession, voted by the state’s convention on April 17, appeared in local newspapers on the 19th. In the early morning hours of April 20, Lee composed a one-sentence letter of resignation to Secretary of War Simon Cameron. Later that day he wrote a much longer letter to Scott that announced his decision and included one of the most frequently quoted sentences Lee ever penned or spoke: “Save in the defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.” The War Department took five days to process Lee’s resignation, which became official on April 25.

By then he had received an offer from Governor John Letcher to take command of all Virginia’s military forces. Lee traveled to Richmond on April 22, talked with Letcher and accepted his native state’s call. On the morning of April 23, a four-man delegation from the secession convention accompanied Lee to the Capitol. Shortly after noon, the five men entered the building, where delegates were in private session. As he waited for a few minutes outside the closed room, Lee doubtless contemplated French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon’s life-size statue of George Washington— his model of military and republican virtue. Walking into a crowded chamber, Lee listened to remarks from John Janney, the convention’s president. The vote for Lee had been unanimous, observed Janney, who then summoned the memory of “Light-Horse Harry” Lee’s famous tribute to Washington: “We pray God most fervently that you may so conduct the operations committed to your charge, that it will soon be said of you, that you are ‘first in peace,’ and when that time comes you will have earned the still prouder distinction of being ‘first in the hearts of your countrymen.’”

Lee the Virginian indisputably held center stage during this dramatic period. As he put it to his sister Anne Lee Marshall, “I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.” Yet many members of Lee’s extended family were staunch Unionists, including Anne and many cousins. Moreover, approximately a third of all Virginians who had graduated from West Point remained loyal to the United States. Among the six Virginian colonels in U.S. service in the winter of 1861, only Lee resigned his commission. In short, many Virginians, including some who were very close to Lee, did not abandon the United States during the secession crisis.


VERY STRONG TIES second of Lee’s four loyalties under consideration—certainly complicated his decision on April to the United States—the 20. As already noted, George Washington, the greatest of all Virginians, was Lee’s idol, and the Revolutionary general and first president had been a consistent advocate of a national point of view. There would be no nation without Washington, no sense of the whole transcending state and local concerns. Lee came from a family of Federalists who believed in a strong nation as well as the need to look after Virginia’s interests. In 1798 his father had opposed the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, with their strong advocacy for state power, because they would have denied the national government “the means of preserving itself.” The Virginia Resolutions, Light-Horse Harry Lee argued, “inspired hostility, and squinted at disunion.” If states could encourage citizens to disobey federal laws, “insurrection would be the consequence.”

Lee’s devotion to the American republic made sense for one who had served it for 30 years as a gifted engineer, a staff officer who contributed substantively to American victory in the war with Mexico, and superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He identified the country’s professional soldiers, and most especially graduates of West Point, as disinterested national servants whose labors amid dangerous circumstances highlighted the shallowness of petty political bickering. Although Whiggish or even Federalist in his political views, Lee applauded news of Democrat James Buchanan’s election in 1856 as best for the nation. He wrote Mrs. Lee from Texas in December, remarking that “Mr Buchanan it appears, is to be our next President. I hope he will be able to extinguish fanaticism North & South, & cultivate love for the country & Union, & restore harmony between the different sections.”

Lee opposed secession during the winter of 1860-1861, and in the letter to his sister Anne already quoted described his “devotion to the Union” and “feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen.” His letter to Winfield Scott on April 20 further testified to how wrenching it had been “to separate myself from a Service to which I have divoted all the best years of my life, & all the ability I possessed.” Earlier that year, Lee echoed his Federalist father in telling Rooney, his middle son, that the framers meant for the Union to be perpetual. He read Edward Everett’s The Life of George Washington, published in 1860, and thought his professional model’s “spirit would be grieved could he see the wreck of his mighty labors!” Lee lamented the possibility that Washington’s “noble deeds [would] be destroyed and that his precious advice and virtuous example so soon forgotten by his countrymen.”

Despite his clear affection for the United States, Lee left its army—which brings us to a third level of loyalty. He strongly identified with the slaveholding South, and this loyalty, which aligned nicely with his sense of being a Virginian, helped guide him in the secession crisis. His political philosophy stood strikingly at odds with the virulent rhetoric of secessionist fire-eaters; however, as he wrote to Rooney well before his resignation, “The South, in my opinion, has been aggrieved by the acts of the North as you say. I feel the aggression, and am willing to take every proper step for redress.” In his meetings with Francis Preston Blair and Winfield Scott on April 18, 1861, Lee proclaimed that though opposed to secession he “would not take up arms against the South” or fellow Southerners.

A desire to maintain racial control figured most prominently in Lee’s Southern identity. Often portrayed as opposed to slavery, he in fact accepted the peculiar institution as the best means for ordering relations between the races and resented Northerners who attacked the motives and character of slaveholders and seemed willing, or even eager, to disrupt racial stability in the Southern states. In late December 1856, he ruminated at considerable length to his wife on the topic. “[S]lavery as an institution,” he wrote, “is a moral and political evil in any country. It is useless to expiate on its disadvantages.” But he also believed slavery was “a greater evil to the white than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strongly for the former.” The fate of enslaved millions should be left in God’s hands: “Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery controversy.”

Lee unequivocally denounced abolitionists, alluding to what he termed “the systematic & progressive efforts of certain people of the North, to interfere with & change the domestic institutions of the South.” Such actions “can only be accomplished by them through the agency of a civil & servile war.” Abolitionists might create an apocalyptic moment by persevering in their “evil course.” Unlike many white Southerners, Lee never used “northerner” and “abolitionist” as synonyms. Extensive intercourse with officers from the North during his long pre–Civil War career in the army probably promoted geographical tolerance. As a young engineer, he had served under Connecticut-born Andrew Talcott, whose high character impressed Lee and laid the groundwork for a long friendship.

Yet Lee certainly resented Northerners who would tamper with the South’s racial order, an attitude that continued during the war. Although it is seldom quoted by historians, his response to Lincoln’s final proclamation of emancipation leaves no doubt about the depth of his feeling. On January 10, 1863, he wrote to Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon, calling for greater mobilization of human and material resources in the face of U.S. military power that threatened complete social disruption in the Confederacy. Lincoln’s proclamation laid out “a savage and brutal policy,” stated Lee with simmering anger, “which leaves us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction….” Lee’s use of “degredation,” “pollution” and “social system”—words often deployed by white Southerners in antebellum discussions about the possible consequences of abolitionism—highlight the degree to which Lincoln’s policy menaced more than the integrity of the Confederate political state.

Those who cling to the idea of Lee as preeminently devoted to his state must come to terms with a fourth important loyalty. Once Virginia joined the Confederacy, Lee quickly and decisively adopted a national as opposed to a state-centered stance. His most important loyalty during the conflict was to the Confederate nation—something consistent with his Southern and Virginia identities. Lee’s national viewpoint stands out vividly in his wartime correspondence. He consistently urged Confederate soldiers, politicians and civilians to set aside state and local prejudices in their struggle to win independence. The Confederacy, though born of a secession movement in the Deep South censured by Lee during the winter and spring of 1860-61, maintained a social order he deemed essential for a population counting millions of black people amid the white majority.

Lee articulated his views about the relative importance of state and national concerns on many occasions. A letter to South Carolina’s secretary of state, Andrew G. McGrath, in late December 1861 provides one example. Just eight months into the war, Lee took the long view regarding the topic of subordinating state to nation. He laid out a strong case for mustering South Carolina’s “military strength…& putting it under the best and most permanent organization. The troops, in my opinion, should be organized for the war.” The last sentence addressed the problem of 12-month volunteers, many thousands of whose enlistments from the spring of 1861 would be ending just as spring military campaigning commenced. Lee warned that George B. McClellan’s Union army near Manassas Junction would hold a huge numerical advantage unless the governments of South Carolina and other states met the national challenge. “The Confederate States have now but one great object in view, the successful issue of war and independence,” Lee explained to McGrath: “Everything worth their possessing depends on that. Everything should yield to its accomplishment.”

The Confederate people debated a number of issues relating to the enlargement of national power at the expense of state authority or individual liberties, and in every instance Lee came down on the side of measures that furthered the nation-building project. Although no precise breakdown of sentiment across the Confederacy in this respect is possible, Lee stood among those most willing to accept greater central power to achieve military victory and independence.

During the winter and spring of 1861-62, for example, he instructed his aide Charles Marshall to “draft a bill for raising an army by the direct agency of the Confederate Government.” Lee wanted legislation to extend by two years the service of those who previously had enlisted in good faith for 12 months, to classify all other white males between the ages of 18 and 35 as eligible to be placed into Confederate uniform, and to give Jefferson Davis the power “to call out such parts of the population rendered liable to service by the law, as he might deem proper, and at such times as he saw fit.” Marshall aptly noted, “This measure completely reversed the previous military legislation of the South….The efforts of the Government had hitherto been confined to inviting the support of the people. General Lee thought it could more surely rely upon their intelligent obedience, and that it might safely assume command where it had as yet only tried to persuade.” Lee favored a Richmond government with the power to compel service from its male citizenry. The U.S. government never had dealt with its male citizens in this fashion (though the Lincoln administration would do so in the spring of 1863), and many Confederate citizens regarded national conscription as a significant abridgement of individual rights and freedoms.

Lee believed the Confederate government often proved too slow to adopt necessary measures. He raised this subject with his son Custis, an aide to Jefferson Davis, while the armies lay in winter camps around Fredericksburg in February 1863. “You see the Federal Congress has put the whole power of their country into the hands of their President,” he reported with grudging admiration. “Nine hundred millions of dollars & three millions of men. Nothing now can arrest during the present administration the most desolating war that was ever practiced, except a revolution among their people. Nothing can produce a revolution except systematic success on our part.” Lee meant military success, which required mobilizing men and materiel on a scale the Confederate government seemed loath to embrace.


LATE IN THE WAR, slaves and freeing all who served honorably in the cause of Confederate independence. He did so not Lee supported arming some because he harbored secret abolitionist sentiment, as some have argued, but because he believed it necessary to win independence. This recommendation followed his earlier call to substitute black men for white men in noncombatant positions in the armies, thereby freeing the latter to shoulder muskets. “A considerable number could be placed in the ranks by relieving all able bodied white men employed as teamsters, cooks, mechanics, and laborers,” he informed Jefferson Davis in the autumn of 1864, “and supplying their places with negroes….It seems to me that we must choose between employing negroes ourselves, and having them employed against us.”

Early in 1865, Federal military forces continued to penetrate deeper into the Confederacy, liberating slaves as they went. The enemy’s “progress will thus add to his numbers,” remarked Lee in a hard-eyed assessment, “and at the same time destroy slavery in a manner most pernicious to the welfare of our people….Whatever may be the effect of our employing negro troops, it cannot be as mischievous as this.” If the enrollment of some slaves in the army would bring victory, the white people of an independent Confederacy would be left in charge of ordering their social institutions as they saw fit, though admittedly there would be some necessary adjustments. Should the Confederacy fail to use black manpower this way and lose the war, abolitionists of the North would be in charge, slavery destroyed and the societal convulsions unthinkably wrenching. Lee laid out the stark alternatives: “[W]e must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which may be produced upon our social institutions.”

Lee’s devotion to a slaveholding republic’s “social institutions”—he had used the phrase “social system” in his letter to Secretary of War Seddon regarding the Emancipation Proclamation—does much to explain his fierce loyalty to the Confederacy. When Lee observed that Union victory would end slavery in a “manner most pernicious to the welfare of our people” and with “evil consequences to both races,” it is reasonable to infer he meant without a guarantee of white supremacy and with massive economic dislocation. During the debate over arming slaves, he reiterated the opinion expressed to his wife in 1856: namely, that he considered “the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country.” That relation, which was most desirable in Lee’s judgment because it afforded white people control over a huge black population, might be maintained indefinitely if Confederate armies established Southern nationality.

Anger at an enemy represented by Lincoln and Union armies in the field deepened Lee’s commitment to the Confederacy. This contradicts a hoary convention that he harbored no bitterness against his opponents and typically referred to them as simply “those people.” The idea that Lee exercised restraint in characterizing his enemy collapses in the face of the most cursory reading of pertinent evidence. In 1870 he spoke to William Preston Johnston, son of Confederate army commander Albert Sidney Johnston, about the “vindictiveness and malignity of the Yankees, of which he had no conception before the war.” That attitude forms a theme through much of Lee’s wartime correspondence and appears frequently in contemporary and retrospective accounts by eyewitnesses.

Throughout the war, Lee deplored Union actions and policies. His response to the Emancipation Proclamation, already discussed, was not the earliest example. The conflict’s first autumn witnessed the death of Colonel John A. Washington, a member of Lee’s staff and grandnephew of the Revolutionary hero, at the hands of Union pickets. “His death is a grievous affliction to me…,” Lee wrote to a cousin, adding, “Our enemy’s [sic] have stamped their attack upon our rights, with additional infamy & by killing the lineal descendant and representative of him who under the guidance of Almighty God established them & by his virtues rendered our Republic immortal.” In December 1861, Lee alluded to “the ruin & pillage” inflicted on various parts of the South by what he termed “the vandals” in blue.

When Maj. Gen. John Pope arrived in Virginia from the Western Theater in the summer of 1862, he announced that Federals would seize civilian property, hang guerrillas and punish anyone who aided them. Lee reacted passionately, writing to Secretary of War George Wythe Randolph that he hoped to “destroy, the miscreant Pope.” The 19thcentury meanings of “miscreant,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, included “depraved, villainous, base” (adjectives) and “a vile wretch, a villain, rascal” (nouns).

Few incidents brought out Lee’s bitterness toward the Federals more dramatically than the hanging of his second cousin William Orton Williams as a spy on June 9, 1863. Several years after the event, a letter from Lee to Williams’ sister Martha indicated the continuing depth of his feeling. “My own grief…is as poignant now as on the day of [the hanging],” he wrote, “& my blood boils at the thought of the atrocious outrage, against every manly & christian sentiment which the Great God alone is able to forgive.”


A FINAL ELEMENT in Lee’s loyal embrace of the Confederacy rested on admiration for his soldiers, who fought and fell in prodigious numbers. In the  wake of his victory in the Seven Days’ Campaign, Lee’s congratulatory order to the army lamented the loss of “many brave men” but urged survivors to remember the slain “had died nobly in defence of their country’s freedom” and always would be associated “with an event that will live forever in the hearts of a grateful people.” The soldiers’ “heroic conduct” was “worthy of men engaged in a cause so just and sacred, and deserving a nation’s gratitude and praise.” The grim winter of 1863-64, when near starvation stalked the camps of the Army of Northern Virginia, prompted Lee to mention the suffering and example of Washington’s men. The history of the army, he said, “has shown that the country can require no sacrifice too great for its patriotic devotion.” Then he compared their travails to those of an earlier generation: “Soldiers! You tread with no unequal step the road by which your fathers marched through suffering, privations, and blood, to independence.”

Despite lingering animosity against the United States, Lee meticulously refrained from public criticism of the victors following Appomattox. Meaningful Confederate loyalty was impossible after the surrender, and the postwar Lee officially resumed his prewar fealty to the United States. Duty, he believed, obliged him and all other former Confederates to submit to the dictates of the U.S. government. In statements he knew would be reported, he put aside all impulses to lash out at the North for its conduct during the war or its policies during Reconstruction. This was a painful exercise in restraint because the war had hardened him toward the Confederacy’s former enemies. He was a situational reconciliationist—someone who said things in public that enhanced progress toward reunion but never achieved true forgiveness and acceptance vis-à- vis his old enemies.

Lee completed his time on the stage of 19th-century U.S. history without a dominant national identity. Intense private grievances and political scar tissue from the war guaranteed that his renewed loyalty to the United States, compelled by defeat on the battlefield, never could approximate what it had been before the secession crisis. His postwar letters and statements abound with evidence that he thought of himself most often as a Virginian and a white Southerner, the antebellum loyalties that had taken him away from the United States and into the Confederacy.

We can never know how often the postwar Lee allowed his mind to return to April 23, 1861, when he had entered the Capitol in Richmond to accept command of Virginia’s forces. Had he thought about George Washington’s efforts to forge a national resistance from the efforts of 13 sometimes obdurate colonies as he walked past Thomas Gibson Crawford’s heroic equestrian statue on the Capitol grounds? Or, a bit later, when he stood beside Houdon’s marble effigy outside the chamber where the delegates met? Did he reflect on how his loyalties to Virginia and the slaveholding South had trumped one national loyalty and soon steered him toward another? Lee the Virginian already had been changing that day—his loyalties to home state and the South beginning a transmutation into ardent Confederate purpose.


Gary Gallagher is the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia. This article is adapted from his new book, Becoming Confederates: Paths to a New National Loyalty, from the University of Georgia Press, 2013.

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.