Un Vaincu/Chapter 6


We cannot, here, enter into the detail of the fight between parties. Each day it became more venomous. Rivalries, old jealousies, increased its complexity ; and on more than one point of the territory, blood had already been shed. In 1859, while he was staying in Arlington, Colonel Lee found himself mixed up with one of the episodes of that troublesome period.

A Kansas farmer -- an aged, hard-working, simple man -- had often taken part in the manifestations launched by the opposing parties. A convinced and passionate abolitionist, John Brown[1] got so exalted in the fight that he came to believe he was to become the liberator of the Blacks. He forgot that all progress built on violence, obtained without regard to laws, is something else than a progress. He thought that a general rising of all the Blacks would hasten the times and would lead immediately to the objective that legal means would take so long to reach.

To begin with, he worked a secret agreement with some slaves who had taken refuge in Canada. Then he established contacts in the principle states. By October, 1859, he believed he was strong enough to stir up the Black population of Virginia. At the head of 16 Whites and 5 Blacks, John Brown overtook easily -- so far was one of any suspicion -- the Federal Armory and the Arms Factory of Harpers Ferry, proclaimed the liberation of the Blacks, and summoned them to come with haste to pick up the arms that his daring raid had put in his power. At the same time, he abducted from their houses, the principle inhabitants of the town to use them as hostages if he was attacked.

Frightened, the population of Harpers Ferry called the Army to its rescue and turned to the government who, in view of the fact that Colonel Lee was at Arlington, put under his orders a Battalion of Marines, and dispatched him to Harpers Ferry.

His first care was to surround the Federal Armory. The number of insurgents had not increased, not a single Black among those they had just liberated having come to help them. The problem of the hostages was the only serious difficulty, John Brown declaring that they would be executed at the first act of hostility.

In vain, a peace envoy promised him, in the name of the Colonel, that if he liberated the hostages, he would be protected against the furor of the inhabitants and would receive the guarantees of a civil law suit. John Brown refused. He was well conscious that his movement had aborted, but he tried to obtain for himself and his companions the right to gain the frontier freely. He wanted to hand over the

Abraham Lincoln (13552661785).jpg


the last sitting on the day of lee′s surrender

On April 9 1865, the very day of the surrender of Lee at Appomattox, Lincoln, for the last time, went to the photographer′s gallery. As he sits in simple fashion sharpening his pencil, the man of sorrows cannot forget the sense of weariness and pain that for four years has been unbroken. No elation of triumph lights the features. One task is ended — the Nation is saved. But another, scarcely less exacting, confronts him. The States which lay “out of their proper practical relation to the Union.” in his own phrase, must be brought back into a proper practical relation. But this task was not for him. Only five days later the sad eyes reflected upon this page closed forever upon scenes of earthly turmoil. Bereft of Lincoln′s heart and head, leaders attacked problems of reconstruction in ways that proved unwise. As the mists of passion and prejudice cleared away, both North and South came to feel that this patient, wise, and sympathetic ruler was one of the few really great men in history, and that he would live forever in the hearts of men made better by his presence during those four years of storm.

hostages after being sheltered from any pursuit.

“Don′t worry about us ; fire, fire ;” shouted one of the prisoners, Colonel Lewis Washington, loud enough to be heard outside.

Colonel Lee had agreed with his peace emissary, whom he could see from afar, that the latter would take his hat off if John Brown remained inexorable. The very instant that the hat was slowly raised, the Marines launched their attack with such impetuosity that the hostages were surrounded and separated from the insurgents before the latter had time to use their arms. John Brown, wounded, was protected against the population′s fury and handed over, with his companions, to the regular courts. As for Colonel Lee, he regained Texas.

Up until the time we are speaking of (1860), the President of the U. S. A., having always belonged to the Southern Party, had weighed in favor of maintaining the status quo more or less openly . The result was that congressional votes had always been neutralized to a certain extent. This was not a situation that could last.

In 1860, for the first time, a man from the North, Abraham Lincoln -- the rugged carpenter from Illinois -- the one who was to be named by all voters, ‘Honest Abe’ -- was called to the presidential chair. The election had a definite signification. It warned the Southern states that the days of privileged treatment were gone. It was not because the newly elected president was a fervent abolitionist that they felt threatened. Lincoln, principally concerned by remaining within the law, proclaimed widely that he wanted to maintain the Union without liberating the slaves ; but he also declared as emphatically, that measures -- financial or others -- voted by Congress would be applied strictly.

Four[2] Southern states, soon followed by five others, then requested through their legislatures, the right to withdraw from the Union. They formed a new confederation called the Confederate States of America. Perhaps they thought that they were thus preventing a civil war ? On the contrary, their action precipitated it.

In problems that still have the power to arouse the passions of a great people, and in which it is so difficult to attribute the faults with equity -- in problems for which so many thousands of men have known how to fight with such an indomitable energy -- to fight and to die -- one must refrain from uttering a severe word that could be unfair and cruel. Yet, we have to say it -- in our opinion, the North had the right and the duty to maintain the Union. No state could exist if it were to allow the indefinite parceling out of its territory.

The revolution that bereaved the South from its leadership was legal. It should have been pacific. Whatever the consequences, the duty of the South was to submit to the President imposed by the majority, as in the past the North had submitted to Mr. Buchanan. The South thought otherwise. The Civil War was its fault. We would be inclined to say its crime if the complex wording of the constitution was not the great culprit. The constitution gave birth to such an exaggeration of federal ideas that most minds gradually came to consider that the real sovereignty belonged to each state.[3]

Anyhow, it is not our purpose to linger on this burning ground. We are simply telling the story of a life, but a life shattered by the fights we are going to witness . We will have said enough of the problem if our reader has understood that, besides the question of abolition, there were other problems, some of which were really difficult to solve. These could, manipulated by circumstances, give rise in people's souls to ardent and sincere patriotic feelings -- but local patriotism, alas, imperiling the common fatherland.

Besides, at the time we are speaking of in 1861, slavery did not hold in America, and in the preoccupation of the parties, the place that Europe was already giving it, and that it was going to take gradually, as the fight went on.

President Lincoln himself said, “The principle of the Union is alone at stake, not slavery.” The Vice-President, Johnson, who was to succeed him, talked the same language, “This country belongs to the White man, and the White man alone must dominate.” No one could, at that time, foresee how one′s own mind would evolve and what convictions he would reach in 4 years of bloody ordeals. During the conflict, and through the fight itself, convictions grew. Convictions grew stronger, and in each party reached extreme exaltation.

Colonel Lee was then one of those to whom the future was completely veiled. He was residing in Texas, in his command post. He hadn′t left it for two years. Isolated, in the middle of the Indians, away from every political current, hardly informed of events, he wrote to Mistress Lee :

“Fort Mason, Texas, 23d January, 1861… I received Everett′s ‘Life of Washington’ which you sent me, and enjoyed its perusal. How his spirit would be grieved could he see the wreck of his mighty labors. I will not, however, permit myself to believe, until all the ground for hope is gone, that the fruit of his noble deeds will be destroyed, and that his precious advice and virtuous example will so soon be forgotten by his countrymen. As far as I can judge by the papers, we are between a state of anarchy and civil war. May God avert both of these evils from us !… I see that four States have declared themselves out of the Union ; four more will apparently follow their example. Then, if the border States are brought into the abyss of revolution, one half of the country will be arrayed against the other. I must try and be patient and await the end, for I can do nothing to hasten or retard it.”

We will see how the evolution of events was going to oblige Colonel Lee to come out of his state of painful expectation and to play an active role -- but equally painful -- in the colossal fight that was threatening.

  1. You remember, perhaps, that a poster representing John Brown′s gallows, and signed by Victor Hugo, had been exposed in the streets of Paris for a long time.
  2. Four Southern states, South Carolina, Texas, Mississippi, and Florida, seceded first ; followed a few weeks after by Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee.
  3. See Alexander H. Stephan′s The Constitutional View of the Late War.