Un Vaincu/Chapter 7


Meanwhile, President Lincoln had answered the act of rebellion by declaring, with determination, that he would reestablished the Union, whatever the cost. He had taken decisive measures, and the preparation for war had begun on both sides. Each one found himself in the obligation of choosing his allegiance and of caring for the security of his family and of his own person. From all points of America, and even of Europe, people whose business or pleasures had dispersed returned to their homeland.

There were, in the South, dealers from the North. In the North, citizens from the South, whose family ties, or their business, or simply their choice, had established there. Everyone left his adopted fatherland and returned in haste under the flag of his native state.

It seems quite simple to say, but what pains, what tearings apart -- what forced separations ! No category of people suffered more during this period of imminent civil war than that of the military or naval officers. Doubly citizens of the Union, bound together by this military comradeship -- christened in all languages, “Fraternity of arms” -- the problem was more complex for them. With the first rumors of war, General Scott, in charge of organizing the Army for the Northern states, feared the burden would be too heavy for his old age, and thought of Robert Lee, who had just been promoted to the rank of General.

No telegraph yet, no regular postal service in the vast western solitude, Scott sent to Texas an envoy proposing to Lee to exert the Supreme Command under his name. The attitude of Virginia who, by a vote on April the 4th, had refused the proposition of alliance with the Confederate States, made him think that Lee would feel free to accept his offer. While the messenger was on his long trip, Lee had delegated his command to a Lieutenant and was proceeding towards Arlington, where his family was assembled. But, events were following one another with speed. Virginia, though belonging to the group of Southern states by its situation and its laws, had remained faithful to the Union ; and one had been able to hope that she would have a role of mediation between them. Would this have been the case, under the direct influence of General Lee ? His presence was greatly missed during that troubled time. He never hid, even in the gravest circumstances that, in his opinion, if he had arrived in time, perhaps appeasement would have prevailed. Virginia, mother of the states, such as she was called, would have been a link between the rebels and the central power. Peace might have been preserved. But, he was still traveling when the Presidential Decree was published demanding the mobilization of the Virginia quota of troops against the revolted states. For the Virginian people, it was the straw that broke the camel′s back. They could not bring themselves to fight those they called their real brothers -their brothers of the South ; and their parliament, conscious of the impossibility of remaining neutral, voted solemnly for a separation -- a secession.

The vote was on April 7th, the same day Lee was arriving at Arlington, without having met the messenger sent to find him. The 18th, he had one interview[1] with his ancient chief in Mexico, General Scott. Far from accepting the commandment, Lee announced his intention to resign his rank.

“Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life ;” answered his old friend, “but I feared it would be so.” “Think it over again.” Then began for Lee, put between the call from the President and one from his native land -- the land to which he had a double allegiance -- an interior fight, the intense pain of which his wife (the grand-daughter of Washington) described when she wrote, “My husband shed tears of blood before making his decision.”[2]

After two days of inward fights, of regrets, of poignant anguish, he wrote to General Scott :

“GENERAL -- Since my interview with you on the 18th inst., I have felt that I ought not to retain my commission in the army. I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life, and all the ability I possessed.

“During the whole of that time, more than a quarter of a century, I have experienced nothing but kindness from my Superiors, and the most cordial friendship from my comrades. To no one, General, have I been as much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness and consideration ; and it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation. I shall carry to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration ; and your name and fame will always be dear to me.

“Save in defence of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword… Your sincerely devoted, Robert E. Lee”

General Lee had still other ties to break than those which bound him to a career faithfully loved and accomplished with dignity -- the dearer, closer ties of family affections. The same day, he wrote to one of his sisters, established with her husband in one of the Northern states:

“ …I have been waiting for a ‘more convenient season,’ which has brought to many before me deep and lasting regret. Now we are in a state of war which will yield to nothing. The whole South is in a state of revolution, into which Virginia, after a long struggle, has been drawn ; and though I recognize no necessity for this state of things, and would have forborne and pleaded to the end for redress of grievances, real or supposed, yet, in my own person, I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my native State.

“With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have, therefore, resigned my commission in the army, and, save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword. I know you will blame me ; but you must think as kindly of me as you can, and believe that I have endeavored to do what I thought right. To show you the feeling and struggle it has cost me, I send a copy of my letter of resignation. I have no time for more… May God guard and protect you and yours, and shower upon you everlasting blessings, is the prayer of your devoted brother, R. E. Lee”

And so, this is how General Lee found himself to be a rebel. It is easy, no doubt, to condemn him, but wouldn′t it be fairer to condemn, particularly, the political system that put a man between two duties almost equally sacred and obliged him to forfeit one or the other ?

If one considers that Virginia, with a size almost as big as England, was established since 1776 ; that her inhabitants, since that time, had continued to consider the convention as the regular and legitimate power of the State ; that it was this convention, and not the individual people, who was in charge, according to general understanding, of keeping or breaking off the federal pact ; that by several acts, Virginia had, since the beginning, reserved for herself the right to recover her independence ; one can understand that, once the breach was accomplished, the inhabitants' duty was not so easy to perceive. At least let us establish, before ending, that later on, when he obeyed to the call of the Virginia Convention, Lee did not intend to defend slavery -- which he called “a moral and political evil in any country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it a greater evil to the White than to the Black race,” said he.

He simply intended to defend Virginia′s right to modify, by herself, her own laws.

It is in this belief, and the right that Virginia had to command his obedience even against the government of the Union -- that resides, in our opinion, the mistake of General Lee. But, because his belief was sincere, because his mistake was loyal, we dare, without hiding our regrets, claim for him the deep respect of all noble-minded men.

Bull Run 1862 (5926531514).jpg


Along Bull Run Creek on the morning of July 21st Tyler′s division vigorously attacked from the cast the Confederation under Longstreet and Beauregard on the western bank. By this attack Mc Dowell hoped to succeed in falling unexpectedly on the rear of the Confederate left with the force sent on a detour of some three miles to the north. A charge of fresh troops brought forward by Beauregard in person in the late afternoon started the panic of the raw Union volunteers… “Men who had fought courageously an hour before, had become as hares fleeing from pursuing hounds. The confusion was increased and multiplied by the presence among the fugitives of a multitude of panic-stricken picnickers. Congressmen, civilians of every sort, and lavishly dressed women — who had gone out in carriages and carryalls to see the spectacle of a Federal army walking over the Confederates. The Confederates fed fat for days afterward upon the provisions that the picnickers abandoned in their flight.”

Boissonnas, Un Vaincu, English, 1875 (page 66 crop).jpg


The handsome old colonial mansion known as the McLean House was near Manassas station, not far from Blackburn′s Ford, the scene of a sharp encounter preliminary to the battle of Bull Run. Tyler′s division of McDowell′s army, finding the Confederates had retreated from Centre-ville, attacked near here on the morning of July 18th. A vigorous cannonade opened the action, and a shell landing in the fireplace of the McLean house deprived General Beauregard of his dinner.

  1. According to Mr. Lee Child, General Lee: His Life and his Campaigns ; the Supreme Command was offered by President Lincoln himself.
  2. Remember, Robert Lee had been raised at the expense of The State of Virginia. That′s why he speaks of a double allegiance.