Times Past, Pausing to Remember

The Beginning And The End

The first shots of the American Civil War were fired on April 12, 1861. Six days later, Robert E. Lee was asked to command the Union Army. He was considered the best candidate for the position in the whole of the Nation. Two days after that, he wrote the following letter:

LIEUT.-GEN. WINFIELD SCOTT, commanding United-States Army ARLINGTON, VA., April 20, 1861.

GENERAL,--Since my interview with you on the 18th inst., I have felt that I ought not longer 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. Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness and prosperity, and believe me most truly yours,

R. E. Lee

On the same day, he wrote the following letter to a sister:

ARLINGTON, VA., April 20, 1861.

MY DEAR SISTER,--I am grieved at my inability to see you. ... 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 defence 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 to Gen. Scott, which accompanied 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

Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865 was probably the most reluctant act he ever performed. It had pained him, or so he said, to resign his commission in the Federal Army to join his state of Virginia in its separation from the Union. When it came to giving up the fight and accepting defeat, he delayed and delayed and delayed. It had been clear for many months and perhaps even longer that the Confederacy's hope of prevailing was nil. Lee outwardly refused to accept the inevitable until absolutely cornered and with no escape from certain destruction of what little armed forces he still maintained.

This is how he said goodbye to those soldiers who were still with him.

Head-Quarters, Army of Northern Virginia

April 10, 1865

After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources. I need not tell the survivors of so many hard-fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them: but, feeling that valour and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that would have attended the continuation of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen. By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain there until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed; and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection. With an increasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration of myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

R. E. Lee, General.