"Patriotism is the love of a land and its people, nationalism is the love of a government." ~ Dr. Clyde Wilson
Reading some recent blog posts, editorials, and comments condemning Robert E. Lee as a traitor coming from those who consider themselves serious Civil War scholars, convinces me that these individuals have no fundamental understanding of federalism and how many 19th century Americans viewed their home states in regards to their state's relationships to Washington and the federal government. Condemning Lee as a "traitor" for resigning his army commission reveals a shallowness in interpretation. Those who hold to such views are, no doubt, suffering from "presentism" - superimposing their modern views of patriotism - love of, and loyalty to, a government - on to what was the common 19th century view: love of a land and its people. Let's examine Lee's decision in a little more detail and in light of this "less modern" view of patriotism.
In the first place, readers should carefully reflect on the fact that in 1861, Virginia had been a political entity for more than two hundred years and that Lee’s roots in Virginia could be traced to the year 1640. The United States had only been a reality for about 80 years. Furthermore, secession had been threatened before, most notably by Northern states. The Republic's viability was still somewhat tenuous in the eyes of many. Mobility and the common practice of relocating as we know it today was not possible, nor desirable, in the lives of most 19th century Americans, thus they were much more attached to their "sense of place" - their state and their immediate and extended families. This is where their most ardent loyalties lay. That sentiment was eloquently expressed in the words of Virginia historian, Philip Alexander Bruce:
It was this love of home, with its thronging recollections of the past both near and far . . . that nerved many a Southern soldier. . . . Love of the South was inextricably mixed up with this love of the family hearth. . . . Love of one particular spot, of one neighborhood, of one State, was the foundation stone of the love of the entire region which entered so deeply into the spirit of the Confederate soldier.
Thus Lee's decision to resign from the United States Army and ultimately take up his sword for the defense of his beloved Virginia is not surprising.
But Robert E. Lee had given his whole life to the Union for which his father, Henry Lee, the famous, "Lighthorse Harry Lee," had fought. Light Horse Harry Lee was a favorite of General Washington and was chosen by Congress to eulogize our first president. It was in his eulogy of Washington that Lee’s father first coined the phrase, "First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen." It is likely that these were not the only words of Lee’s father that came to his mind as he struggled with his dueling loyalties. During a debate in 1798 with James Madison, Henry Lee had stated, "Virginia is my country; her will I obey, however lamentable the fate to which it may subject me." Robert was born at the Lee ancestral mansion, Stratford Hall, and drew his first breath in the same room in which were born two signers of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee. He had married Mary Custis, the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, who was the adopted grandson of George Washington. Lee’s strong ties to the Union, and its founding, were both by blood and by choice. The depth of Lee’s love for, and loyalty to, the Union is something many students of Lee fail to give due consideration. It makes his decision all the more remarkable.
By the age of 54, Colonel Robert E. Lee had fought with honor and distinction in the Mexican War, served as Superintendent of West Point, quelled a domestic insurrection at Harper’s Ferry and was well respected as an army officer and engineer. Lee’s military prowess was well known. General Winfield Scott credited the United States’ victory over Mexico to the "skill, valor and undaunted energy of Robert E. Lee" and once referred to him as, "the greatest military genius in America." Lee and General Scott enjoyed mutual respect and admiration.
Lee's letter to General Scott declining Lincoln's offer to command federal forces to put down the rebellion was to the point:
Sir: – I have the honor to tender the resignation of my commission as colonel of the First Regiment of Cavalry. Very respectfully,
Your obedient servant,
In the words of Douglas Southall Freeman, it was "the decision Lee was born to make." Lee would cast his lot with Virginia, in full measure – there was no other thing he could do. Though he opposed secession and had termed it "revolution," he also would state, "A union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets…has no charm for me." Lee knew full well the likely consequences of his decision. Yet, even after the war, as the South lay in ruin, Lee would affirm the rightness of his decision:
"I did only what my duty demanded. I could have taken no other course without dishonour. And if it all were to be done over again, I should act in precisely the same manner."Lee's glorious victories against overwhelming odds have inspired volumes. Though the South ultimately lost, the Confederacy’s greatest general is as much recognizable as any in history, and more admired than any officer the North can claim. Robert E. Lee's sense of duty, his willingness to reject an offer for selfless reasons that would no doubt have taken him to the pinnacle of his military career, and for his love of his country - Virginia - makes him the quintessential American patriot.
Today is Lee-Jackson day in Virginia. Few will celebrate, few will remember. I'm proud to be one of the few.
Painting by John Paul Strain. The title is Never Against Virginia.