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Robert E. Lee: anatomy of a bad decision

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Most historians say that Robert E. Lee’s decision to head the Confederate army was inevitable. Not true.

Lee was almost equally devoted to the United States and to his home state of Virginia. Two trunks of recently retrieved family papers show how hard he suffered in choosing sides.

He had several options. About 40% of U.S. Army officers from Virginia stayed on the federal side, including members of Lee’s family. Others decided not to fight on either side.

Lee’s career included a term as superintendent of West Point, and his oldest son graduated from West Point first in his class.

The son of “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, a hero of the American Revolution, Lee told a brother-in-law in 1857 that his patriotism embraced the whole country. The thought of dismantling the Union horrified him, and he said so, calling secession “nothing but anarchy and ruin.” He had sworn many times to remain true to the United States. He wept when he heard that Texas had seceded.

Still, he had a traditional sense of duty first to Virginia. He wanted it to stay in the Union, which would preserve his loyalties.

In 1861, the secretary of war asked Lee’s commanding officer, Gen. Winfield Scott, if he had confidence in Lee’s loyalty. Scott, a fellow Virginian, replied that Lee was as true as steel. A week later, President Lincoln promoted Lee to full colonel.

Lee could not bring himself to fight against his state, and he resigned.

The Union called him a traitor and took his mansion at Arlington for its war dead. Scott is said to have told him: “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life, but I feared it would be so.”

Lee believed that he would never attack the Union, only defend it, but that didn’t happen. He suffered a major defeat at Gettysburg, with horrendous losses on both sides. Rather than refusing to act, Lee is remembered for aggressive strategy.

His was a lose/lose decision. It prolonged the war, multiplied its losses and raised these questions, still unanswered: What is leadership? What is loyalty? Can loyalty be divided and still be true?

—Adapted from “Robert E. Lee’s ‘Severest Struggle,’” Elizabeth Brown Pryor, American Heritage.

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