Robert E. Lee resigns his commission in the US Army

Today, after the fall of Fort Sumter in South Carolina, after President Lincoln proclaimed an insurrection and issued a command to muster troops to put down the rebellion, after the President’s proclamation of a blockade on southern ports, Colonel Robert E. Lee of the First Cavalry, veteran of the Mexican War and the man who ended the violence at Harpers Ferry with more violence and captured John Brown, wrote two brief letters, one slightly longer than the other.

The first was to the Secretary of War of the United States.

Arlington, Washington City P.O.
20 April 1861

Honble Simon Cameron
Sect. of War


I have the honor to tender the resignation of my Commission of Colonel of the 1st Regt. of Cavalry.

Very respectfully your Ob’t servant

R. E. Lee
Col 1st. Cavalry

The second, slightly longer letter, was to his old friend General Winfield Scott, commander of the US Army.

Arlington, Washington City, P.O
20 Apr 1861

Lt. Genl Winfield Scott
Commd U.S. Army

Since my interview with you on the 18th Inst[1]: I have felt that I ought not longer to retain any 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 divoted [sic] all the best years of my life, & 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 & the most Cordial friendships from any Comrades. To no one Genl have I been as much indebted as to yourself for kindness & Consideration & it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation. I shall carry with me, to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind Consideration, & your name & fame will always be dear to me. Save in the defense of my native state shall I ever again draw my sword. Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for “the Continuance of your happiness & prosperity & believe me

Most truly yours
R E Lee

You can see a picture of the original of this letter at the Arlington House National Park Service site. What’s interesting is the amount of editing Lee did on this letter; clearly it was a difficult one for him to write and get down everything he wanted to say. The sadness of it is heart-breaking.

[1] “of this month”

Published in: on 20 April, 2011 at 04:00  Leave a Comment  

The balance tips in the Old Dominion

Today, the secession convention in Richmond, Virginia, approved the secession ordinance they had begun to consider yesterday.

The convention had been in session, and deadlocked, for a little over two months. What finally tipped it toward secession was Lincoln’s April 15 declaration of a state of insurrection, which called for 75,000 soldiers. Virginia would be required to supply a little over 2300 of this number, and that was enough to let the pro-secession faction at the convention push things to a resolution. The white men of Virginia would not take up arms against their fellow slave-holders.

With Virginia’s secession, Robert E. Lee’s path was made clear to him. He began drafting a letter.

Published in: on 17 April, 2011 at 12:00  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

April 15, 1861

Today, President Lincoln proclaimed a state of insurrection. There is certainly an argument to be made that he had waited a Christless long time to admit the obvious, but he was playing a fairly delicate game with international opinion. He did not need foreign powers deciding to recognize the Confederacy, he needed them to stay out of affairs. So he waited until after Fort Sumter fell, until after the Confederate States had fired the first shots of the war, and issued a proclamation.


Whereas the laws of the United States have been for some time past, and now are opposed, and the execution thereof obstructed, in the States of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the Marshals by law,

Now therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, in virtue of the power in me vested by the Constitution, and the laws, have thought fit to call forth, and hereby do call forth, the militia of the several States of the Union, to the aggregate number of seventy-five thousand, in order to suppress said combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed. The details, for this object, will be immediately communicated to the State authorities through the War Department.

I appeal to all loyal citizens to favor, facilitate and aid this effort to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union, and the perpetuity of popular government; and to redress wrongs already long enough endured.

I deem it proper to say that the first service assigned to the forces hereby called forth will probably be to re-possess the forts, places, and property which have been seized from the Union; and in every event, the utmost care will be observed, consistently with the objects aforesaid, to avoid any devastation, any destruction of, or interference with, property, or any disturbance of peaceful citizens in any part of the country.

And I hereby command the persons composing the combinations aforesaid to disperse, and retire peaceably to their respective abodes within twenty days from this date.

Deeming that the present condition of public affairs presents an extraordinary occasion, I do hereby, in virtue of the power in me vested by the Constitution, convene both Houses of Congress. Senators and Representatives are therefore summoned to assemble at their respective chambers, at 12 o’clock, noon, on Thursday, the fourth day of July, next, then and there to consider and determine, such measures, as, in their wisdom, the public safety, and interest may seem to demand.

In Witness Whereof I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington this fifteenth day of April in the year of our Lord One thousand, Eight hundred and Sixtyone, and of the Independence the United States the Eightyfifth.


Lincoln did one other thing that day. He offered command of the US Army to a career army officer named Robert Edward Lee. Lee turned down the offer, waiting to see what his home state of Virginia would do. Since the first guns fired on Fort Sumter, calls for secession had been growing louder. Indeed, a secession convention had been meeting since the 13th of February. Lee felt that his first duty was to Virginia, not the Union, and so he waited to see what would happen.

Published in: on 15 April, 2011 at 19:10  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

I could see Harpers Ferry only as a trap of steel*

October 16th: The bearded patriarch / With the Old Testament eyes

October 17th: He captured Harpers Ferry with his nineteen men so few

At daybreak on the 18th of October, Colonel Lee sent his aide de camp, Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart, to the door of the engine house with an offer. He wrote in his Report Concerning the Attack at Harpers Ferry, “Knowing the character of the leader of the insurgents, I did not expect it would be accepted.” The offer read:

Colonel Lee, United States army, commanding the troops sent by the President of the United States to suppress the insurrection at this place, demands the surrender of the persons in the armory buildings. If they will peaceably surrender themselves and restore the pillaged property, they shall be kept in safety to await the orders of the President. Colonel Lee represents to them, in all frankness, that it is impossible for them to escape; that the armory is surrounded on all sides by troops; and that if he is compelled to take them by force he cannot answer for their safety.

And indeed, it was not accepted. Lt. Stuart gave the signal, and two Marines who had been provided with sledgehammers began to batter at one door of the engine house. As Col. Lee reported,

The fire-engines within the house had been placed by the besieged close to the doors. The doors were fastened by ropes, the spring of which prevented their being broken by the blows of the hammers. The men were therefore ordered to drop the hammers, and, with a portion of the reserve, to use as a battering-ram a heavy ladder, with which they dashed in a part of the door and gave admittance to the storming party. The fire of the insurgents up to this time had been harmless. At the threshold one marine fell mortally wounded. The rest, led by Lieutenant Green and Major Russell, quickly ended the contest. The insurgents that resisted were bayoneted. Their leader, John Brown, was cut down by the sword of Lieutenant Green, and our citizens were protected by both officers and men. The whole was over in a few minutes.

The Provisional Army of the United States was defeated. Six civilians were killed, nine were wounded. Two Marines died, one shot in the abdomen and the other in the face during the storming of the engine house. Ten members of John Brown’s Provisional Army were killed, five were captured (including John Brown), and seven escaped (four who had been at Harpers Ferry and the three left behind at Kennedy Farm). Of those who escaped, two were captured not long after in Pennsylvania. Owen Brown, Francis Meriam, Charles Tidd, Barclay Coppoc, and Osborne Anderson were the only ones who managed to escape retribution.

Israel Green, a Lieutenant in the Marine Corps, later wrote his account of what happened during the storming of the engine house. I have not used it here; Green wrote it in 1885 and what jumps out immediately is that he got the date wrong. He may be pardoned for being sketchy on the details 26 years later, but attempts to report them anyway and I regard it as slightly dubious.

Osborne Anderson wrote an account of the events at Harpers Ferry, the only one from one of John Brown’s Provisional Army. His account, written in 1861, seems much more reliable.

* A line from Frederick Douglass’s 1881 speech at Storer College

He captured Harpers Ferry with his nineteen men so few*

October 16th: The bearded patriarch / With the Old Testament eyes

On the morning of October 17th, the people of Harpers Ferry awoke to find insurrection in their midst. Armory workers discovered Brown and his Provisional Army, and before long townspeople and the local militia had not only surrounded Brown’s party, but had re-taken the bridge over the Potomac and cut off any hope of escape. Things had begun to go pear-shaped for John Brown. The first man the raiders had killed was Heyward Shepherd, a free African-American who worked as a baggage handler on the B&O railroad. The first of John Brown’s men to die was Dangerfield Newby, another free African-American whose wife was still held in slavery in northern Virginia. The Provisonal Army retreated from the armory buildings to the engine house, a small brick building made for the storage of fire engines, and barricaded themselves inside.

John Brown’s son Watson was shot and killed when Brown sent him out with another man, carrying a white flag. Later that day, his son Oliver was mortally wounded during the periodic shooting and died some time later on the floor of the engine house. His son Owen was the only one of his family who participated in the raid to survive; Owen had remained behind to guard the Kennedy Farm the Provisional Army used as a base, with two others. At 3:30pm, President Buchanan dispatched Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee, who had been on leave from the Army and visiting his home at Arlington, along with Lee’s Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart and a detachment of U. S. Marines, to put down the insurrection. Lee’s first act, upon arriving in Harpers Ferry, was to shut down the saloons to reduce the amount of drunken shooting going on from the townspeople.

October 18th: I could see Harpers ferry only as a trap of steel

* Lyric from the William Weston Patton version of the song “John Brown’s Body.”

Temporal Fractures

It’s a little weird sometimes, being this engrossed in the Civil War. The major re-enactments run on a five year cycle, so right now in the re-enactment world, it’s August of 1864. Of course here in Sesquicentennial Madness world, it’s August of 1859, which is fracturing my weird little world even further. This temporal dislocation occasionally causes awkward moments, like when I was discussing getting the Emergency Backup Dog with my friend at Blackthorn Kennel, and said I was looking at getting a pup in late 2010 or early 2011, so as to have the EBD ready to go in time for Fredericksburg in December, 1862. Because in my head, that made sense.

So anyway, step over here into my temporally fractured and weird little world for a moment. It’s August, 1859. The country is headed towards war; it’s beginning to look like a when and not an if. What are our principle actors up to?