Teaching With Documents, Volume 2


Robert E. Lee’s Resignation from the U.S. Army

Duty. Honor. Country. These three words appear on the crest of the United States Military Academy and frame the ideals of conduct by which many of its graduates strive to live. Robert E. Lee, West Point class of 1829, was a man driven by honor and duty. His resignation from the U.S. Army in 1861 was a tragedy for the United States and a personal one for Lee himself.

Today’s highly mobile Americans, having grown up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the "Star Spangled Banner," find it difficult to comprehend such passionate loyalty to a state or region. But in 1861, the concept of the United States as a nation remained abstract to many Americans. The ratification of the Constitution was still a memorable milestone for elders who recalled the event and the debates over that voluntary association. It was not a stretch of the imagination to wonder if states that had voluntarily combined to form a national union could withdraw without harsh penalty. Distance and slow communications made Washington, DC, physically remote and created a rift more profound than the current cultural gap between those "inside and outside the Beltway." Even in the mid-19th century, Government officials were viewed with doubt and accused of a fondness for red tape. When differences over the issues of slavery and states rights deepened, the new, fragile bond of loyalty to the Union was broken by millions of its citizens.

Robert E. Lee’s dilemma was not strictly a political one. The Lee family was inextricably bound with the creation of both the United States of America and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Lee’s cousin, Richard Henry Lee, was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and introduced the resolution for independence that led to the Declaration of Independence. He served in the Virginia legislature and later in the Confederation Congress. Richard Henry Lee opposed ratification of the Constitution in 1787 because it lacked a bill of rights and because he feared that a strong Federal Government would become too centralized. Nonetheless, he later served in the U.S. Senate.

Lee’s father, Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, fought under Gen. George Washington as a cavalry officer during the American Revolution. He subsequently served in the Virginia legislature and Confederation Congress. Unlike his cousin, Richard, he supported the Constitution and voted for its ratification as a representative to the Virginia convention. He was a three-term governor of the State and also served in the Federal Government as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Washington called upon Lee to put down the Whisky Rebellion in 1794.

Robert E. Lee’s own relationship with the United States was one of intense commitment and service. For nearly 35 years, he served in the U.S. Army with honor and distinction. Early in his career. he worked in the Mississippi River region and along the Atlantic coast defenses as an engineer. During the Mexican War (1846-48) he distinguished himself in reconnaissance and command of artillery. He served as superintendent of West Point for three years. Lee returned to active duty with the cavalry on the Texas frontier. From 1857 onward, family obligations forced him to request extended leaves of absence from military duty, but in 1859 he led the forces that captured abolitionist John Brown at Harper’s Ferry.

As the Nation moved inexorably towards Civil War, Lee passed through his own personal crisis. He had written that "secession is nothing but revolution." Although a, slave owner, he statedthat even if he owned every slave in the South, he would free them all to save the Union. He rejected the idea that "our people will destroy a government inaugurated by the blood and wisdom of our patriot fathers, that has given us peace and prosperity at home, power and security abroad, and under which we have acquired a colossal strength unequaled in the history of mankind." He professed his love for the United States by saying, "I feel as if I could easily lay down my life for its safety." Yet, his assertions were based on the vain hope that Virginia could either avoid the struggle ahead or remain neutral. Unfortunately for Lee and the Nation, that was not possible.

In February of 1861, prior to returning east from Texas, he confided to another officer, "I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty." When Lee reported to Winfield Scott, General in Chief of the Army, in early March, he offered to resign at once. Because there had been much more talk of reconciliation by Lincoln’s Cabinet members, Scott encouraged Lee to remain. Lee warned, "If a disruption takes place, I shall go back to my people and share the misery of my native state, and save in her defense, there will be one soldier less in the world." Nonetheless, on March 16, 1861, Scott promoted Lee to the rank of colonel in the 1st U.S. Cavalry.

On April 18, 1861, the day after Virginia voted for secession, President Lincoln sent an unofficial representative, Francis E Blair, Sr., to ask Robert E. Lee to take command of the United States Army. At this meeting, Lee spoke of his devotion to the Union and then asked to speak to fellow Virginian Winfield Scott. Lee told Scott that he would resign. The old Mexican War hero replied, "Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life." (Later, when a delegation of Virginians invited Scott to join their army, he would rebuff them sharply saying, "I have served my country, under the flag of the Union, for more than SO years, and so long as God permits me to live, I will defend that flag with my sword, even if my own native state assails it.")

Lee returned to his home in Arlington, VA, located directly across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. In a letter to his sister, Anne Marshall, he explained, "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." His wife reported to a friend Lee’s emotional turmoil over the decision. She wrote, "You can scarcely conceive the struggle it has cost Robert to resign to contend against the flag he has so long honored disapproving, as we both do, the course of the North & South, yet our fate is now linked with the latter & may the prayers of the faithful for the restoration of peace be heard."

Two days later, a delegation of Virginians invited Robert E. Lee to become "commander of the military and naval forces of Virginia." He accepted without hesitation and was appointed to the position on April 23, 1861. Once he committed himself to the cause of Virginia, and subsequently to that of the Confederacy, Lee committed himself fully. He fought with skill and shrewdness, inflicting terrifying casualties upon the men of the U.S. Army.

Yet, during his surrender at Appomattox in April 1865—through his act of submission to Grant, his demeanor during the surrender, and his words to the Confederate troops—Lee may have performed the greatest service of his lifetime to the Union he had renounced four years earlier. It would have been easy for the American Civil War to have continued as a guerrilla war, with generation upon generation revisiting past hatreds and renewing violent animosities. Indeed, given the scars of this war, it is almost miraculous that the United States did not become another Lebanon, Ireland, or Bosnia. Robert E. Lee deserves much of the credit for the peace. Toward the conclusion of the war, he rebuked a lieutenant who had urged him to allow about 8,000 armed soldiers to slip off into the hills of Virginia and continue the war, saying he was "too old to go bushwhacking."

Click the image to view a larger version

Click the image to view a larger version

In August of 1865 he wrote of his native State, Virginia, "The interests of the State are therefore the same as those of the United States. Its prosperity will rise or fall with the welfare of the country. The duty of its citizens then appears to me too plain to admit of doubt. All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war, and to restore the blessings of peace. They should remain if possible in the country; promote harmony and good feeling; qualify themselves to vote; and elect to the State and General Legislatures wise and patriotic men who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country, and the healing of all dissensions." He followed his own advice, setting an example for his fellow Virginians by applying for amnesty and pardon.

On October 12, 1870, Lee died. His farewell words to his troops at Appomattox could as well have applied to him: "You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed."

Lee’s letter of resignation from the U.S. Army is found in the Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s-1917, Record Group 94. The letter, more than 40 other documents, and 30 lesson plans are available in The Civil War, an activity book for teachers available through the Cobblestone Publishing Company’s Teaching With Primary Sources Series.


Retrieving Information

1. Ask students to answer the following questions:
a. Who wrote the document?
b. Who received the document?
c. What is the date of the document?
d. What distinguishing marks do you find on the document?
e. What action is the writer taking in this document?

Class Discussion

2. Poll students for a reply to the question, "What is your citizenship?" You may choose to do this aloud or on a ballot with the following headings: [Name of state], United States of America, [Name of another nation], United Nations. Tally the results for the class, and discuss the outcome. Ask students to account for the likely result that most of them identify with a nation. Explain to students that all U.S. citizens are citizens not only of the United States, but also of the state in which they reside.

3. Survey students to determine if they know the name of
a. The Governor of their state
b. The Lieutenant Governor of their state
c. The state senator for their district
d. The state representative in the house for their district
e. The President of the United States
f. The Vice President of the United States
g. The two state senators in the U.S. Senate
h. The representative in the U.S. House for their district
i. The Secretary General of the United Nations
j. The U.S. representative to the United Nations

Tally the results, and discuss with the class why they are more familiar with figures in the U.S. Government (as is most likely) than in their state government or the United Nations. Ask students to consider what contact they have with the state government. You may need to remind them that school attendance requirements are the state’s domain. Investigate together what contact your students have had with international organizations such as the United Nations, the International Olympic Committee, Amnesty International, or UNICEF.


4. Ask students to research and report to the class other Federal officers who resigned their commissions and offered their services to the Confederacy, such as Samuel Cooper, Joseph E. Johnston, Albert Sidney Johnston, James Longstreet, Jeb Stuart, or Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard.

Writing Activity

5. Ask students to assume the identity of RobertE. Lee and write a journal entry describing one of the following:
a. The pros and cons of refusing command of the U.S. Army
b. The pros and cons of resigning his commission from the U.S. Army
c. How he felt about fighting against classmates and students from West Point and men with whom he had served in the Mexican War
d. How he felt about giving his word of honor and oath to support the Constitution of the United States and the Union in 1865


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Chicago: "Robert E. Lee’s Resignation from the U.S. Army," Teaching With Documents, Volume 2 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. Wynell B. Schamel (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, 1998), 22–27. Original Sources, accessed November 28, 2020, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4X7MEGUG8QSDIHC.

MLA: . "Robert E. Lee’s Resignation from the U.S. Army." Teaching With Documents, Volume 2, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by Wynell B. Schamel, Vol. 2, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, 1998, pp. 22–27. Original Sources. 28 Nov. 2020. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4X7MEGUG8QSDIHC.

Harvard: , 'Robert E. Lee’s Resignation from the U.S. Army' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 2. cited in 1998, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Washington, D.C., pp.22–27. Original Sources, retrieved 28 November 2020, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4X7MEGUG8QSDIHC.