Robert E. Lee’s Letter Against Secession… To a Point

Wednesday, January 23, 1861

Col. Robert E. Lee, stationed in Fort Mason, Texas, under the command of General David Twiggs, wrote to his son, Custis, about the secession crisis.

Lee agreed with his son that “The South, in my opinion, has been aggrieved by the acts of the North.” He continued, “I feel the aggression, and am willing to take every proper step for redress.”

Though a supporter of slavery (he was, in fact, a slave owner), he did not at this point believe in secession:

As an American citizen, I take great pride in my country, her prosperity and her institutions, and would defend any State if her rights were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than the dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution.

Not only did Lee disagree with the idea of secession, he had logically worked out in his mind why, historically, constitutionally and legally it was wrong.

The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it were intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It is intended for perpetual union, so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government (not a compact) which can only be dissolved by revolution, or by the consent of all the people in convention assembled.

Though he argued that the founders of the country never intended upon any state leaving the Union, he left himself an out. He reasoned that a “Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charms for me. I shall mourn for my country and for the welfare and progress of mankind.”

Perhaps he saw where all of this was going. Maybe Lee was clairvoyant enough not only to leave the individual states an “out,” but one for himself as well.

“If the Union is dissolved and the government disrupted I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people, and, save in defense, will draw my sword no more.”1

Lee would agonize over this decision for months until Virginia would finally decide upon whether to stay or leave the Union.


Twiggs Still Unsure

Lee’s superior was General Twiggs, a Georgian, who was in a fog about what to do concerning his command since the whole South appeared to be seceding. He had written to General Scott several times asking for advice, but Scott said that he had none to give.

Just a day or so prior to this date, Twiggs was informed by Governor Sam Houston, a Union man, that a large secessionist mob would attack the fort at San Antonio. He ordered up some reinforcements and was supposedly prepared to defend his command. However, not two weeks prior, Twiggs wrote to Washington, “I know one thing, and that is, I will never fire on American citizens.”

After placing the order for more troops, Twiggs may have reconsidered. On this date, he informed Washington that because he believed nobody in “authority desires me to carry on a civil war against Texas, I shall, after secession, if the Governor repeats his demand, direct the arms and other property to be turned over to his agents….”

Twiggs reminded Washington that he had asked for advice four different times and had received none. Nevertheless, he asked again.2

  1. Letter from Robert E Lee to his son, Custis Lee, January 23, 1861. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 1, p580-582. []
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2 thoughts on “Robert E. Lee’s Letter Against Secession… To a Point

  1. Interesting! I never heard the quote from Lee about perpetual union.

    He specifically said the union can only be dissolved through revolution or agreement of all the parties.

    The real Lee is much different from the one we hear about in our history books [….]

    [bunch of stuff completely unrelated to the post removed]

  2. It appears that the war could have begun at San Antonio rather than Fort Sumpter if Gen David Twiggs had decided to defend Union assets there.

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