Mike Scruggs

Robert E. Lee: making hard choices


By Mike Scruggs –

Part 2 of a Series

From December 20, 1860, through February 1, 1861, seven Southern states seceded from the Union: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. The immediate cause of their secession was not slavery. There was tension between North and South over slavery, but Abraham Lincoln and most Northern political leaders were willing to let it be. The principal Northern objection to slavery was that they did not want it to spread to new territories or prospective states or to overflow into Northern states that had already phased out slavery. A substantial part of this Northern objection to slavery was an antipathy toward blacks. In fact, Illinois (the President’s own state), Indiana, Ohio, and Oregon had strict laws against blacks entering into their territories.

The Northern states were tolerant of slavery as long as it was contained in the South. On February 28 and March 2 of 1861, in order to forestall or prompt reconsiderations of Southern secessions, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate passed by the required two-thirds of its un-seceded members a prospective Constitutional Amendment (the Corwin Amendment) that would have forever prohibited any Congressional legislation that interfered with slavery:

“No Amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give power to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of such State.”

Lincoln endorsed this prospective Amendment in his inaugural speech on March 4, 1861. The South, however, ignored it. The primary Southern reason for secession was independence from all Northern economic and political dominance. Ohio, Maryland, and Illinois actually ratified the Amendment, but the outbreak and continuation of the war, which was really a war to prevent Southern independence, essentially dissolved further interest in ratification.

The immediate causes of Southern secession were an unfair tax system to be imposed on the South by a Northern Congressional majority and continuing Northern disregard for the Constitution. Approximately 87 percent of the Federal Tax burden fell on the South in the form of tariffs on imported goods. The new Morrill Tariff would raise average tariff rates from 15 percent to 47 percent over the next three years. Lincoln’s number one campaign issue in the 1860 election had been to pass high-tariff legislation to protect Northern industry from foreign competition. He thus endorsed the Morrill Tariff in his inaugural speech and promised to collect it even from seceded states. In addition to the tax burden, high tariffs severely impacted Southern income from cotton exports. Hence the South favored free trade or low tariffs, while politically dominant Northern industry demanded high protective tariffs. Federal tax revenues also went disproportionately to Northern projects.

After over 40 years of bitter disputes over tariff rates, Southerners realized that politically dominant Northern commercial interests had no reservations about trampling the Constitution under foot to advance their interests regardless of the economic suffering imposed on the South. Hence Southern States depended upon strict adherence to the Constitution and States Rights to protect their commercial and political interests from an unsympathetic Northern majority that aggressively advanced its interests over that of the nation.

Southern secession would mean a devastating loss of Federal tax revenue to the Union. Moreover, Southern free trade would ruin Northern shipping. Foreign trade would shift from high-tariff Northern ports to low-tariff Southern ports.

On March 29, 1861, Lincoln’s Cabinet approved his plan to reinforce Fort Sumter, although they knew it meant war. Col. Robert E. Lee was already in route from Texas to Washington for a meeting with U.S. Army Commandant Winfield Scott, who had been his commander in the Mexican War. Scott considered Lee the greatest military genius in America. They met in Washington on April 1 and evidently discussed the possibility of war—which Scott already knew was in the works.

At 4:30 am on April 12, Confederate batteries encircling Fort Sumter began to bombard it to prevent its reinforcement and resupply by Union warships nearing Charleston’s defense perimeter. Fort Sumter was forced to surrender to the Confederates on April 14, but Lincoln never expected reinforcement and resupply to be accomplished. His real purpose was to use the Fort Sumter incident to rally the Northern public to support his planned invasion of the South.

On April 15, Lincoln called on state governors for 75,000 volunteers to invade the Southern states and put down the “rebellion.” This was the immediate cause of the war.

On April 18, Francis Preston Blair, acting with Lincoln’s authorization, offered Lee the position of Supreme Commander of the United States Army and command of nearly 100,000 men.

Lee later described his reaction:

“After listening to his remarks, I declined the offer he made me to take command of the army that was to be brought into the field; stating as candidly and as courteously as I could, that, though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States.”

As an immediate consequence of Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops to invade the South, four other states seceded: Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. In addition, Lincoln had to send troops to Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland to prevent them from seceding.

Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army on April 20, and wrote this brief note to his sister:

“With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, 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.”

To his wife, he had already written:

“There is no sacrifice I am not ready to make for the preservation of the Union save that of honor.”

Share this story
Show More

Related Articles