April 20 —
Today in 1861, Colonel Robert E. Lee resigns from the United States Army two days after he was offered command of the Union army and three days after his native state, Virginia, seceded from the Union. This will be the Union’s biggest loss in terms of commanders,
and there will be no one to challenge his skill and genius until a former Army captain returns to the Army, after several years of failure in civilian life. Lee opposed secession, but he was a loyal son of Virginia. His official resignation was only one sentence, but he wrote a longer explanation to his friend and mentor, General Winfield Scott, later that day. Lee had fought under Scott during the Mexican War (1846-48),
and he revealed to his former commander the depth of his struggle. Lee spoke with Scott on April 18, and explained that he would have resigned then “but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted the best years of my life and all the ability I possess.” Lee expressed gratitude for the kindness shown him by all in the army during his 25-year service, but Lee was most grateful to Scott. “To no one, general, have I been as much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness and consideration…” He concluded with this poignant sentiment: “Save in the defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.”
But draw it he would. Two days later, Lee was appointed commander of Virginia’s forces with the rank of major general. He spent the next few months raising troops in Virginia, and in July he was sent to western Virginia to advise Confederate commanders struggling to maintain control over the mountainous region. Lee did little to build his reputation there as the Confederates experienced a series of setbacks, and he returned to Richmond when the Union gained control of the area. The next year, Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia after General Joseph Johnston was wounded in battle. Lee quickly turned the tables on Union General George B. McClellan, as he would
several other commanders of the Army of the Potomac. His brilliance as a battlefield tactician earned him a place among the great military leaders of all time. Lee was able to outmaneuver or outwit every general who was forced to face him through the war. Every general but one, that is.
His name was Hiram. Although Hiram had a bad reputation that was mostly undeserved and exaggerated by his jealous colleagues, Hiram rose to prominence based upon his personal philosophy. That philosophy was forged in his time in the Mexican War, when he discovered that his fear of battle was matched by his opponent’s and he never forgot this vital lesson. Although he struggled with his studies, he was a master horseman. He had a superb level of concentration, and when he was at his desk writing, if he had to get up to get a paper, he maintained his seated posture all the way to the document and back to his chair, where he would continue writing as if he had never gotten up. It was later said that Hiram, when he rose to the top of the ladder, was the ONLY commander that Lee had any real trepidation about, because he knew that Hiram didn’t back up and wasn’t scared or bluffed into retreating, he just kept coming on. Hiram wasn’t known by his real name, due to an error back when he entered West Point. He was called Sam by his friends, but the name the world knew him by was Ulysses S. Grant.
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