The Bugler

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General Robert E. Lee

It was an April afternoon in 1861 that Colonel R. E. Lee of the U.S. Army agonized over both his own future and that of the nation as he paced across the portico of his home, too distracted to savor the sweeping view of the Potomac. He was deciding whether to join the secessionists as the Union split apart. Once a respected, but little-known officer, he was now the object of public comment. Newspapers began calling him "Robert E. Lee" - a name neither he nor his family ever used. His emotional turmoil caused his appearance to change: he grew a beard and his dark hair turned to white. The previous month President Lincoln promoted R.E. Lee to full colonel of the 1st Regiment of Cavalry in the U.S. Army. Lee accepted the promotion and swore allegiance to the Union. Lincoln then sent word of his intentions to offer him command of the Union forces. In April, this man of Virginia, with the largest slave population of any southern state, gave in to his ambivalence and signed his resignation.

Robert Edward Lee came from a background that would strongly support a Union. He was the son of three-term Virginia Governor and Revolutionary War hero "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, who was himself a graduate of West Point. R.E. Lee graduated from West Point and two years later married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the great-granddaughter of America's first First Lady, Martha Washington. Home for the Lees and their seven children was just across the river from Washington, DC at Arlington, named for the Custis family ancestral estate. The Army trained Lee to view his profession as a national responsibility and, in his 35-year career; he served all over the country. His patriotism, he told a brother-in-law, embraced "the whole country" and that its limits "contained no North, no South, no East, no West, but embraced the broad Union, in all its might and strength, present and future."

His story gets even more complicated. He owned human property and believed that was appropriate between the races. Because in the 1850s he faced a group of slaves who resisted his authority as executor of the large Custis estate, he feared an uncontrolled black populace. They had banded together and assaulted him physically, and he retaliated with increasingly harsh measures to maintain control. Shortly thereafter, Lee commanded the marines that captured abolitionist John Brown during his attempted insurrection at Harper's Ferry, Virginia - another experience that alarmed him. The firing on Fort Sumter to quell a rebel blockade in Charleston Harbor, followed by Lincoln's call for 75,000 soldiers to defend federal property, galvanized both sides. Military men were forced to confront their competing allegiances to army, family, and nation. In the end, about 40% of the officers from Virginia stayed with the federal forces after their state seceded. Others opted not to fight on either side. Lee's three sons fought with the Confederacy, but his sister's family, who remained with the Union, never spoke with him again. Some believed that those who swore easy oaths in good times and then abandoned them had shamefully betrayed the country. Upon hearing that Lee had spent two days prayerfully searching for a decision, a cousin remarked acidly: "I wish he had read over his commission as well as his prayers." At West Point someone drew a picture of Lee with his head attached to the body of a louse.

Following one’s heartfelt beliefs can lead to derision, condemnation, or defeat – and yet still be honored. General Lee’s story raises several questions still applicable today: What is patriotism? Who commands our first loyalty? Can we cling to our convictions and avoid expressing contradictions? Can loyalty be divided and still be true? We would be interested in hearing the opinions of our readers. Write to us at

This Bugler was excerpted from an excellent article in the Winter 2008 issue of American Heritage by Elizabeth Brown Pryor titled "Robert E. Lee's 'Severest Struggle.'"

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Robert E. Lee:

Arlington National Cemetery - how it came to be

Following the ratification of secession by Virginia, federal troops crossed the Potomac and took up positions around Arlington. After the occupation, military installations were erected at several locations around the 1,100-acre estate, including Fort Whipple (now Fort Myer). Arlington National Cemetery was established by Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, who commanded the garrison at Arlington House and appropriated the grounds on June 15, 1864, for use as a military cemetery - partially in anger against his former friend's decision to fight for the South. Meigs ordered thousands of Union dead buried at Arlington House, personally selecting the site behind Mrs. Custis' gardens for a mass grave of 1,800 unknown Bull Run soldiers, rendering the house uninhabitable should the Lee family ever attempt to return. That monument was among the first to Union dead erected under Meigs' orders. He himself, with his wife, father, and son, was buried within 100 yards of Arlington House.

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"Ducks" - a Post Script

One of our Bugler subscribers responded to the last issue about DUKWs, the amphibious trucks once used by the military and now serving as tour vehicles. He wants you to know that there are dozens of Ducks in the Wisconsin Dells, one of the most popular vacation destinations in the Midwest. He wrote: "You can take several different tours of the scenic tourist area, lake and rivers, and have the chance to actually spend time in these unique vehicles. Might be a nice stop off for vacationing veterans that want to get reacquainted with their old water friends."

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