April 20

This Day in History

Civil War

Apr 20, 1861:

Lee resigns from U.S. Army

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.

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.

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