One of the more ironic episodes in American history is the offer to Robert E. Lee of the field command of the Union Army. The greatest historian of Lee, Douglas Southall Freeman, describes the event:
The Offer of the Union Command to Lee in 1861
Two apparent conflicts of testimony arise in the story of Lee’s interview of April 18, 1861, with Francis Preston Blair, Sr. One is whether President Lincoln had actually authorized the tender of command of the Union army to Lee. The other is whether Lee hesitated before declining it.
The first is, in reality, not a conflict but a confusion of testimony. The statement of Nicolay and Hay1 that Lincoln merely asked Blair to sound out Lee may be accepted as fact. But Blair had also had a conversation with Secretary Cameron of the War Department, who had apparently empowered him, in plain terms, to tender the command to Lee. Naturally, in talking to Lee, when he found him cold to the proposal, Mr. Blair involved the greater name, that of the President, and left the impression on Lee’s mind that the actual offer, which had come from Cameron, had originated with Mr. Lincoln. This was a perfectly natural mistake for which neither Lee, Blair, Cameron, nor Lincoln was to blame. Subsequently, it will appear, Blair was himself confused as to his authorization.
The other conflict is between Lee on one side and Francis P. Blair, Sr., and Montgomery Blair on the other. Lee’s statement, made in 1868, has been quoted. “I never intimated to any one,” he said, “that I desired the command of the United States Army; nor did I ever have a conversation with but one gentleman, Mr. Francis Preston Blair, on the subject, which was at his invitation, and, as I understood, at the instance of President Lincoln. 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 courteously as I could, that, though opposed to secession, and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern states.” This is first-hand evidence and the only first-hand evidence of what occurred. As it is the language of the man who had the best reason to remember the details, and as it was written by one whose reputation for absolute veracity was never questioned, it is not lightly to be put aside.
Francis Preston Blair made no memorandum at the time of what occurred between him and Lee. His only account of the interview is as follows: “In the beginning of the war Secretary Cameron asked me to sound General Robert E. Lee, to know whether his feelings would justify him in taking command of our army. His cousin, John Lee, sent him a note at my suggestion. Lee came. I told him what President Lincoln wanted him to do. He wanted him to take command of the army. Lee said he was devoted to the Union. He said, among other things, that he would do everything in his power to save it, and that if he owned all the negroes in the South, he would be willing to give them up and make the sacrifices of the value of every one of them to save the Union. We talked several hours on the political question in that vein. Lee said he did not know how he could draw his sword upon his native state. We discussed that matter at some length, and had some hours of conversation. He said he could not decide without seeing his friend, General Scott. He said he could not under any circumstances, consent to supersede his old commander. He asked me if I supposed the President would consider that proper. I said yes. Then we had a long conversation on that subject. He left the house and was soon after met by a committee from Richmond. He went with them, as I understood from some friends afterwards, to consult the Virginia convention as to some mode of settling the difficulty. I never saw him afterwards. The matter was talked over by President Lincoln and myself for some hours on two or three different occasions. The President and Secretary Cameron expressed themselves as anxious to give the command of our army to Robert E. Lee. I considered myself as authorized to inform Lee of that fact.”
This statement was not given over Mr. Blair’s signature. It was made verbally to Captain James May, who reported it to Chief Justice Chase, by whom, apparently, it was written down, though there is a possibility that May transcribed it for Chase. The report is, therefore, second-hand or third-hand and was made ten years after the event, on the authority of a man who was then eighty years of age. Although there is not the slightest reason for thinking that the senior Blair intended to falsify the facts, his report at fourscore of a conversation that occurred when he was seventy and lasted several hours cannot be accepted as in the same category with Lee’s own. At that, it will be observed that the only material conflict between Lee and Blair is in the statement that Blair quoted Lee as saying that “he could not decide without seeing his friend, General Scott.” It is quite possible that if anything like this was said, it was à propos of Lee’s assumption of command in case hostilities did not occur. At that time, it will be remembered, Lee, as he said, still “hoped that peace would have been preserved.” Had war been avoided, Lee’s ready acceptance of Lincoln’s commission as colonel shows that he would unhesitatingly have accepted the command, provided it could have been done without his superseding General Scott. It may have been in connection with just such a contingency that he said he wished to discuss the subject with his old commander.
The only other evidence is that of Montgomery Blair, son of F. P. Blair, Sr. Explaining the Southern point of view, Blair wrote: “General Lee said to my father, when he was sounded by him, at the request of President Lincoln, about taking command of our army against the rebellion, ‘Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native State?’ He could not determine then; said he would consult with his friend, General Scott, and went on the same day to Richmond, probably to arbitrate difficulties; and we see the result. It is hard for a noble mind to tear himself from home, kindred, friends, and native soil, and go into the opposite ranks to crush them all.”
This, of course, was the version the son received from the father, as he was not present himself. His direct quotation of Lee indicates either that the memory of the elder Blair had begun to fade in 1871, or else that Montgomery Blair “dressed up” the story unintentionally in 1865. Further, Montgomery Blair’s reference to Lee’s departure for Richmond “the same day” shows that he was not familiar with all the facts. Still again, both the Blairs quoted Lee as saying that he could not draw his sword upon Virginia, when, as a matter of fact, Lee did not then know that Virginia had seceded, though he may well have feared that she would.
Without impeaching the honorable, highminded Blairs, except as the memory of the one may have played him false and the information of the other may have been at fault, every law of historical evidence bears out the literal accuracy of Lee’s own statement. This would be the conclusion if there were no other evidence than that of the interview itself. Behind this evidence, however, stands all that Lee is known to have stated in Texas concerning his intentions. Having determined then, without a mental struggle, to follow the fortunes of Virginia, how can he be reasonably assumed, on the strength of late second-hand testimony, to have hesitated thereafter, except as to the time when honor demanded that he resign?