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General Lee's letter reveals the moment he decided to resign the U.S. Army and join the Confederate cause
by Daily Mail Reporter | Published November 24, 2012

'I have been unable to make up my mind to raise my hand against my native state': General Lee's letter reveals the moment he decided to resign the U.S. Army and join the Confederate cause.

General Robert E. Lee may have fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War, but his true allegiance always lay with his beloved home state of Virginia, according to his newly released letter.

At the outset of what was to become the bloodiest war in U.S. history, Lee was grappling with divided federal and state loyalties. He believed that he could not raise arms against the people of his state in the name of the Union, as he wrote to a friend about resigning his U.S. Army commission.

‘Sympathizing with you in the troubles that are pressing so heavily upon our beloved country & entirely agreeing with you in your notions of allegiance, I have been unable to make up my mind to raise my hand against my native state, my relatives, my children & my home,’ he wrote in 1861. ‘I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army.’

Lee will go on to lead the entire Confederate Army against the North, winning several key battles while being outnumbered by the Union forces before finally surrendering in 1865 after four bloody years to his archival General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomatox Court House.

Lee's handwritten letter is among dozens of writings from famous and ordinary individuals who experienced the war on both sides of the conflict. They are featured in the new exhibit ‘The Civil War in America’ at the library in Washington until June 2013.

Their voices also are being heard again in a new blog created for the exhibition.




For a limited time in 2013, the extensive display will feature the original draft of President Abraham Lincoln's preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and rarely shown copies of the Gettysburg Address

Beyond the generals and famous battles, though, curators set out to tell a broader story about what Lincoln called ‘a people's contest.

‘This is a war that trickled down into almost every home,’ said Civil War manuscript specialist Michelle Krowl. ‘Even people who may seem very far removed from the war are going to be impacted on some level. So it's a very human story.’

Curators laid out a chronological journey from before the first shots were fired to the deep scars soldiers brought home in the end.

While some still debate the root causes of the war, for Benjamin Tucker Tanner in 1860, the cause was clear, as he wrote from South Carolina in his diary.

‘The country seems to be bordering on a civil war all on account of slavery,’ wrote the future minister. ‘I pray God to rule and overrule all to his own glory and the good of man.’

A personal letter from Mary Todd Lincoln in 1862 was recently acquired by the library and is being publicly displayed for the first time.

In the handwritten note on stationery with a black border, Mary Lincoln reveals her deep grief over the death of her son Willie months earlier. Krowl said Mary Lincoln's grief is also evident in the new movie, Lincoln, where the first lady is portrayed by Sally Fields.

‘When you read this letter ... you just get a palpable feeling of how in the depth that she's been and she's now finally coming out of her grief, at least to resume public affairs,’ Krowl said.

All the documents in the exhibit are original. They include a massive map Gen. Stonewall Jackson commissioned of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley to prepare for a major campaign.

The library also is displaying personal items from Lincoln, including the contents of his pockets on the night he was assassinated, and the pocket diary of Clara Barton who would constantly record details about soldiers she met and later founded the American Red Cross.

Some of the closing words come from soldiers who lost their right arms or hands in battle and had to learn to write left-handed. They joined a left-handed penmanship contest and shared their stories.

‘I think this exhibition will have a lot of resonance for people,’ said exhibit director Cheryl Regan. ‘Certainly soldiers returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are going to be incredibly moved by these stories.’

General Lee's letter reveals the moment he decided to resign the U.S. Army and join the Confederate cause
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