This day in history, April 20, 1861, Colonel Robert E. Lee resigned from the United States Army, just two days after he was offered a role as major general to command the defense of Washington. One day before that, Lee’s native state of Virginia seceded from the Union.
Lee opposed the Confederacy and denounced secession as “nothing but revolution” and a betrayal to the Founding Fathers. Despite this, he maintained his loyalty to Virginia.
On March 28, Lee accepted a promotion to colonel after his mentor General Winfield Scott told Lincoln he wanted Lee for a top command.
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.”
Presidential advisor Francis P. Blair offered Lee a role as major general to command the defense of Washington, but he turned it down.
“Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy,” Lee said. “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?”
Lee resigned from the U.S. Army on April 20 and took up command of the Virginia state forces on April 23 at the rank of major general.