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The friendship between Lee and Scott.

By J. Wm. Jones.
Now that the bitter memories of the late ‘war between the States’ are passing away, and those who were enemies once can meet as friends and brothers again, it is very pleasant to recall the fact that even amid the animosities of war there were instances of warm friendship existing between soldiers of the opposing armies. That playful correspondence between ‘JebStuart and his old West Point chum at Lewinsville, in 1861, the capture of his old classmate by Fitz. Lee in 1862, and the jolly time they had together as they sang ‘Benny Havens O!’ and revived memories of ‘Auld Lang Syne’—the meeting between Major ‘Bob’ Wheat and Colonel Percy Wyndham, when the latter was captured by Ashby near Harrisonburg, Va., in 1862, and many similar incidents, might be given to show that there were friendships which could not be broken by the fact that honest men took opposite sides in the war.

But one of the most conspicuous illustrations is the warm friendship which existed to the last between two prominent actors in the great drama—General Winfield Scott and General R. E. Lee. This friendship begun in the Mexican war, was cemented up to the time that Lee resigned his commission and accepted the command of the Virginia forces, and remained unbroken until the death of General Scott. I have been permitted to make the following extract from an unpublished autograph letter written by Captain R. E. Lee to his brother, Sidney Smith Lee, of the navy. It is dated ‘City of Mexico, 4th of March, 1848.’ It was not only written without any expectation of its ever being published, but the writer even took the precaution to say to the loved brother, whom he playfully addressed as ‘My Darling Rose,’ that ‘this is intended only for your eyes.’ And yet it will be seen that this rising young officer, writing with all the freedom of brotherly confidence, not only does not seek to exalt himself by detracting from the merits of his chief, but modestly pushes aside the personal fame he had so justly won that [418] he might pay the tribute of admiring friendship to his loved General.

After writing in a charming manner about various family and and social matters, Captain Lee says:

Your commendations upon the conduct of the army in this war has filled me with pleasure; they justly deserve it. There was no danger too great for them to seek and no labor too severe for them to undertake. The fall of a comrade did not retard a single step, but all pressed forward to their work. Better soldiers never died on any field. Nor has the navy been behind them in their duties. They have risked every exposure and every disease, have served on land with as much alacrity as on shipboard, have captured every port they could reach, and now hold the whole coast closely blockaded. They have only lacked the opportunities afforded to the army. I think our country may well be proud of the conduct of both arms of the service. As to myself, your brotherly feelings have made you estimate too highly my small services, and though praise from one I love so dearly is very sweet, truth compels me to disclaim it. I did nothing more than what others in my place would have done much better. The great cause of our success was in our leader. It was his stout heart that cast us on the shore of Vera Cruz; his bold self-reliance that forced us through the pass of Cerro Gordo; his indomitable courage that, amid all the doubts and difficulties that surrounded us at Puebla, pressed us forward to this Capitol, and finally brought us within its gates, while others, who croaked all the way from Brazos, advised delay at Puebla, finding themselves at last, contrary to their expectations, comfortably quartered within the city, find fault with the way they came there. With all their knowledge I will defy them to have done better. I agree with you in your opinion of these dissensions in camp; they have clouded a bright campaign. It is a contest in which neither party has anything to gain and the army much to lose, and ought to have been avoided. The whole matter will soon be before the Court, and if it be seen that there has been harshness and intemperance of language on one side, it will be evident that there has been insubordination on the other.

It is difficult for a General to maintain discipline in an army composed as this is in a foreign country, where the temptations to disorders are so great and the chance of detection so slight. He requires every support and confidence from his government at home. If he abuses his trust or authority it is then time to hold him to [419] account; but to decide the matter upon an ex-parte statement of favorites, to suspend a successful General in command of an army in the heart of an enemy's country, to try the judge in place of the accused, is to upset all discipline, to jeopardize the safety of the army and the honor of the country, and to violate justice. I trust, however, that all will work well in the end.

I had strong hopes of peace on the basis of the project of the treaty submitted by the Mexican Government, of which you have learned through the papers. Had Congress promptly granted the means for prosecuting the war asked by the President, I believe the treaty, if acceptable to our country, would have been ratified by the Mexican Congress. But the discussions in Congress and speeches of some of our leading men are calculated so to confuse the public mind here that it may encourage them to delay and procrastinate in the hope that the plan of withdrawing the army, no indemnity, etc., may be adopted. These other difficulties that I have spoken of, especially the recall of General Scott, may prove unfavorable. It is rather late in the day to discuss the origin of the war (that ought to have been understood before we engaged in it). It may have been produced by the act of either party or the force of circumstances. Let the pedants in diplomacy determine. It is certain that we are the victors in a regular war, continued, if not brought on, by their obstinacy and ignorance, and they are whipped in a manner of which women might be ashamed. We have the right by the laws of war of dictating the terms of peace and requiring indemnity for our losses and expenses. Rather than forego that right, except through a spirit of magnanimity to a crushed foe, I would fight them ten years, but I would be generous in exercising it.

We have said that Lee's friendship for Scott, thus begun, grew stronger as the years went on. His family and others who knew him speak of the tender, loving terms in which he always spoke of his chief, and the high respect with which he always treated him. But this is very strikingly brought out in the circumstances under which Lee, despite the remonstrances of Scott, resigned his commission in the United States Army and cast his lot with his native State. During the earlier stages of the secession excitement Colonel Lee was with his regiment in Texas, and under date of January 23, 1861, he wrote to a member of his family:

‘As an American citizen I take great pride in my country, her prosperity and institutions, and would defend any State if her rights [420] were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. * * * Still a union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness has no charm for me. I shall mourn for my country and for the welfare and progress of mankind. If the Union is dissolved and the government disrupted, I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people, and save in defense will draw my sword on none.’

Three weeks after this was written he received orders ‘to report to the Commander-in-Chief at Washington,’ and hastening to obey the summons, reached there on the 1st of March, just three days before the inauguration of President Lincoln. His hopes for the averting of civil war were doomed to a sad disappointment, and events followed so rapidly that by the middle of April he was compelled to decide whether he would go with the North or with Virginia in the great struggle—whether he would accept the command of the United States armies in the field or ‘share the miseries of his people,’ while he gave up place, fortune and his beautiful home at Arlington to serve his native Virginia. If any influence could have swerved Lee from his purpose, it was his friendship for his commander and his high respect for his opinions. General Scott used all of his powers of persuasion to induce him to adhere to the Union and serve under the ‘old flag,’ and finally Francis Preston Blair (at General Scott's suggestion) was sent by Mr. Lincoln to offer him the supreme command of the United States armies in the field.

This statement has been questioned, but the proof is conclusive. Besides the positive testimony of Montgomery Blair, who got it from his father, and of Reverdy Johnson and other gentlemen, who received it from General Scott, I found, soon after his death, in General Lee's private letter book, in his own well-known handwriting, and was permitted to copy, the following letter, which settles the whole question beyond peradventure. Senator Cameron had stated on the floor of the Senate that Lee had sought to obtain the chief command of the army, and being disappointed, had then ‘gone to Richmond and joined the Confederates.’ Reverdy Johnson, of Maryland—himself an ardent Union man—repelled the charge, and thereupon General Lee wrote him as follows: [421]

Lexington, Va., February 25, 1868.
Hon. Reverdy Johnson, United States Senate, Washington, D. C.:
My Dear Sir,—My attention has been called to the official report of the debate in the Senate of the United States of the 19th instant, in which you did me the kindness to doubt the correctness of the statement made by the Hon. Simon Cameron in regard to myself.

I desire that you may feel certain of my conduct on the occasion referred to so far as my individual statement can make you. I never intimated to any one 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 to me to take command of the army that was to be brought into the field, stating as candidly and as courteously as I could, that though opposed to secession, and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States.

I went directly from the interview with Mr. Blair to the office of General Scott, told him of the proposition that had been made to me, and my decision.

Upon reflection after returning to my home, I concluded that I ought no longer to retain any commission I held in the United States Army, and on the second morning thereafter, I forwarded my resignation to General Scott.

At the time I hoped that peace would have been preserved; that some way would have been found to save the country from the calamities of war, and I then had no other intention than to pass the remainder of my days as a private citizen.

Two days afterwards, upon the invitation of the Governor of Virginia, I repaired to Richmond, found that the convention, then in session, had passed the ordinance withdrawing the State from the Union, and accepted the commission of commander of its forces, which was tendered me. These are the simple facts of the case, and they show that Mr. Cameron has been misinformed. I am, with great respect, your obedient servant,

It will be seen from this letter that no sooner had Colonel Lee received and rejected this proposition, which tendered him rank far [422] beyond what he could hope for by siding with the Confederates, he went immediately to his friend, General Scott, and told him all about it. The last interview between Scott and Lee was a very affecting one. The veteran begged Lee to accept the offer of Mr. Lincoln, and not to ‘throw away such brilliant prospects,’ and ‘make the great mistake of his life.’ Lee expressed the highest respect for General Scott and for his opinions, repeated what he had said to Mr. Blair, that while he recognized no necessity for the state of things then existing, and would gladly liberate the slaves of the South, if they were his, to avert the war, yet he could not take up arms against his native State, his home, his kindred, his children. They parted with expressions of warmest mutual friendship, and General Lee returned to Arlington.

The night before his letter of resignation was written, he asked to be alone, and while his noble wife watched and prayed below he was heard pacing the floor of the chamber above, or pouring forth his soul in prayer for Divine guidance. About three o'clock in the morning he came down, calm and composed, and said to his wife:

‘Well, Mary, the path of duty is now plain before me. I have decided on my course. I will at once send my resignation to General Scott.’

Accordingly he penned the following letter:

Arlington, Va., April 20, 1861.
Since my interview with you on the 18th instant I have felt that I ought not longer to retain my commission in the army. I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once 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 possessed.

During the whole of that time—more than a quarter of a century —I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors and the most cordial friendship from my comrades. To no one, General, have I been, much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness and consideration, and it has always been my desire to merit your approbation. I shall carry to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, and your name and fame will always be dear to me.

Save in defence of my native State, I never again desire to draw [423] my sword. Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness and prosperity, and believe me most truly yours,

R. E. Lee. Lieutenant-General Winfield Scott, Commanding United States Army.

The newspapers of the South, and especially of Richmond, were very bitter against General Scott for not siding with Virginia, his native State, in the contest; but General Lee always spoke of his old friend in terms of high respect, while regretting that he did not see it to be his duty to come with his State. Soon after he took command of the Virginia forces a friend called to see him one day accompanied by his five-year old boy, a sprightly little fellow, whom the General soon had dandling on his knee. Soon the father asked Henry:

‘What is General Lee going to do with General Scott?’

The little fellow, who had caught the slang of the times, at once replied:

‘He is going to whip him out of his boots.’

General Lee's voice and manner instantaneously changed, and lifting Henry down he stood him between his knees and looking him full in the face said with great gravity:

‘My dear little boy you should not use such expressions. War is a serious matter and General Scott is a great and good soldier. None of us can tell what the result of this contest will be.’

All through the war he was accustomed to speak of General Scott in the kindest terms, and a short time before his own death I heard him, in a company of gentlemen at Lexington, Va., pay a warm tribute to the memory of his old friend and esteemed commander. General Scott was even more demonstrative in his expressions of admiration and friendship for Lee. His dispatches and official reports from Mexico were filled with the warmest commendations of his favorite engineer officer. Of his services during the siege of Vera Cruz, General Scott wrote:

‘I am compelled to make special mention of Captain R. E. Lee, engineer. This officer greatly distinguished himself at the siege of Vera Cruz.’

In his report of Cerro Gordo he mentions several times the efficient service which Captain Lee performed, and says:

‘This officer was again indefatigable during these operations in reconnoissances, [424] as daring as laborious, and of the utmost value. Nor was he less conspicuous in planning batteries and in conducting columns to their stations under the heavy fire of the enemy.’

In his official report of the final operations which captured the city of Mexico, General Scott declares Captain Lee to have been ‘as distinguished for felicitous execution as for science and daring,’ and says again: ‘Captain Lee, so constantly distinguished, also bore important orders from me (September 13), until he fainted from a wound and the loss of two nights' sleep at the batteries.’ When, soon after General Scott's return from Mexico, a committee from Richmond waited on him to tender him a public reception in the Capitol of his native State, he said: ‘You seek to honor the wrong man. Captain R. E. Lee is the Virginian who deserves the credit of that brilliant campaign.’

General William Preston, of Kentucky, says that General Scott told him that he regarded Lee ‘as the greatest living soldier in America,’ and that in a conversation not long before the breaking out of the war, General Scott said with emphasis:

‘I tell you that if I were on my death bed to-morrow, and the President of the United States should tell me that a great battle was to be fought for the liberty or slavery of the country, and asked my judgment as to the ability of a commander, I would say with my dying breath, let it be Robert E. Lee.’

I have been allowed to copy the following autograph letter of General Scott, which illustrates this point:

headquarters of the Army, May 8th, 1857.
Hon. J. B. Floyd, Secretary of War.
Sir,—I beg to ask that one of the vacant Second Lieutenancies may be given to W. H. F. Lee, son of Brevet Colonel R. E. Lee, at present on duty against the Comanches.

I make this application mainly on the extraordinary merits of the father, the very best soldier I ever saw in the field; but the son is himself a very remarkable youth, now about twenty, of a fine stature and constitution, a good linguist, a good mathematician and about to graduate at Harvard University. He is also honorable and amiable, like his father, and dying to enter the army. I do not ask the commission as a favor, though if I had influence I should be happy to exert it in this case. My application is in the name of [425] national justice, in part payment (and but a small part) of the debt due to the invaluable services of Colonel Lee.

I have the honor to be,

With high respect, your obedient servant,

In a public address delivered in Baltimore soon after the death of General Lee, Hon. Reverdy Johnson said that he ‘had been intimate with General Scott, and had heard him say more than once that his success in Mexico was largely due to the skill, valor and undaunted energy of Lee. It was a theme upon which he (General Scott) liked to converse, and he stated his purpose to recommend him as his successor in the chief command of the army. I was with General Scott in April, 1861, when he received the resignation of General Lee, and witnessed the pain it caused him. It was a sad blow to the success of that war, in which his own sword had as yet been unsheathed. Much as General Scott regretted it, he never failed to say that he was convinced that Lee had taken that step from an imperative sense of duty. General Scott was consoled in a great measure by the reflection that he would have as his opponent a soldier worthy of every man's esteem, and one who would conduct the war upon the strictest rules of civilized warfare. There would be no outrages committed upon private persons or private property which he could prevent.’

A prominent banker of New York, who was very intimate with General Scott, has given me a number of incidents illustrating Scott's high opinion of Lee. On one occasion, a short time before the war, this gentleman asked him, in the course of a confidential interview:

‘General, whom do you regard as the greatest living soldier?’

General Scott at once replied: ‘Colonel Robert E. Lee is not only the greatest soldier of America, but the greatest soldier now living in the world. This is my deliberate conviction, from a full knowledge of his extraordinary abilities, and if the occasion ever arises Lee will win this place in the estimation of the whole world.’ The General then went into a detailed sketch of Lee's services, and a statement of his ability as an engineer, and his capacity not only to plan campaigns, but also to command large armies in the field, and concluded by saying: ‘I tell you, sir, that Robert E. Lee is the greatest soldier now living, and if he ever gets the opportunity, he will prove himself the greatest captain of history.’ [426]

In May, 1861, this gentleman and another, obtained a passport from General Scott to go to Richmond, to see if they could do anything to promote pacification. In the course of the interview, General Scott spoke in the highest terms of Lee as a soldier and a man, stated that he had rejected the supreme command of the United States Army, and expressed his confidence that Lee would do everything in his power to avert war, and would, if a conflict came, conduct it on the highest principles of Christian civilization. He cheerfully granted the passport and said: ‘Yes, go and see Robert Lee. Tell him for me that we must have no war, but that we must avert a conflict of arms until the sober second thought of the people can stop the mad schemes of the politicians.’

In the interview which these gentlemen had with General Lee he most cordially reciprocated the kindly feelings of General Scott, and expressed his ardent desire to avert war and his willingness to do anything in his power to bring about a settlement of the difficulties. But he expressed the fear that the passions of the people North and South had been too much aroused to yield to pacific measures, and that every effort at a peaceful solution would prove futile. Alluding to Mr. Seward's boast that he would conquer the South in ‘ninety days,’ and to the confident assertions of some of the Southern politicians that the war would be a very short one, General Lee said with a good deal of feeling:

‘They do not know what they say. If it comes to a conflict of arms the war will last at least four years. Northern politicians do not appreciate the determination and pluck of the South, and Southern politicians do not appreciate the numbers, resources and patient perseverance of the North. Both sides forget that we are all Americans and that it must be a terrible struggle if it comes to war. Tell General Scott that we must do all we can to avert war, and if it comes to the worst we must then do everything in our power to mitigate its evils.’

Alas! that the wishes and aspirations of these two great soldiers could not have been realized. Men will differ as to whether Scott or Lee was right in the course which each thought proper to pursue on the only great question which ever divided them, but all must admire that pure friendship which neither time nor circumstances could break.

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