Letter from the President
Civil War Split: Generals Made Hard Choices
By Charles F. Bryan, Jr., President and Chief Executive Officer
Life is full of decisions. When you are a child, most decisions are made for you, but as you grow older
and mature, you decide more for yourself. Decisions become more complex and harder to make because
they often are life-altering choices that can lead to success or ruin.
Then there are decisions that force you to choose the "harder right," a concept drilled into every cadet at the U.S.
Military Academy at West Point. It teaches that often the right decisions in life are the hardest decisions to make.
It starts with the West Point honor code, which simply states that a cadet "will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate
those who do." In other words, if you see a friend cheating or lying, you are obliged to report him for an honor
violation. Later as an officer in the army, it may mean putting yourself at risk for the good of your unit. In
one way or another, everyone has had to make harder right decisions in life.
But few of us have made the harder right decisions that two Virginians were forced to make. Their names were
Robert E. Lee and George H. Thomas. In many ways they were alike. Both had deep roots in their native land,
dating to the 17th Century when their English ancestors came to Virginia. They were born only 90 miles
apart into slaveholding families. Both had difficult childhoods, losing their fathers when they were boys.
Both Entered West Point
Because their families were strapped financially, both young men chose a path to a college education that was
free and offered attractive career opportunities. Lee entered West Point and graduated second in the class
of 1829 without a demerit. Thomas finished the Academy in 1840 in the top ranks of his class. Both men
married and began successful military careers. Lee became an army engineer. Thomas served in the
artillery and later in the cavalry.
Both men fought with distinction in the Mexican-American War. They displayed degrees of bravery and
leadership that marked them for great things in the future. After the war, Thomas returned on leave to his
home in Southampton County to a hero's welcome. Lee came back to his family in Arlington flushed with
success. Then for the only time in their lives the two Virginians served together when they were assigned
to one of the army's most elite cavalry units stationed on the Indian frontier in Texas.
Lee and Thomas. So remarkably alike. Alike until 1861. After the election of Abraham Lincoln as
President, the states of the lower South seceded and formed the new Confederate nation. Then in April,
1861, Southern forces fired on Fort Sumter. Soon after, states from the upper South, including Virginia,
joined the Confederacy. Then hundreds of native-born Southerners serving in the U.S. Army had a
momentous choice. Would they remain loyal to the Union or would they go with the South? The
majority decided to wear the uniform of gray. What about the two Virginians who seemed so much alike?
Robert E. Lee
as President of
Lee Chose His Native State
Soon after Fort Sumter, President Lincoln offered Lee command of all Union forces. The Virginian had a harder
right decision to make. Would he serve the country he had sworn to defend or would he go with his fellow
Virginians? He answered that he would follow his native state "with my sword, and if need be, with my life."
After a year of secondary commands and staff jobs, he assumed command of the Confederate army in
Virginia in June, 1862. Then for nearly three years he won a remarkable string of victories and led a gallant
defense against heavier odds before eventually surrendering to U.S. Grant at Appomattox in 1865. He
is regarded as one of the great military commanders in American history.
What about the other Virginian? Soon after Fort Sumter, Virginia Governor John Letcher offered him
command of all state artillery forces. Many people throughout Virginia wondered what Thomas would do.
Most assumed he would side with the South. Certainly his Virginia family did. But by the end of April he
shocked them by announcing he would remain loyal to the Union. "I took an oath at West Point to
defend the Constitution and to serve my country," he declared. "I do not break my oaths."
George H. Thomas
Like Lee, Thomas proved a great general. He rose steadily in rank, eventually becoming a Union army
commander in Tennessee and Georgia. His brilliant defensive stand at the battle of Chickamauga in 1863
earned him the nickname "The Rock of Chickamauga." His forces routed a Confederate army at
Chattanooga. He fought effectively with Sherman in the Atlanta campaign. And he destroyed an
entire Confederate army at Nashville in the closing months of the war. Historians rank the Virginian
as one of the top Union generals of the war.
The war ended in victory for Thomas, but in defeat for Lee. Both men lived another five, often difficult, years,
dying within a matter of months of each other. Lee's family fortune and property were lost during the war. For
a time, there was talk of his being tried as a traitor. Despite several lucrative job offers, he accepted the presidency
of struggling Washington College in Lexington. Within five years he turned the school around, and when he died
in 1870, he was one of the most respected and beloved men in the South.
His Family Shunned Thomas
Thomas was not beloved in his native land, but he received the accolades of a grateful nation. At the end of the war,
the U.S. Congress passed a resolution in his honor. He was promoted to major general in the regular army and
given the command of his choice—the Department of the Pacific, headquartered in San Francisco. But he died
suddenly from a massive stroke in l870. Nearly 10,000 people attended his funeral in New York, far from
Virginia, but not a single member of his family showed up. Later someone asked his sisters why they did
not attend. "As far as we're concerned, our brother died in 1861," they replied coldly. George Thomas
died loyal to the country he swore to defend. But as a result, he severed all ties with his native state and
his own flesh and blood.
So who was right—Lee or Thomas? Both had harder right decisions to make. Both suffered for those
decisions, losing a lot because of the courage of their convictions. What would you have done if you had
been in their shoes? In making your next harder right decision, will you have the same courage of conviction
as those two brave Virginia soldiers?
This essay was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch April 11, 2004.
Posted April 2004
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