Robert E. Lee Resignation from the United States Army

Examines Robert E. Lee’s decision to resign by utilizing a draft copy of his resignation letter to General Winfield Scott.

Dates and Eras 1861
Themes Secession, Generals, Politics, Soldiers
Grades 5–7
Standards VS.7, USI.9, VUS.7; CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.4, 5,6


Historic Draft letter with a lot of crossed out corrections

Historical Context

After Abraham Lincoln was elected president, South Carolina seceded in December of 1860. They were followed by six other southern states. When Texas left the Union on February 1, 1861, Colonel Robert E. Lee was called back from San Antonio where he had been commanding the Military District of Texas for the past year. Arriving in Washington in April, Lee was offered command of the U.S. forces assigned to protect the city. By this time, Fort Sumter had been fired upon, Lincoln had called for troops, and Virginia had seceded from the Union. Lee had been in the U.S. Army for over thirty years, but he was also a Virginian. On April 20, Lee sent a letter of resignation to Simon Cameron, the U.S. Secretary of War. He wrote another more detailed letter to his commander and friend General Winfield Scott. The draft copy of this letter is in the Museum’s collection and is featured here.

Suggested Questions

1. What is the purpose of the letter?

2. What are Lee’s feelings about his resignation?

3. Why was it a difficult decision?

4. What are Lee’s feelings for General Scott?

5. Why do you think Lee sided with Virginia’s decision of succession, even after serving in the United States Army for over thirty years?

6. Why do you think Lee cared more about protecting Virginia, rather than preserving the Union? What does this suggest about the attitudes many had during this time period?

7. Describe the diction used by Lee throughout his letter. How does that contribute to the overall tone of the piece?

8. Explain what you think Robert E. Lee’s motives were in writing this letter.

9. After reading the letter, what conclusions can one draw about the character of Robert E. Lee?

10. Lee in this letter has crossed and changed several words. Why do you think he did this? What does this show you about Lee’s struggle?

Suggested Activities

1. Have students read the letter and attempt to transcribe it.

2. After reading the letter, pair the students up with a partner and have them speculate how Lee’s choice affected the Civil War. Have students list the pros and cons of Lee’s choice from both the Confederate and Union perspectives. Then, reconvene and discuss the conclusions drawn by students.

3. Have students research other individuals who were faced with conflicting loyalties but chose the Union (Winfield Scott, George Thomas, Josiah Gorgas, Joseph Holt, etc.). Have them write a short essay contrasting one of these individuals’ choices with Robert E. Lee’s.