Week 2: Choosing Sides

Elizabeth Brown Pryor

Elizabeth Brown Pryor, author of Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through His Private Letters and winner of the Lincoln Prize and Jefferson Davis Award, was week two’s visiting scholar. To learn more about her experience, see below.

Elizabeth Brown Pryor presented a half-day program on the critical—and sometimes wrenching—decisions Americans had to make in 1861.  The program began with an examination of how Robert E. Lee came to his historic determination to side with the South.  Using new materials, she showed that his decision was far from inevitable. Lee had multiple considerations, including his allegiance to the United States army, his belief that America’s “limits contain no North, no South, no East, no West, but embrace the broad Union, in all its might & strength, present & future,” and the advice of his relatives, a large number of whom supported the Federal government. She then led the class in analyzing nine true case studies of families and individuals who had to wrestle with competing loyalties as the nation divided.  These histories were presented as problem-solving exercises.  The complex financial, political, and emotional concerns of each case were laid out, and the class analyzed the choices available to each person. Figures from all regions and both genders were included.  They ranged from well-known personalities, such as JEB Stuart, whose father-in-law was a Union general and an important role model, and who never again spoke to Stuart, to Pryor’s own great-great grandfather, who fought for the Union, although the rest of his Virginia family supported the South.  Most of the cases ended in surprise decisions, illustrating the agonizing nature of the situation and underscoring the fact that there was nothing certain in the way that individuals, North or South, responded to the crisis.


A Visit to Fort Pulaski

Week two’s excursion was a short drive out to Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island, at the mouth of the Savannah River. Participants went on a park ranger guided tour of the fort, learning about the history of the fort and the weapons used there,  as well as the story of the Battle of Fort Pulaski. In 1829, then second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Robert E. Lee was ordered to Cockspur Island outside of Savannah, Ga. to build a fort on the marshy island that would command the outlet of the Savannah River. Lee was involved in the early stages of construction as the island was being drained and built up, but was transferred to Fort Monroe in 1831. The fort was completed in 1847, and following the secession of South Carolina in 1860 was taken over by troops of the state of Georgia. In February 1861, Georgia joined the Confederacy and the fort was occupied by Confederate soldiers. Robert E. Lee returned to Fort Pulaski in 1861, this time as a general in command of the  Confederate coastal defenses along the Carolina, Georgia and eastern Florida seaboard. After serving most of his career as an engineer, Lee was there to give orders and recommendations for the defense of the fort. By April 1862, Union forces occupied nearby Tybee Island and had begun construction of a battery along the beaches. Fort Pulaski, thought to be impenetrable because of its location out of the range of artillery, was captured by Union troops on April 11 after successful shelling with new rifled cannons that were able to fire significantly further and were able to breach the walls of the fort.

Park Ranger Joel Cadoff talks about Robert E. Lee’s involvement in the construction, and later on, the defense of Fort Pulaski outside of Savannah, Ga.


From the Collection

MS 489

Robert E. Lee papers, 1838-1871

This collection consists of correspondence and photographs of Robert E. Lee. The contents reflect his military service at Fort Pulaski, military maneuvers, honorary membership in the Bartow Debating Society and the Metropolitan Steam Fire Engine Company, and ongoing correspondence with Annie W. Owens.

Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870) was born in Virginia. He graduated from West Point and was assigned to the Engineer Department. His first service was at Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island on the Savannah River, then under construction. After serving in several other posts, he became Assistant Chief Engineer in Washington, D.C. He was in the Mexican War under Gen. Winfield Scott. He was for several years Superintendent of West Point. At the outbreak of the Civil War he was offered the field command of the U.S. Army which he refused and soon resigned from his post. In 1861, he was appointed commander of the Virginia forces and served as military adviser to President Jefferson Davis with the rank of General. In 1862, he assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia and in 1865, he was General-In-Chief of all Confederate armies. He surrendered to Gen. U.S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia in 1865. After the war he became president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia where he remained until his death. After his death the name of the College was changed to Washington and Lee University.

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