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150 Years Ago: Saturday, April 20, 1861

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After two days of internal struggle, Robert E. Lee officially resigns his position with the U.S. military after 25 years of service. He addresses his letter to Secretary of War Simon Cameron with a simple sentence: “I have the honor to tender the resignation of my Commission of Colonel of the 1st Regt. of Cavalry.”

To his mentor, long time friend and fellow Virginian General Winfield Scott, Lee writes a longer explanation. He says that he wanted to give his resignation personally to Scott, but couldn’t “…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.” Lee expresses gratitude for the kindness shown to him. “To no one, General, have I been as much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness and consideration.” He closes with “Save in the defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.” 

Lee was a civilian again, but not for long. He decides to head to Richmond to offer his services. What he does not realize, however, is that the resignation will not officially go through until it is officially accepted. The resignation will not be accepted today, so technically he is still a member of the U.S. military when he leaves for Richmond.
In New York City, the largest public meeting citizens have ever witnessed is held in Union Square (now Broadway and Fourth Avenue). 100,000 men – though not many African Americans as they are considered unwelcome at such public events – pour into the square. Women & children are also not allowed, with the exception of those who are able to look out their windows or stand in doorways to see the action. 

One of the reasons this location was chosen was due to an equestrian statue of George Washington in the southeast corner – which is where a statue of King George III had once stood. (TCWP note: The GW statue has since been moved to the south side of the area.)  Affixed to the statue for the rally was the U.S. flag that had once flown at Fort Sumter.

Statue of George Washington holding Fort Sumter flag, Union Square, NYC
April 20, 1861
Source: Library of Congress

Jane Stuart Woolsey, who would become an active member of the Sanitary Commission, observes the rally from her family’s balcony in the southeast corner of the square. She describes the scene as a “huge sea of men” who “overflowed the quadrangle of streets.” She is unable to hear the speakers, though she knows when key points are made based on the thousands of hats lifted and swung in the air and by the roar of the cheers.

Major Anderson is the hero of the day; many speeches are given, including a moving piece by New York City Mayor Fernando Wood. Wood had spoken of New York secession on several occasions, but for today he is on the side of the Union. A popular phrase heard several times at the rally is “We are all Democrats. We are all Republicans.” For today, New York City is united.

Out in western Missouri, a pro-secession group raids a U.S. arsenal in the town of Liberty. It is not a huge loss, but it causes great fears over the safety of a key arsenal in St. Louis. 

In St. Louis, William Tecumseh Sherman is serving as President for the St. Louis Railroad Company. He had been the first superintendent for the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy, but left in January 1861 due to secession in the South. He had traveled to Washington City to meet with Lincoln when he was inaugurated, but was very disappointed to find a man who he perceived as unresponsive and blind to the true situation the country faced. Having seen the sentiments of the citizens of Louisiana, Sherman felt he had a clearer perception than most as to the fight that was ahead of them. Feeling helpless and isolated in his views, on this day he wrote: 

“The first movements of our government will fail and the leaders be cast aside. A second or third set will rise and amongst them I may be. But at present, I will not volunteer as a soldier or anything else. If Congress meet or if a national convention be called and the Regular Army be put on a footing with the wants of our country, If I am offered a place that suits me, I may accept. But in the present call, I will not volunteer.

The time will come in this country when Professional knowledge will be appreciated, when men that can be trusted will be wanted. I will bide my time. I may miss the chance and if so all right.  It is an administration of your choice as you think it right. You must back it up with power adequate to its wants and necessities. I say volunteers and militia never were and never will be fit for Invasion and whoever tries it will be defeated and dropt by Lincoln like a hot potato.”

Daily Civil War Calendar

April 2011

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