A Consequential Decision
Robert E. Lee changed the course of American history in this room on April 20, 1861. He rejected President Lincoln’s offer of command of the US Army and resigned from his decades-long career. He wrote, “I have been unable to make up my mind to raise my hand against my native state, my relations, my children, and my home.” He knew that his wife and children would soon be forced to flee their beloved Arlington.
“Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life.”
–General Winfield Scott, 1861
Lee never wore the Confederate uniform in this house. Three days after his resignation from the US Army, he was appointed commander in chief of Virginia’s military.
A Long-Awaited Pardon
As punishment for fighting for the Confederacy, Lee, like all other Confederates, lost his rights as a US citizen. To regain those rights, Lee submitted a request for a presidential pardon two months after his surrender. His request was denied, and he died without his rights restored. Still, his action inspired thousands to follow his lead—the first real step toward reunification.
Using Lee’s desk in this room, President Gerald Ford officially pardoned Lee in 1975. Ford sat at this desk, believed to belong to Lee, now in this room. The US Army Chief of Engineers donated this desk to Arlington House in 1913.
“General Lee’s character has been an example to succeeding generations, making the restoration of his citizenship an event in which every American can take pride.”
–President Gerald Ford, August 5, 1975