Virginia Soldiers Make Hard Decisions
Colonel Robert E. Lee faced a hard decision about his professional future and his allegiance in the spring of 1861. In mid-April, Winfield Scott, the senior general of the United States Army, had an intermediary inquire whether Lee would accept command of the army to suppress the rebellion, but Lee declined. After Virginia seceded he chose to remain loyal to his native state and resigned his commission in the army to fight for the defense of Virginia.
Scott, too, had to choose. He was also a Virginia native. He had been one of the few army men beside Andrew Jackson who had earned fame during the War of 1812. Scott commanded the American army during the war with Mexico in the 1840s, and in 1861 he was the senior general in the United States Army. As a native of Dinwiddie County, he, too, had to think about whether his primary loyalty was to the state of his birth or to the nation he had served. Scott did not hesitate and remained loyal to the Union, although he was too old and his health too poor to serve in the field. Scott retired from the army in November 1861.
Other and younger army officers from Virginia also had to choose. George Henry Thomas, a very promising officer, declined an offer to apply for the position of chief of artillery of the Virginia militia early in 1861 and remained in the United States Army. He became one of the most successful and distinguished of all Union generals during the Civil War, although his family in Southampton County in effect disowned him and refused to have anything to do with him thereafter.
The choices that the men of the Cooke family made were particularly poignant. In 1861, Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, a career army officer, chose to remain loyal to the Union, and he served throughout the war as a brigadier general. One of his sons-in-law commanded a New York regiment that fought for the Union, and two sons-in-law served in the Confederate States Army. Cooke's only son, John Rogers Cooke, was a young United States Army lieutenant when the war began, but he resigned and rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate army. The two generals were not reconciled until the 1880s.