Robert E. Lee: Prisoner of War?

ECW welcomes back guest author Katy Berman

Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee got his first taste of disunion when he returned to San Antonio, Texas on a February afternoon in 1861. To his distaste, he was confronted by newly minted Texas Confederates who demanded to know what side he was on.

The old flag was no longer flying over the Alamo, and men with strips of red flannel attached to their clothes were milling about. Lee entered a nearby hotel and changed into civilian clothes. He meant to find out what was going on.

Lee had been stationed in San Antonio only months before, in temporary command of the Department of Texas. When Gen. David D. Twiggs, an ailing veteran of wars dating back to 1812, resumed command on December 9, Lee was ordered to rejoin his regiment, the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, at Fort Mason one hundred miles away.[1] There, he was employed in fruitlessly chasing the wily Mexican bandit, Juan Cortinas, and staying alert to threats from the Comanches.

The state of the Union was on his mind, of course; it was on everyone’s. Twiggs had not wanted to return to Texas for fear he would be faced with the crisis of southern secession.[2] General Winfield Scott had sent Twiggs a letter, to be shared with Lee, advising the officers what to do in case Texas seceded. Lee, however, hoped all would be well. At fifty-one, he had had a long career with the army, and although the slow progress of promotions had disappointed him, he could imagine no other life.

David Twiggs

Then, surprisingly, orders came from Gen. Scott to leave Fort Mason and report to Washington D.C. by April 1. Several of his men inquired of Lee what his plans were should the country split in two. Lee replied, ‘’I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in defense of my native state.”[3]

Back in San Antonio, Twiggs’s pleas to be relieved of command had been ignored in Washington.  His requests for direction in the case of Texas’s likely secession were similarly ignored. The general’s fears were realized when secessionists organized a convention convening on January 28, 1861, over the objections of Governor Sam Houston. A week later, delegates voted overwhelmingly to leave the Union. However, unlike states that had previously seceded, they put the final say in the hands of Texas citizens. An election to approve or disapprove secession would be held on February 23.

Convention officers did not wait for the election to take certain vital steps. Seven men were sent to Montgomery, Alabama to participate in the new Confederate government. A committee of public safety was formed that would oversee the removal of Federal forces from Texas and the confiscation of their materiel.

General Twiggs, a Georgian, had declared that he would not fire upon Texans in the case of secession. General Winfield Scott had earlier supported that decision. Should secession prove inevitable, Twiggs would turn over the federal forts and arsenals to those acting “with full authority from the state of Texas.” He would not, however, allow his men to suffer the dishonor of surrendering their sidearms or light artillery.[4] The negotiations went back and forth until, at last, the Texans acceded to Twiggs’s demands. Twiggs surrendered on February 18. A day later, his long-awaited replacement, Gen. Carlos A. Waite, arrived in San Antonio and was soon arrested.

The committee for public safety had decided to act before Waite arrived. It ordered Col. Ben McCulloch to surround the San Antonio arsenal and government officers.[5] McCulloch was following those orders as Col. Lee was en route from Fort Mason and Gen. Waite from Camp Verde.

Surrender of General Twiggs

There is some confusion about the date on which Lee alighted from his conveyance in front of Read House, San Antonio. Mrs. Clarence Baldwin Darrow, who was there, writes that she met Lee upon his arrival on February 16 and told him, “Twiggs has surrendered and we are all prisoners of war.”[6]  Mrs. Darrow further writes that Twiggs left for New Orleans directly after the surrender, which is recorded as February 18. In any event, Lee, in civilian dress, went to Twiggs’ former headquarters and found three public-safety men in charge. He was told that, like other Federal officers and troops, he would be allowed to leave Texas by the coast, but his baggage would not accompany him unless he declared for Texas.[7]

Lee furiously refused to do so. He was an officer in the U.S. Army and a Virginian. What Texas had done had no influence over him. He made plans to leave and asked his friend and comrade, Maj. Charles Anderson, to guard his effects until they could be retrieved in the future.[8] Lee never saw them again.

As proscribed by the new Confederate government in Texas, Lee and many federal troops embarked at the Gulf port of Indianola. Unfortunately several hundred soldiers did not make it to the coast by April when the orders changed. Colonel Earl Van Dorn, now in command of the Department of Texas was directed to arrest the remaining troops as prisoners of war. They were not paroled for two years.[9]

It is interesting to ponder–and he must have pondered –what Lee would have done had he been in command of the Department of Texas when secession occurred. He was a loyal soldier with hopes that his beloved Virginia would resist secession. What action could he have taken that would have been judicious, right, and honorable?

Robert E. Lee in Texas, 1861

Lee left San Antonio with a hopeful speculation that  Scott might offer him a promotion. Anderson later recollected Lee’s avowal that he would defend Virginia with his sword should she secede. Captain R. M. Potter, who knew Lee during those trying days in San Antonio, remembered him saying sadly, “When I get to Virginia, I think the world will have one soldier less. I shall resign and go to planting corn.”[10] Lee might have been providentially saved from making the hard decision faced by Gen.Twiggs, but a hard decision of his own was inevitable.

Katy Berman is a retired elementary-school teacher residing in New Jersey. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in English at the University of California, Berkeley and her Master’s in American History through American Military University. For several years, she has reviewed books for “The Civil War Courier.” 


[1] Rister, Carl Coke, Robert E. Lee in Texas, (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1946), pg. 149.

[2] Heidler, Joanne T. “’Embarrassing Situation’: David E. Twiggs and the Surrender of United States Forces in Texas, 1861,” Lone Star Blue and Grey: Essays on Texas in the Civil War, pg. 30

[3] Freeman, Doulgas Southall, R. E. Lee, Volume 1,(New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1936), pg. 425.

[4] Heidler, “Embarrassing Situation,” pg.43.

[5] Cottrell, Steve, Civil War in Texas and New Mexico Territory, (Gretna: Pelican Publishing Co.,1998), 16-18.

[6] Freeman, R. E. Lee, pg. 427.

[7] Rister, Robert E. Lee in Texas, pg. 161.

[8] Ibid., 160-161.

[9] Cottrell, Civil War,” pg. 22.

[10] Darrow, Caroline Baldwin, “Recollections of Twiggs’ Surrender,”Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 1, (New York: The Century Co, 1887),36 n. Accessed Mar. 18, 2024,

17 Responses to Robert E. Lee: Prisoner of War?

  1. Well done article. And you raise a fascinating point – what indeed would Lee have done if he still had been in command in Texas, at a time when Virginia still was in the Union and Lee duty bound to defend U.S. property? Would his sense of honor in the face of overly-aggressive Texan hotheads have sparked a violent confrontation and altered his own future?

    There is an excellent alternative history article addressing this very point. See “Lee at the Alamo,” by Harry Turtledove. Text on line at

  2. A “Committee For Public Safety”! Hmmm, sounds like someone at that time was taking notes from the French Revolution.

    1. From the American Revolution. Committees of Safety were set up in most counties in the 13 colonies– at least they were in Virginia, with which I am most familiar. They did things like organize protests against the British and enforced boycotts against them, as well as appointing officers to the local county militias, etc.

    2. Well, that’s all good, but for myself, I’ve only recall it being applied to certain activities and people involved in the French Revolution. And I’m no expert on that. But I do appreciate the replies offering further information about such committees.

      1. The big difference of course, which accounts for infamy of the French Committees of Safety, and our Committees of Safety and Observation, was we didn’t murder our fellow countrymen … we may have spoken harshly to Quakers in Philadelphia or Loyalists in Boston … but no lopping off of heads!

  3. Rather odd that group of essentially conservative if not reactionary revolutionaries should utilize the name of the blood soaked French Jacobin group. Perhaps not. What is evident is the torture that Lee was going through. He was emotionally avoiding the essential illogic of his position, thinking of fighting “for” Virginia without somehow not fighting against the United States.

    1. As I wrote above, Committees of Safety were actually from the American Revolution– one was set up in every county in Virginia in the 1770s. The French may have stolen the idea from us. And, as a Virginian myself, I can certainly understand fighting for it being the highest good. Remember that “the United States” was a PLURAL until after the Civil War. In other words, people referred to “the United States” as “they”, until recently.

  4. One of my ancestors served as a judge alongside Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee (father of Robert E Lee), in fact may have been among the judges who put him in debtor’s jail. His (my ancestor’s) grandchildren served in the 9th Virginia Cavalry, companies K and C, representing Richmond County and neighboring Westmoreland County, where Stratford Hall, the seat of the Lees, was located. They were a motivated bunch, enlisting not long after secession of Virginia, and the line was long. Apparently, Lee’s home county (Westmoreland) and neighboring counties were pretty gung-ho about secession.

  5. First, excellent article. And the point you raise about what would Lee have done had he been in command is fascinating. At the time that Texas seceded Virginia of course still was in the Union, and would be for months, so Lee’s duty to defend U.S. property (and honor) would not have been in conflict with any duty to his home state. One can imagine how Lee would have reacted to a brash demand by Texas hotheads that he meekly surrender. In fact, there is an excellent alternative history short story addressing this very scenario. See “Lee at the Alamo,” by Harry Turtledove (text is available online).

  6. Harry Turtlelove wrote an alternate history story where Lee leads a federal garrison defend the Alamo against secessionists. Eventually Lee returns to Washington, and radicalized by his expereinces in Texas, accepts a Union command in the western theater, where he would not have to fight Virginia.

    1. Quite all right but heck Matt, you should have included a spoiler alert to your post. It’s still a story well done and well worth reading. In my humble opinion Turtledove really expresses Lee’s character quite well. Interestingly, Lee’s second in command is a fellow Virginian (George Thomas).

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