Robert E. Lee, it is claimed, once said that, when asked who was the best Union general he faced, said, “most emphatically ‘McCellan by all odds.’ ” This is in Robert E. Lee Jr.’s book, Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee, on page 416. It’s in a section dealing with a conversation General Lee supposedly had with his cousin, Cassius Lee. But this isn’t Rob Lee relating what he witnessed his father telling Cassius Lee. It’s not even Rob Lee relating what Cassius Lee told him about the conversation. It’s Rob Lee relating what Cassius Lee’s son, Cazenove Lee, told him. Here’s the full passage:
“It is greatly to be regretted that an accurate and full account of this visit was not preserved, for the conversations during those two or three days were most interesting and would have filled a volume. It was the review of a lifetime by two old men. It is believed that General Lee never talked after the war with as little reserve as on this occasion. Only my father and two of his boys were present. I can remember his telling my father of meeting Mr. Leary, their old teacher at the Alexandria Academy, during his late visit to the South. which recalled many incidents of their school life. They talked of the war, and he told of the delay of Jackson in getting on McClellan’s flank, causing the fight at Mechanicsville, which fight he said was unexpected, but was necessary to prevent McClellan from entering Richmond, from the front of which most of the troops had been moved. He thought that if Jackson had been at Gettysburg the would have gained a victory, ‘for’ said he, ‘Jackson would have held the heights which Ewell took on the first day.’ He said that Ewell was a fine officer, but would never take the responsibility of exceeding his orders, and having been ordered to Gettysburg, he would not go farther and hold the heights beyond the town. I asked him which of the Federal generals he considered the greatest, and he answered most emphatically ‘McClellan by all odds.’ He was asked why he did not come to Washington after second Manassas.
” ‘Because,’ he replied, ‘my men had nothing to eat,’ and pointing to Fort Wade, in the rear of our home, he said, ‘I could not tell my men to take that fort when they had had nothing to eat for three days. I went to Maryland to feed my army.’
“This led to a statement of the mismanagement of the Confederate Commissary Department, of which he gave numerous instances, and mentioned his embarrassments in consequence. He was also very severe in his criticism of the newspapers, and said that patriotism did not seem to influence them in the least, that movements of the army were published which frustrated their plans, and, as an instance, he told of Longstreet’s being sent to the Western Army and the efforts that were made to keep the movement secret, but to no purpose, the papers having heralded it at once to friend and foe alike. I also remember his saying that he advocated putting the negroes in the army, and the arguments he advanced in favour of it. My father remarked at table one day that he could not have starved in the Confederate service if he could have gotten bread and milk.
“‘No,’ replied the General, ‘but frequently I could not get even that.’
“His love of children was most marked, and he never failed to show them patient consideration. On the occasion of this visit, his answers to all our boyish questions were given with as much detail and as readily as if we had been the most important men in the community. Several years before the war I remember that my sister, brother, and myself, all young children, drove over to Arlington Mills, and that while going there Colonel Lee rode up on a beautiful black horse. He impressed my childish fancy then as the handsomest and finest horseman I had ever seen—the beau-ideal of a soldier. Upon seeing us he at once stopped, spoke to each of us, and took my sister, then about ten years of age, upon his horse before him, and rode with us for two miles, telling her, I remember, of his boy Robby, who had a pony, and who should be her sweetheart. Often have I seen him on the road or street or elsewhere, and though I was ‘only a boy,’ he always stopped and had something pleasant to say to me.” [Robert E. Lee, Jr., Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee, pp. 415-417]
Is this passage credible? Should we really believe that Lee believed McClellan was “by all odds” “the greatest” Union general?