Did Lee Really Say This One?

Over at The Gift That Keeps On Giving, the group owner posted this regarding the allegation that Lee, during Reconstruction, said, “Governor, if I had foreseen the use those people designed to make of their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; no sir, not by me. Had I foreseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in my right hand.”

Leaving aside the fact that the group’s owner doesn’t know what “autobiography” means [and, by the way, the comments are worth seeing, especially where, since he doubts the legitimacy of the quotation, the group owner is called “simply a reconstruction apologist posing as a Southerner.”], did Lee actually say this?  According to one neoconfederate in the group, “it is a quote from Lee, shortly before his death, quoted by two very reliable people. Part of the politically correct sanitation process is to deny any quotes from any historical figure which goes against the grain of the oppressors.”  Seriously, folks, you just can’t make this stuff up.

The quote originates with Robert Lewis Dabney, who alleged that he heard it from former Texas Governor Fletcher Stockdale.  Dabney and Stockdale claim the meeting where Lee is alleged to have said this took place at White Sulphur Springs in the summer of 1870, the year Lee died.  Lee went to Staunton on August 29 to  attend a meeting of the stockholders of the Valley Railroad. The stockholders met in Staunton on the morning of August 30. “Upon the  conclusion of the stockholders’ meeting, General Lee returned to Lexington. It was his last journey.” [Douglas Southall Freeman, R. E. Lee: A Biography, Vol 4, p. 480] Also, this particular fairy tale does not appear in Charles Bracelen Flood’s Lee: The Last Years.

I also wrote about this fairy tale here.

Douglas Southall Freeman addressed this particular alleged quotation here:

“Doctor Dabney was not present and received his account of the meeting from Governor Stockdale. The latter told Dabney that he was the last to leave the room, and that as he was saying good-bye, Lee closed the door, thanked him for what he had said and added: ‘Governor, if I had foreseen the use these people desired to make of their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox, no, sir, not by me. Had I foreseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in this right hand.’ This, of course, is second-hand testimony. There is nothing in Lee’s own writings and nothing in direct quotation by first-hand witness that accords with such an expression on his part. The nearest approach to it is the claim by H. Gerald Smythe that ‘Major Talcott’ — presumably Colonel T. M. R. Talcott — told him Lee stated he would never have surrendered the army if he had known how the South would have been treated. Mr. Smythe stated that Colonel Talcott replied, ‘Well, General, you have only to blow the bugle,’ whereupon Lee is alleged to have answered, ‘It is too late now’ (29 Confederate Veteran, 7). Here again the evidence is not direct. The writer of this biography, talking often with Colonel Talcott, never heard him narrate this incident or suggest in any way that Lee accepted the results of the radical policy otherwise than with indignation, yet in the belief that the extremists would not always remain in office. For these reasons the writer is unwilling to quote this doubtful testimony in the text.”

Is it possible they simply got the year wrong?  That it was 1868 instead of 1870?  Doubtful, because he was careful to say it was the same year Lee died.  It’s difficult to believe they got the year of the meeting wrong when they claimed to remember it as the same year Lee died.

The only reasonable conclusion I can see is that Lee never said it.


  1. To his credit, Gary Adams has pointed that this quote is pretty unsubstantiated numerous times.

    1. Credit where credit is due.

  2. So it’s a story that Dabney claims to have heard in 1883, and it didn’t get committed to paper until 1895, a quarter-century after it took place, by someone who head about it second-hand. Okay.

    The first comment was interesting:

    I believe the quote bears veracity because of the two men who believed it and believed it enough to report it and record it as accurate- RL Dabney, one of the most honest and truthful and honorable of our Southern Fathers and TC Johnson, another honorable man of deep and sincere Christian convictions just like Dabney.

    When the defense of a claim amounts to, “So-and-so was an honorable man and would never have done/said/believed [whatever],” you might as well strike the tent. It’s not an argument. Our prisons are full of men and women whose friends and families insist they would never have done the things they were convicted of doing. As for Johnson’s “deep and sincere Christian convictions,” some of the biggest charlatans out there do their deeds under the guise of ostentatious religiosity.

    A high degree of skepticism is warranted in this case.

    1. Exact-a-mundo. 🙂

      1. jfepperson · · Reply

        Frankly, if Freeman is skeptical, I’m at least skeptical. No, I think I’m with Andy on this one: “A high degree of skepticism.”

        But those folks will believe it is true because they want it to be true.

  3. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    Isn’t this the same Dabney who claimed to have been told by a Virginian that Lincoln made the what will I do without tariffs remark to him? The facts being that no one could deny or verify that statement as the only two men who could were dead when the remark was made public.

    1. It is indeed, the same one who put out the story that John Baldwin was told by Lincoln, “What about my tariff?” Neoconfederates love that one, too, even though anyone with a modicum of knowledge and logic can easily show it’s poppycock. Over 90% of the tariff was collected in Northern ports, and the war cost more per day than the tariff would take in, something Lincoln would have known.

  4. Michael Rodgers · · Reply

    Such a flimsy provenance for such an out-of-character, non-acted-upon, singular statement and instead of heeding Lee’s public advice and emulating his public deeds, the neoconfederate crowd chooses tenaciously to live their lives based on it. Here’s an example: SC state Sen. Glenn McConnell on the day he voted to take one Confederate flag down from atop the State House dome and put another one up out front:

    “We’re pretty much at the crossroads of history,” McConnell said, “like they were that day at Appomattox. And I hope that we leave this day not making the same mistake that was made after that war. Because, as Lee would say, looking back on the way Reconstruction went, ‘Had I known that we would be treated this way, I would not have surrendered at Appomattox.'”

  5. Troy Metheny · · Reply

    Did General Lee actually say, “Fold it up, and put it away”. Regarding a Southern women’s question about what she should do with her “Rebel Flag”? I”ve seen this quote on many websites.

    1. I’ve read that also, but I haven’t seen the source yet. I’ve written about it here. Personally, I put this in the category of “Alleged but not proven, but consistent with other things he said.”

  6. Of course anything to discredit a southerner is always vogue by thieving carpetbaggers

    1. Interesting these idiots are too dumb to realize they discredit Southerners far more than anyone else.

  7. Mark Thomey · · Reply

    An important part of the exchange between Lee and Stockdale which lends credence and background to Lee’s comment has been conveniently, or more charitably, accidentally, omitted. In the full account of the event that Stockdale (not a second hand actor by the way, but a participant in the event itself) recounts to Dabney (a presbyterian minister and chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson) for his memoirs, Lee detains Stockdale and closed the door. When alone, Lee told Stockdale that while being questioned by the yankee attendees of the meeting at White Sulphur Springs, he could not speak freely or honestly about the condition of the Southern people under yankee occupation and ‘reconstruction’. Lee told Stockdale he had to be quiet or at least guarded in what he said PUBLICLY, as the conquerors/occupiers of the South took him to be the archetypal Southron and would take every opportunity to twist his words and bring more suffering on the Southern people. He thanked Stockdale for HIS brave reply to the yankee interrogators and reopened the door, but abruptly closed it again, whereupon he told Stockdale that he wouldn’t have surrendered, etc.

    This adds much needed context to the story. It also explains why Stockdale would not have repeated it while reconstruction was ongoing – in keeping with Lee’s idea that publicly stating such a thing would only have made conditions worse (if that was possible) for the South. Dabney’s memoir, “The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney”, in which this account appears, was not written by Dabney until reconstruction ended and was not originally published until 1903.

    One must also question why Dabney and Stockdale would have good reason lie about such a thing being said by Lee. Dabney KNEW Lee, being Jacksons chief of staff during the war. He would have had ample time to get to know General Lee and his character and his views on the war and the principles for which the South fought it. This aspect is neglected and/or whitewashed by Freeman, et.al. in their attempts to refute Lee’s having said what he did. Just because something doesn’t get written down somewhere does NOT mean it isn’t true. In his epistle, St Paul commands us to, ‘stand fast and hold the traditions you have learned; whether by WORD or by our epistle.’ Note that he give primacy to having received a thing by WORD over by writing. In a court of law, testimony is given orally, then written down for a record, not the other way around.

    General Lee was a pragmatic and practical man who recognized the objective reality of the state he and his fellow Southrons were in at the time, but do not doubt this – Robert E Lee was a Virginian and a Southern patriot to his core, and I do not find it at all implausible for him to have made this statement.

    1. How do you people expect me to be patient with you when you put forth such slipshod, shoddy baloney and expect anyone with a functioning brain to accept it as intellectual content?

      First of all, the post said clearly Dabney claimed Stockdale told him about it, so your intimation that it was left out simply shows incompetence on your part.
      Secondly, the allegation is that Lee supposedly said this in the summer of 1870, at a time when he clearly was not in White Sulphur Springs. The White Sulphur
      Springs Conference with Rosecrans was in August of 1868, not as claimed in 1870.
      Thirdly, Dabney claimed that Stockdale told him this in 1883, 13 years after the fairy tale claims Lee made the statement, and Dabney didn’t publish it until 1895. It appears nowhere else. Stockdale never published his tale, nor does he appear to have told anyone else about it.
      Fourthly, the fairy tale quote bears no resemblance to anything Lee ever said.

      Dabney probably fabricated the entire account. Both Lee and Stockdale were dead and couldn’t contradict him. Only an ignoramus who hasn’t read much of anything Lee ever said or wrote would think Lee actually said this. You people simply amaze me with the silliness you come up with and try to pass off as serious discussion.

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