The Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee

This book is by R. E. Lee’s son, Robert E. Lee Jr. You can read it for free here, here, here, here, and here.

The book gives us an intimate look at Lee Sr. and his family. We learn details such as Lee Sr. had an Irish servant in Mexico named Jim Connally, who after the Mexican War taught Lee Jr. how to ride a horse. [p. 5] According to Lee le fils, “I saw but little of my father after we left West Point. He went to Texas, as I have stated, in ’55 and remained until the fall of ’57, the time of my grandfather’s death. He was then at Arlington about a year. Returning to his regiment, he remained in Texas until the autumn of ’59, when he came again to Arlington, having applied for leave in order to finish the settling of my grandfather’s estate. During this visit he was selected by the Secretary of War to suppress the famous ‘John Brown Raid,’ and was sent to Harper’s Ferry in command of the United States troops.” [p. 21]

While the text of the book is largely hagiographic worship of Lee le pere, its real value is with the many Lee letters quoted within its pages. While there are a number of partial quotes of letters, many letters appear in their entirety, making this a wonderful source for Lee’s own words, though it would be nice to compare them to the manuscript letters to see if the son edited them in any way.

In a letter to his sister, Anne Marshall of Baltimore dated April 20, 1861, Lee explained his resignation from the US Army and wrote, “The whole South is in a state of revolution, into which Virginia, after a long struggle, has been drawn; and though I recognise no necessity for this state of things, and would have forborne and pleaded to the end for redress of grievances, real or supposed, yet in my own person I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my native State. With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword. I know you will blame me; but you must think as kindly of me as you can, and believe that I have endeavoured to do what I thought right.” [p. 26] This is in fact a confession in Lee’s own hand that in resigning with the United States facing an enemy he is violating his oath, in which he swore to support the United States “against all enemies whatsoever.” Additionally, he admits he knows Virginia is going to be part of the rebellion against the United States, and while he claims he will be a private citizen, he understands by joining Virginia he will be joining a rebellion against the United States.

Lee arrived in Richmond on April 22, 1861 and went to the Virginia secession convention on April 23, where he was offered command of Virginia military forces, which he accepted. On April 26 he wrote to his wife, Mary Custis Lee, “I am very anxious about you. You have to move and make arrangements to go to some point of safety, which you must select. The Mount Vernon plate and pictures ought to be secured. Keep quiet while you remain and in your preparation. War is inevitable, and there is no telling when it will burst around you. Virginia, yesterday, I understand, joined the Confederate States. What policy they may adopt I cannot conjecture.” [p. 29] This is in essence another confession that he was part of a rebellion and thus committing treason against the United States.

Lee’s letters make mention of his two enslaved servants during the Civil War, Perry, his body servant, and Meredith, his cook. We also see a lot of his thinking as a general and his view of newspapers and their editors. For example, in an October 7, 1861 letter to his wife, Lee wrote, “I am sorry, as you say, that the movements of the armies cannot keep pace with the expectations of the editors of papers. I know they can regulate matters satisfactorily to themselves on paper. I wish they could do so in the field. No one wishes them more success than I do and would be happy to see them have full swing. I hope something will be done to please them.” [p. 51] On December 25, 1861, again to his wife, he wrote, “You must not build your hopes on peace on account of the United States going into a war with England [on account of the Trent affair]. She will be very loath to do that, notwithstanding the bluster of the Northern papers. Her rulers are not entirely mad, and if they find England is in earnest, and that war or a restitution of their captives must be the consequence, they will adopt the latter. We must make up our minds to fight our battles and win our independence alone. No one will help us. We require no extraneous aid, if true to ourselves. But we must be patient. It is not a light achievement and cannot be accomplished at once.” [pp. 59-60]

In a February 23, 1862 letter to his wife, Lee wrote, “I fear our soldiers have not realised the necessity for the endurance and labour they are called upon to undergo, and that it is better to sacrifice themselves than our cause. God, I hope, will shield us and give us success. Here the enemy is progressing slowly in his designs, and does not seem prepared, or to have determined when or where to make his attack. His gunboats are pushing up all the creeks and marshes of the Savannah, and have attained a position so near the river as to shell the steamers navigating it. None have as yet been struck. I am engaged in constructing a line of defense at Fort Jackson which, if time permits and guns can be obtained, I hope will keep them out. They can bring such overwhelming force in all their movements that it has the effect to demoralise our new troops. The accounts given in the papers of the quantity of cotton shipped to New York are, of course, exaggerated. It is cotton in the seed and dirt, and has to be ginned and cleaned after its arrival. It is said that the negroes are employed in picking and collecting it, and are paid a certain amount. But all these things are gathered from rumour, and can only be believed as they appear probable, which this seems to be.” [pp. 64-65] On March 2 of that year he wrote to his daughter, Annie, “Our people have not been earnest enough, have thought too much of themselves and their ease, and instead of turning out to a man, have been content to nurse themselves and their dimes, and leave the protection of themselves and families to others. To satisfy their consciences, they have been clamorous in criticising what others have done, and endeavoured to prove that they ought to do nothing. This is not the way to accomplish our independence. I have been doing all I can with our small means and slow workmen to defend the cities and coast here. Against ordinary numbers we are pretty strong, but against the hosts our enemies seem able to bring everywhere there is no calculating. But if our men will stand to their work, we shall give them trouble and damage them yet. They have worked their way across the marshes, with their dredges, under cover of their gunboats, to the Savannah River, about Fort Pulaski. I presume they will endeavour to reduce the fort and thus open a way for their vessels up the river. But we have an interior line they must force before reaching the city. It is on this line we are working, slowly to my anxious mind, but as fast as I can drive them.” [pp. 65-66]

With regard to the will of G. W. P. Custis, Mary Lee’s father, of which Lee le pere was an executor, Lee le fils writes, “Mr. Custis, my grandfather, had made him executor of his will, wherein it was directed that all the slaves belonging to the estate should be set free after the expiration of so many years. The time had now arrived, and notwithstanding the exacting duties of his position, the care of his suffering soldiers, and his anxiety about their future, immediate and distant, he proceeded according to the law of the land to carry out the provisions of the will, and had delivered to every one of the servants, where it was possible, their manumission papers. From his letters written at this time I give a few extracts bearing on this subject: ‘…As regards the liberation of the people, I wish to progress in it as far as I can. Those hired in Richmond can still find employment there if they choose. Those in the country can do the same or remain on the farms. I hope they will all do well and behave themselves. I should like, if I could, to attend to their wants and see them placed to the best advantage. But that is impossible. All that choose can leave the State before the war closes….

‘…I executed the deed of manumission sent me by Mr. Caskie, and returned it to him. I perceived that John Sawyer and James’s names, among the Arlington people, had been omitted, and inserted them. I fear there are others among the White House lot which I did not discover. As to the attacks of the Northern papers, I do not mind them, and do not think it wise to make the publication you suggest. If all the names of the people at Arlington and on the Pamunkey are not embraced in this deed I have executed, I should like a supplementary deed to be drawn up, containing all those omitted. They are entitled to their freedom and I wish to give it to them. Those that have been carried away, I hope are free and happy; I cannot get their papers to them, and they do not require them. I will give them if they ever call for them. It will be useless to ask their restitution to manumit them….’ ” [pp. 89-90]

On page 100 we find Rooney Lee had enslaved servants of his own, one of whom was named Scott, with him during the war. On page 102 Rob Lee tells us, “After my brother’s capture I went to Richmond, taking with me his horses and servants.”

Regarding Gettysburg, Lee wrote in 1868 to William M. McDonald, “As to the battle of Gettysburg, I must again refer you to the official accounts. Its loss was occasioned by a combination of circumstances. It was commenced in the absence of correct intelligence. It was continued in the effort to overcome the difficulties by which we were surrounded, and it would have been gained could one determined and united blow have been delivered by our whole line. As it was, victory trembled in the balance for three days, and the battle resulted in the infliction of as great an amount of injury as was received and in frustrating the Federal campaign for the season.” [p. 102]

1864 brought Ulysses S. Grant to the east to command all the United States armies. In March of 1864 Lee wrote to Jefferson Davis, “Mr. President: Since my former letter on the subject, the indications that operations in Virginia will be vigorously prosecuted by the enemy are stronger than they then were. General Grant has returned from the army in the West. He is, at present, with the Army of the Potomac, which is being organised and recruited…. Every train brings recruits and it is stated that every available regiment at the North is added to it…. Their plans are not sufficiently developed to discover them, but I think we can assume that, if General Grant is to direct operations on this frontier, he will concentrate a large force on one or more lines, and prudence dictates that we should make such preparations as are in our power….” [pp. 121-122] On April 6 of the same year he wrote to Davis, “All the information I receive tends to show that the great effort of the enemy in this campaign will be made in Virginia…. Reinforcements are certainly daily arriving to the Army of the Potomac…. The tone of the Northern papers, as well as the impression prevailing in their armies, go to show that Grant with a large force is to move against Richmond…. The movements and reports of the enemy may be intended to mislead us, and should therefore be carefully observed. But all the information that reaches me goes to strengthen the belief that General Grant is preparing to move against Richmond.” [p. 122]

On April 12, again to Davis, he wrote, “Mr. President: My anxiety on the subject of provisions for the army is so great that I cannot refrain from expressing it to Your Excellency. I cannot see how we can operate with our present supplies. Any derangement in their arrival or disaster to the railroad would render it impossible for me to keep the army together, and might force a retreat to North Carolina. There is nothing to be had in this section for men or animals. We have rations for the troops to-day and to-morrow. I hope a new supply arrived last night, but I have not yet had a report. Every exertion should be made to supply the depots at Richmond and at other points. All pleasure travel should cease, and everything be devoted to necessary wants.” [pp. 122-123]

On page 132 we learn Lee had a mess steward named Bryan. “Bryan was an Irishman, perfectly devoted to my father, and, in his opinion, there was nothing in the eatable line which was too good for the General. He was an excellent caterer, a good forager, and, but for my father’s frowning down anything approaching lavishness, the headquarter’s table would have made a much better show. During this period of the war, Bryan was so handicapped by the universal scarcity of all sorts of provisions that his talents were almost entirely hidden. The ladies not only were anxious to feed the General, but also to clothe him.” [p. 132]

After the Civil War, Lee and other high-ranking confederates were indicted for treason against the United States. He wrote to General Grant:

[begin quote]Richmond, Virginia, June 13, 1865.

Lieutenant-General U. S. Grant, Commanding the Armies of the United States.

General: Upon reading the President’s proclamation of the 29th ult., I came to Richmond to ascertain what was proper or required of me to do, when I learned that, with others, the was to be indicted for treason by the grand jury at Norfolk. I had supposed that the officers and men of the Army of Northern Virginia were, by the terms of their surrender, protected by the United States Government from molestation so long as they conformed to its conditions. I am ready to meet any charges that may be preferred against me, and do not wish to avoid trail; but, if I am correct as to the protection granted by my parole, and am not to be prosecuted, I desire to comply with the provision of the President’s proclamation, and, therefore, inclose the required application, which I request, in that event, may be acted on. I am with great respect,

Your obedient servant, R. E. Lee.

Richmond, Virginia, June 13, 1865.

His Excellency Andrew Johnson, President of the United States.

Sir: Being excluded from the provisions of the amnesty and pardon contained in the proclamation of the 29th ult., I hereby apply for the benefits and full restoration of all rights as privileges extended to those included in its terms. I graduated at the Military Academy at West Point in June, 1829; resigned from the United States Army, April, 1861; was a general in the Confederate Army, and included in the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, April 9, 1865. I have the honour to be, very respectfully,

Your obedient servant, R. E. Lee. [end quote] [pp. 164-165]

In a letter to his son, William Henry Fitzhugh [“Rooney”] Lee, dated July 29, 1865, after Rooney also had been indicted for treason, Lee wrote, “As to the indictments, I hope you, at last, may not be prosecuted. I see no other reason for it than for prosecuting ALL who ever engaged in the war. I think, however, we may expect procrastination in measures of relief, denunciatory threats, etc. We must be patient, and let them take their course. As soon as I can ascertain their intention toward me, if not prevented, I shall endeavour to procure some humble, but quiet, abode for your mother and sisters, where I hope they can be happy. As I before said, I want to get in some grass country, where the natural product of the land will do much for my subsistence.” [pp. 177-178]

The book does a lot to illuminate R. E. Lee’s racial views. For instance, Young Lee writes, “In talking with Colonel Carter about the situation of farmers at that time in the South, and of their prospects for the future, he urged him to get rid of the negroes left on the farm—some ninety-odd in number, principally women and children, with a few old men—saying the government would provide for them, and advised him to secure white labour. The Colonel told him he had to use, for immediate needs, such force as he had, being unable at that time to get whites. Whereupon General Lee remarked: ‘I have always observed that wherever you find the negro, everything is going down around him, and wherever you find a white man, you see everything around him improving.’ ” [p. 168]

In a letter to Rob dated March 12, 1868, Lee wrote, “People have got to work now. It is creditable to them to do so; their bodies and their minds are benefited by it, and those who can and will work will be advanced by it. You will never prosper with blacks, and it is abhorrent to a reflecting mind to be supporting and cherishing those who are plotting and working for your injury, and all of whose sympathies and associations are antagonistic to yours. I wish them no evil in the world—on the contrary, will do them every good in my power, and know that they are misled by those to whom they have given their confidence; but our material, social, and political interests are naturally with the whites.” [p. 306]

The Lee letters included in this book make it an essential resource for serious students of the war. If you are a serious student of the war, this book belongs on your bookshelf.

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