Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

Chapter VI: The Winter of 1863-4: The Lee family in Richmond and The General's letters to them from Camps Rappahannock and Rapidan

The Document

My mother had quite recently rented a house on Clay Street in Richmond which, though small, gave her a roof of her own, and it also enabled her at times to entertain some of her many friends. Of this new home, and of a visit of a soldier's wife to him, the General thus writes:

"Camp Rappahannock, November 1, 1863.

"I received yesterday, dear Mary, your letter of the 29th, and am very glad to learn that you find your new abode so comfortable and so well arranged. The only fault I find in it is that it is not large enough for you all, and that Charlotte, whom I fear requires much attention, is by herself. Where is 'Life' to go, too, for I suppose she is a very big personage? But you have never told me where it is situated, or how I am to direct to you. Perhaps that may be the cause of delay in my letters. I am sorry you find such difficulty in procuring yarn for socks, etc. I fear my daughters have not taken to the spinning-wheel and loom, as I have recommended. I shall not be able to recommend them to the brave soldiers for wives. I had a visit from a soldier's wife to-day, who was on a visit with her husband. She was from Abbeville district, S. C. Said she had not seen her husband for more than two years, and, as he had written to her for clothes, she herself thought she would bring them on. It was the first time she had travelled by railroad, but she got along very well by herself. She brought an entire suit of her own manufacture for her husband. She spun the yarn and made the clothes herself. She clad her three young children in the same way, and had on a beautiful pair of gloves she had made for herself. Her children she had left with her sister. She said she had been here a week and must return to-morrow, and thought she could not go back without seeing me. Her husband accompanied her to my tent, in his nice gray suit. She was very pleasing in her address and modest in her manner, and was clad in a nice, new alpaca. I am certain she could not have made that. Ask Misses Agnes and Sally Warwick what they think of that. They need not ask me for permission to get married until they can do likewise. She, in fact, was an admirable woman. Said she was willing to give up everything she had in the world to attain our independence, and the only complaint she made of the conduct of our enemies was their arming our servants against us. Her greatest difficulty was to procure shoes. She made them for herself and children of cloth with leather soles. She sat with me about ten minutes and took her leave--another mark of sense--and made no request for herself or husband. I wrote you about my wants in my former letter. My rheumatism I hope is a little better, but I have had to-day, and indeed always have, much pain. I trust it will pass away.... I have just had a visit from my nephews, Fitz, John, and Henry [General "Fitz" Lee, and his two brothers, Major John Mason Lee and Captain Henry Carter Lee]. The former is now on a little expedition. The latter accompanies him. As soon as I was left alone, I committed them in a fervent prayer to the care and guidance of our Heavenly Father.... I pray you may be made whole and happy.

"Truly and devotedly yours,

"R. E. Lee."

Another letter from the same camp is interesting:

"Camp Rappahannock, November 5, 1863.

"I received last night, dear Mary, your letter of the 2d.... I am glad to hear that Charlotte is better. I hope that she will get strong and well, poor child. The visit of her 'grandpa' will cheer her up. I trust, and I know, he gave her plenty of good advice. Tell Mrs. Atkinson that her son Nelson is a very good scout and a good soldier. I wish I had some way of promoting him. I received the bucket of butter she was so kind as to send me, but have had no opportunity of returning the vessel, which I hope to be able to do. I am sorry Smith does not like your house. I have told you my only objection to it, and wish it were large enough to hold Charlotte. It must have reminded you of old times to have your brother Carter and Uncle Williams [Mr. Charles Carter Lee, the General's brother; Mr. Williams Carter, the General's uncle] to see you. I think my rheumatism is better to-day. I have been through a great deal with comparatively little suffering. I have been wanting to review the cavalry for some time, and appointed to-day with fear and trembling. I had not been on horseback for five days previously and feared I should not get through. The governor was here and told me Mrs. Letcher had seen you recently. I saw all my nephews looking very handsome, and Rob too. The latter says he has written to you three times since he crossed the river. Tell "Chas." I think F's old regiment, the 9th, made the best appearance in review.

"While on the ground, a man rode up to me and said he was just from Alexandria and had been requested to give me a box, which he handed me, but did not know who sent it. It contained a handsome pair of gilt spurs. Good-night. May a kind heavenly Father guard you all.

"Truly and affectionately,

"R. E. Lee."

When our cavalry was reviewed the preceding summer, it happened that we engaged the next day, June 9th, the enemy's entire force of that arm, in the famous battle of Brandy Station. Since then there had been a sort of superstition amongst us that if we wanted a fight all that was necessary was to have a review. We were now on the same ground we had occupied in June, and the enemy was in force just across the river. As it happened, the fighting did take place, though the cavalry was not alone engaged. Not the day after the review, but on November 7th, Meade advanced and crossed the Rappahannock, while our army fell back and took up our position on the line of the Rapidan.

Before the two armies settled down into winter quarters, General Meade tried once more to get at us, and on the 26th of November, with ten days' rations and in light marching order, he crossed the Rapidan and attempted to turn our right. But he was unable to do anything, being met at every point by the Army of Northern Virginia, heavily entrenched and anxious for an attack. Long says:

"Meade declared that the position could not be carried without the loss of thirty thousand men. This contingency was too terrible to be entertained--yet the rations of the men were nearly exhausted, and nothing remained but retreat. This was safely accomplished on the night of December 1st...."

Lee was more surprised at the retreat of Meade than he had been at his advance, and his men, who had been in high spirits at the prospect of obliterating the memory of Gettysburg, were sadly disappointed at the loss of the opportunity. To my mother, General Lee wrote on December 4th, from "Camp Rapidan":

"...You will probably have seen that General Meade has retired to his old position on the Rappahannock, without giving us battle. I had expected from his movements, and all that I had heard, that it was his intention to do so, and after the first day, when I thought it necessary to skirmish pretty sharply with him, on both flanks, to ascertain his views, I waited, patiently, his attack. On Tuesday, however, I thought he had changed his mind, and that night made preparations to move around his left next morning and attack him. But when day dawned he was nowhere to be seen. He had commenced to withdraw at dark Tuesday evening. We pursued to the Rapidan, but he was over. Owing to the nature of the ground, it was to our advantage to receive rather than to make the attack. I am greatly disappointed at his getting off with so little damage, but we do not know what is best for us. I believe a kind God has ordered all things for our good...."

About this time the people of the City of Richmond, to show their esteem for my father, desired to present him with a home. General Lee, on hearing of it, thus wrote to the President of the Council:

"...I assure you, sir, that no want of appreciation of the honour conferred upon me by this resolution--or insensibility to the kind feelings which prompted it--induces me to ask, as I most respectfully do, that no further proceedings be taken with reference to the subject. The house is not necessary for the use of my family, and my own duties will prevent my residence in Richmond. I should therefore be compelled to decline the generous offer, and I trust that whatever means the City Council may have to spare for this purpose may be devoted to the relief of the families of our soldiers in the field, who are more in want of assistance, and more deserving it, than myself...."

My brother was still in prison, and his detention gave my father great concern. In a letter to my mother, written November 21st, he says:

"...I see by the papers that our son has been sent to Fort Lafayette. Any place would be better than Fort Monroe, with Butler in command. His long confinement is very grievous to me, yet it may all turn out for the best...."

Next: Death of Mrs. Fitzhugh Lee

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How to cite this article

Lee, Robert E. jr., The Recollections & Letters of Robert E. Lee, http://www.historyofwar.org/sources/acw/lee_letters/chapter06b, webpage created by Rickard, J (8 June 2006),

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