Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

Chapter XII: Lee's Opinion upon the Late War: His intention to write the history of his Virginia campaigns

The Document

My father had a strong desire at this time to write a history of his campaigns. I think, however, he gradually gave it up when he saw the great difficulties to be overcome and the labour required to produce anything worthy of the subject, especially as he began to realise that his strength was slowly failing--a fact which his letters indicate. Just after the cessation of hostilities, he had taken some preliminary steps toward acquiring the necessary material. In a circular letter which he sent out to a great many of his general officers, he wrote:

"I am desirous that the bravery and devotion of the Army of Northern Virginia be correctly transmitted to posterity. This is the only tribute that can now be paid to the worth of its noble officers and soldiers, and I am anxious to collect the necessary information for the hisotry of its campaigns, including the operations in the Valley and in Western Virginia, from its organisation to its final surrender...."

In a letter to the Honourable W. B. Reid, of Philadelphia, he writes on the same subject:

"...I concur with you entirely as to the importance of a true history of the war, and it is my purpose, unless prevented, to write the history of the campaigns in Virginia. With this view, I have been engaged since the cessation of hostilities in endeavouring to procure the necessary official information. All my records, reports, returns, etc., etc., with the headquarters of the army, were needlessly destroyed by the clerks having them in charge on the retreat from Petersburg, and such as had been forwarded to the War Department in Richmond were either destroyed in the conflagration or captured at the South in the attempt to save them. I desire to obtain some vouchers in support of my memory, or I should otherwise have made some progress in the narrative. the have not even my letter- or order-books to which to refer. I have thought it possible that some of my official correspondence, which would be of value to me, might be found among the captured records in Washington, and that General Grant, who possesses magnanimity as well as ability, might cause me to be furnished with copies. I have, however, hesitated to approach him on the subject, as it is one in which he would naturally feel no interest."

In a letter to General Early, written in November, 1865, on the same subject, he says:

"...I desire, if not prevented, to write a history of the campaigns in Virginia.... Your reports of your operations in '64 and '65 were among those destroyed. Can not you repeat them, and send me copies of such letters, orders, etc., of mine (including that last letter, to which you refer), and particularly give me your recollections of our effective strength at the principal battles? My only object is to transmit, if possible, the truth to posterity, and do justice to our brave soldiers."

Here is another letter to General Early, written March 16th, containing references to the same subject, and to two letters of General Early which had been published in the papers. It is interesting, also, as showing his moderation in speaking of those who had misrepresented his words and acts:

"My Dear General: I am very much obliged to you for the copies of my letters, forwarded with yours of January 25th. I hope you will be able to send me reports of the operations of your commands in the campaign, from the Wilderness to Richmond, at Lynchburg, in the Valley, Maryland, etc.; all statistics as regards numbers, destruction of private property by the Federal troops, etc., I should like to have, as I wish my memory strengthened on these points. It will be difficult to get the world to understand the odds against which we fought, and the destruction or loss of all returns of the army embarrass me very much. I read your letter from Havana to the New York Times, and was pleased with the temper in which it was written. I have since received the paper containing it, published in the City of Mexico, and also your letter in reference to Mr. Davis. I understand and appreciate the motives which prompted both letters, and think they will be of service in the way you intended. I have been much pained to see the attempts made to cast odium upon Mr. Davis, but do not think they will be successful with the reflecting or informed portion of the country. The accusations against myself I have not thought proper to notice, or even to correct misrepresentations of my words or acts. WE SHALL HAVE TO BE PATIENT and suffer for awhile at least; and all controversy, I think, will only serve to prolong angry and bitter feeling, and postpone the period when reason and charity may resume their sway. At present, the public mind is not prepared to receive the truth. The feelings which influenced you to leave the country were natural, and, I presume, were uppermost in the breasts of many. It was a matter which each one had to decide for himself, as he only could know the reasons which governed him. I was particularly anxious on your account, as I had the same apprehensions to which you refer. I am truly glad that you are beyond the reach of annoyance, and hope you may be able to employ yourself profitably and usefully. Mexico is a beautiful country, fertile, of vast resources; and, with a stable government and virtuous population, will rise to greatness. I do not think that your letters can be construed by your former associates as reflecting upon them, and I have never heard the least blame cast by those who have remained upon those who thought it best to leave the country. I think I stated in a former letter the reasons which governed me, and will not therefore repeat them. I hope, in time, peace will be restored to the country, and that the South may enjoy some measure of prosperity. I fear, however, much suffering is still in store for her, and that her people must be prepared to exercise fortitude and forbearance. I must beg you to present my kind regards to the gentlemen with you, and, with my best wishes for yourself and undiminished esteem, I am,

"Most truly yours,

"R. E. Lee."

That his purpose had been heard of in the outside world is evident from this reply to a publisher in Cincinnati:

"Near Cartersville, Virginia, August 26, 1865.

"Mr. Joseph Topham, Cincinnati, Ohio.

"My Dear Sir: I have just received your letter of the 17th inst., in reference to a history of the late war to be written by myself. I cannot, at present, undertake such a work, but am endeavouring to collect certain material to enable me to write a history of the campaigns in Virginia. Its completion is uncertain, and dependent upon so many contingencies that I think it useless to speak of arrangements for its publication at present. Thanking you for your kind proposition, I am,

"Very respectfully yours,

"R. E. Lee."

There were a great many letters of this kind from Northern publishing houses, and his replies were all of the same character. His failure to carry out this much cherished wish is greatly to be deplored. How much we and our children have missed, those who know his truth and honesty of purpose, his manliness, simplicity, and charity, can best tell.

Called before a committee of Congress

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How to cite this article

Lee, Robert E. jr., The Recollections & Letters of Robert E. Lee, webpage created by Rickard, J (8 June 2006),

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