Robert E. Lee’s Letters: 1862 to 1865

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series Southern Diaries, Letters and Memoirs

Robert E. Lee Painting by Rick TimmonsRobert E. Lee consistently wrote letters to his family, friends and other members of the Confederate government throughout the Civil War. This was his way of accomplishing several goals. He was able to stay in touch with his family members. He recorded his thoughts about battles and the progress of the war.

And he was able to keep Jefferson Davis and other members of the Confederate government informed about the fighting by the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s letters are often a mixture of the mundane minutiae of family information with the more important military matters.

Lee wrote this letter to his brother Charles Carter Lee on March 11, 1862. It was during this time that was serving as Commander of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. His position required him to organize the coastal defenses along the Carolina and Georgia seaboard. Lee was a well-respected engineer who had worked on coastal fortifications in the antebellum period.

My dear Carter 

I was very much pleased to receive your letter apprising me of your good health & of the happiness of those around you.  I wish indeed that I could see you all, but that is a happiness I can hardly expect. Indeed no one has a right to look for any happiness these days except such as he might derive from his efforts to do his duty.  I have been called here very unexpectedly to me & have today been placed in duty at this place under the directions of the Pres: I am willing to do anything I can do to help the noble cause we are engaged in , & to take any position; but the lower & more humble the position the more agreeable to me & the better qualified I should feel to fill it. I fear I shall be able to do little in the position assigned me & cannot hope to satisfy the feverish & excited expectation of our good people.  I spent Sunday last with Mary & found her better than expected.  Our good Bishop (Meade) died last night.  May our end be like his!  Give much love to Sister Lucy & your children & believe me always your brother 

                                                                                                                       R E Lee

After the Second Battle of Manassas, Lee communicated the news of the Confederate victory to President Jefferson Davis by telegraph.

Groveton, August 30. 1862 

President Davis;

           The army achieved today on the plains of Manassas a signal victory over the combined forces of Genls McClellan & Pope.  Battles of 28 & 29 each wing under Genls Jackson & Longstreet repulsed with valor, attacks made on them separately.  We mourn the loss of gallant dead in every conflict.  Yet our gratitude to Almighty God for His Mercies, rise higher each day.  WHim & the valor of our troops, a nations gratitude is due. (Signed) R E Lee

Even at the height of the Civil War, the disposition of his father-in-law’s estate was never far from Robert E. Lee’s mind. On January 11, 1863 he wrote a letter to his son, George Washington Custis Lee who was the heir to Arlington House which had been seized by the Federal government.

I am delighted my dear Son at your Safe return to Richmond and to learn of your good health. Your letter which I have just recd also strengthens my hope of our ability to hold the Misspi. God grant that the integrity of the Confederacy may be thus preserved. I hope you will be able to do Something for the Servants. I executed a deed of manumission, embracing all the names Sent me by your mother & Some that I recollected, but as I had nothing to refer to but my memory, I fear many are omitted. It was my desire to manumit all the people of your Grd father, whether present on the Several estates or not. I believe your mother only Sent me the names of those present at the White House & Romankoke. Those that have left with the enemy, may not require their manumission…

This is an excerpt from a letter that Lee wrote to his wife Mary Anna in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg.

The consequences of war are horrid enough at best, surrounded by all the ameliorations of civilization and Christianity… You will, however, learn before this reaches you that our success at Gettysburg was not so great as reported–in fact, that we failed to drive the enemy from his position, and that our army withdrew to the Potomac.  Had the river not unexpectedly risen, all would have been well with us; but God, in His all-wise providence, willed otherwise, and our communications have been interrupted and almost cut off.  The waters have subsided to about four feet, and, if they continue, by tomorrow, I hope, our communications will be open.  I trust that a merciful God, our only hope and refuge, will not desert us in this hour of need, and will deliver us by His almighty hand, that the whole world may recognise His power and all hearts be lifted up in adoration and praise of His unbounded loving-kindness.  We must, however, submit to His almighty will, whatever that may be.  May God guide and protect us all is my constant prayer.

In the aftermath of the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, Lee sent this letter to Jefferson Davis on August 8, 1863 offering his resignation.

I have been prompted by these reflections more than once since my return from Pennsylvania to propose to Your Excellency the propriety of selecting another commander for this army… No one is more aware than myself of my inability for the duties of my position. I cannot even accomplish what I myself desire… I, therefore, in all sincerity, request your Excellency to take measure to supply my place.

Davis responded:

To ask me to substitute you by someone… more fit to command, or who would possess more of the confidence of the army… is to demand an impossibility.

General Lee wrote the following to Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart on September 23, 1863, congratulating him on his performance in the period after Gettysburg.

General Stuart, Commanding, &c.

I have just received your note of to-day, reporting the retirement of the enemy’s cavalry. I hope you may be able to deal him a damaging blow before he gets out of your reach. I congratulate you on defeating his plans and arresting his advance. The energy and promptness of yourself and command elicits my high admiration. With inferior numbers you concentrated your troops, and successfully opposed his progress, and obliged him to relinquish his purpose. His next attempt will be on our right. We must either be prepared for him there or prostrate him by a movement on his rear. I hope your loss has been small, and that your troops are in good condition. Cherish and refresh them all you can. Very respectfully, your obt. servt.,

R. E. Lee, Genl.”

On April 20, 1865 Lee wrote a letter to Jefferson Davis explaining the reasons for his surrender,

Richmond, Virginia
April 20, 1865

Mr. President

The apprehensions I expressed during the winter, of the moral [sic] condition of the Army of Northern Virginia, have been realized.   The operations which occurred while the troops were in the entrenchments in front of Richmond and Petersburg were not marked by the boldness and decision which formerly characterized them.   Except in particular instances, they were feeble; and a want of confidence seemed to possess officers and men.   This condition, I think, was produced by the state of feeling in the country, and the communications received by the men from their homes, urging their return and the abandonment of the field.   The movement of the enemy on the 30th March to Dinwiddie Court House was consequently not as strongly met as similar ones had been.   Advantages were gained by him which discouraged the troops, so that on the morning of the 2d April, when our lines between the Appomattox and Hatcher’s Run were assaulted, the resistance was not effectual:   several points were penetrated and large captures made.   At the commencement of the withdrawal of the army from the lines on the night of the 2d, it began to disintegrate, and straggling from the ranks increased up to the surrender on the 9th.   On that day, as previously reported, there were only seven thousand eight hundred and ninety-two (7892) effective infantry.   During the night, when the surrender became known, more than ten thousand men came in, as reported to me by the Chief Commissary of the Army.   During the succeeding days stragglers continued to give themselves up, so that on the 12th April, according to the rolls of those paroled, twenty-six thousand and eighteen (26,018) officers and men had surrendered.   Men who had left the ranks on the march, and crossed James River, returned and gave themselves up, and many have since come to Richmond and surrendered.   I have given these details that Your Excellency might know the state of feeling which existed in the army, and judge of that in the country.   From what I have seen and learned, I believe an army cannot be organized or supported in Virginia, and as far as I know the condition of affairs, the country east of the Mississippi is morally and physically unable to maintain the contest unaided with any hope of ultimate success.   A partisan war may be continued, and hostilities protracted, causing individual suffering and the devastation of the country, but I see no prospect by that means of achieving a separate independence.   It is for Your Excellency to decide, should you agree with me in opinion, what is proper to be done.   To save useless effusion of blood, I would recommend measures be taken for suspension of hostilities and the restoration of peace.

I am with great respect, yr obdt svt
R. E. Lee

Robert E. Lee’s correspondence can be read in its entirety in a number of books that are available on Amazon. Some are free and others do cost some money.

Series Navigation<< Robert E. Lee’s Letters-1856 to 1861Mary Custis Lee’s Trunks >>

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