• The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia

The Lee Family Digital Archive is the largest online source for primary source materials concerning the Lee family of Virginia. It contains published and unpublished items, some well known to historians, others that are rare or have never before been put online. We are always looking for new letters, diaries, and books to add to our website. Do you have a rare item that you would like to donate or share with us? If so, please contact our editor, Colin Woodward, at  (804) 493-1940, about how you can contribute to this historic project.



Nelson Co, near Willow Bank P.O. March 1859


My dear Sir,

The ‘Lee Papers’ to which you refer in your letter were deposited many years ago at the University of Va., by your kinsman R. H. Lee Jr., after he had completed the biographies of his Grandfather & Uncle Arthur, & I rather infer that he then regarded them as in the nature of ‘remainder biscuit after a voyage’.—or the fragments left of a feast.—I never heard of them until, as I remember, about three years since, when on enquiry I was told that there was such a collection, which, being in much disorder when received, had, years before, been handed over for arrangement to Dr. Frank Carr[1], then Secy. of the Board of Visitors; who took them for that purpose, to his residence in the Country, where they had remained after his death, until at my instance they were returned to the University. Having been called there about a year after the date above mentioned—& detained by [illegible] of weather, I spent the better part of day in looking them over. They were still in much confusion, & many of them worn & torn at the folds; but by the aid of a sort of Index & brief abstract of the Contents of such as he thought most valuable, which had been drawn up by Dr. Carr, I became satisfied that here was still much material of historical & biographical importance;--certainly many things which if properly culled out and set in order, would furnish the matter of half a dozen or more articles to a Periodical, & thereby be laid before hundreds of readers, if not placed on a permanent record. Clearly, up to that time, they had been buried and utterly unknown to the Public generally; and this I could not but think a matter of just reproach to those who had them in charge,--besides that they were in danger of destruction by one or more of the several accidents to which such things are liable.—I urged the importance of immediate attention to the subject,--that they should be handed over to someone for that purpose,- & Prof Holcombe was requested to take [Home in charge?]. But the duties of his Chair left him no license for such an [illegible]. On learning this, after conference with one of the visitors, I proffered myself to undertake the task—as the then state of the Papers, I thought, reflected no credit either on the Institution or the state—provided they were allowed my own time for their completion.

            When they reached me their condition after all that Dr. Carr had done was little short of deplorable, & such as would have damped any ordinary zeal. More—far more than I had anticipated—was necessary to be done, before they could be licked into shape & made presentable. However, I set to work on the disheartening task, & though often repelled, returned to the charge again & again—sometimes at distant intervals—until, being sustained by my admiration for the ‘Remarkable Brotherhood’ & gratitude for their poorly—requited services—I at length with the aid of friends brought it to a successful conclusion. The papers—more than 900 in number—are now all properly classified, rearranged,--(those that needed it repaired)—& a new and supplementary Catalogue has been drawn up,--& the entire collection placed in such order that whosoever wishes to examine them either for the purposes of curiosity or research, can do so with facility & despatch. And now, to your enquiry ‘Whether Congress ought not to be petitioned to publish these Papers’? You may be surprised if I should answer in the negative. The same question has been asked by others, & had occurred to myself, & my conclusion was postponed until after a thorough examination, when I became satisfied, that although Congress had published many things not better than these—of so good,—yet as a whole, it could hardly be considered as is only incumbent on that body to bring them before the world. My reasons for this judgment are many, –too numerous for me here to give at large;--and the Papers themselves are too voluminous & various in character for me to enter into particulars;--but if you could see them yourself I think you would concur with me in opinion.

            The Collection consists, for the most part of certain papers of, 1st. R. H. Lee; 2d, of Arthur Lee; 3d. of Aldn. Wm. Lee.[2]—In the first class are embraced:--a) Draughts of papers by, or for, R. H. L.—while a member of Ho. of Burgs of Va. (b) Copies of British Docs. relating to Amn. affairs sent him (c) Copies & Draughts of Congressional Papers prepared by or for him. (d) Letters (originals) addressed to R. H. L. by Virginians (civilians) on Public affairs. (e) Do by military men. (f) Do from [illegible] & military men in the other states, & foreign offices (g) Draughts of answers to letters—some 40 in no. addressed principally to his brothers Arthur & F. Lightfoot, the remainder to divers[e] persons, civil & military;—some very interesting.

2. Of the Papers of Arthur Lee, the most numerous class are (a) Letters to his brother Richard –commencing with his first voyage to Europe & brought down to a very late period. The letters before ’65 contain but little relating to public affairs. After that they become more interesting, & while he was Commr in France they are in great part confidential, and most of them in Cypher, & treat much of his controversy with Dr. Franklin, Silas Deane & Co; & such a scene of villainy as they say there is only to be paralleled in our history, by the corruptions of the Democratic Administration of our own day.—(b) Besides there are many letters to & from subaltern agents, American-French men & others. (c) Also numerous papers drawn up by himself (& his brother Richard) in vindication against the assault of S. Deane. (d) The letters from Virginian & other correspondents whether before or after his return to Ama.; are not numerous, but some are interesting.—(c) A few draughts of Public Papers*.) *It may be so well to add that many of the Papers of A.L. were deposited by R. H. Lee Jr. in the Library of Harvard College. The Papers of Wm. Lee –consist almost wholly of letters addressed to his brothers Richard & Arthur.—some of which exhibit remarkable sagacity, good judgment, sound-sense, warm patriotism & a manly spirit. There are also a few letters to & from F. L. Lee.

            In glancing your eye over the above précis, you will see at once that these papers must be various, both in subject & permanent interest. I have had fair copies made of all the draughts of Public Papers & Letters by R. H. Lee. Class 1. (a), (c) (g).) – The ‘Selections & Excerpts’ which have thus far appeared in the Sou. Lit. Messr., are taken from divisions. (d) (e) & (f) – and were intended to embrace whatever they contained of public interest. – The most valuable papers & Letters of Arthur Lee have also been copied, [illegible] & by [illegible] & some of these may yet appear in the same journal which will ensure them a permanent record & many [illegible] if they are never subdivided in a separate collection.—the most interesting letters of Wm. Lee were copied [illegible]. These copies were made for the most part for me by a friend who has more liesure for such matters than myself & who does such things for a consideration. I once thought of giving to our Historical Society, such as were not suited to the Messenger; but for grievous reasons, this has been deferred; and on hearing that Mr. Chas Campbell contemplated a second Edition of his History of Va.,[3] the whole batch of MSS. was sent to him for his use. Some of the Letters of R. H. Lee, I once thought ought to appear in the Messr.; but withheld them, because both Mr. C & myself thought these ought to be a new Life of that distinguished Patriot, accompanied by a more copious collection of his public papers & letters,--the first being out of print;--& on my writing to your kinsman, R. H. L. Jr., to that effect, he intimated such a purpose; but I think he needs a stimulus to hasten his movements, & I wish you would give him a touch of your spur. Many of those which are now with Mr Campbell are well worthy a place in such a work & I know of others,—e.g. those in the Henry Papers. But I should suppose that the names of his correspondents would furnish a clew to the whereabouts of a good many men,--for which most diligent search should be made before it be too late. And surely every relic of such a man should be gathered up, & passed in review, before it is suffered to be finally lost.

            The Sparks’ Diplomatic correspondence of the Revolution have already appeared many letters both of Arthur & Wm. Lee, & these may contain the substance of what is embraced in this collection –other than the Confidential matter; -- but of these I cannot speak with certainty, having not had an opportunity of examining that work.

You will now be able to judge of my present impression as to the best disposition of these papers;--& that is what has been already been done in part. [illegible] to publish in our Periodical the best parts of them, & reserve the rest for a place in some future Edn. of the Lives of R. H. & Arthur Lee. But as the papers are now restored to proper order, others on examination may come to a different conclusion: & more like your own.— I hope I need not tell you that I yield to no one in my admiration of the Lees.

The letters of your father which appear in the Mssr. were with one or two exceptions of a formal & official character, written while he was Govr. of Va. & of no present interest—the only ones which I could find in this collection. The excerpts from those of Dr. Shippen & Genl Weedon[4] were inserted as a fitting prelude or Introduction to the others.

The Lees you say are ‘not popular.’ Of the present race you of course know more than I do, & whether they do more than share the odium which in these democratic days is the lot of most of those who have the misfortune to be descended of an honorable & honoured ancestry unless they will turn traitors to their principles & memory. Of your brother—the gallant soldier--& his signal services, I have heard from those who appreciated them highly; & if he has not received justice from his country, I hope it will not be finally withheld, & that he will yet rise above all the efforts of his serious detractors.—If the older worthies of one name are less known to the present generation than they ought to be, pardon me for saying – that this may be owing in some measure to the fact, that (your father excepted) they did not take proper care of their own fame during their own life-time, nor have their friends properly supplied their omissions since.

Suppose R. H. Lee had kept copies of all his State papers, Speeches, & Letters, & that he had written Ana,[5] like St. Thomas of Monticello by a stenographic Boswell to record his sayings in private or social life, what a book might we might we not have had! And then he was taken away on the eve of the Old French Revolution, the scenes & actions of which for a long time so absorbed public attention as to make even us – and especially Virginians – ‘oblivious’ of our own worthies. But the tide has turned now, & I doubt not that if his family & friends will do their duty, the name of Richard Henry Lee will ‘start a ghost’[6] as well as another.

Some years ago you sent to the Mssr. copies of certain letters of Thos. Ludwell Lee to his brother Richard from originals in yr. possession, which I lately perused with much interest. Could anything [illegible] you to part with one of those originals? As, among holders of Autographs, all the world over, exchange in kind is regarded as perfectly legitimate, & not at all Yankeeish, & the readiest mode of increasing their stores with benefit to all parties, I venture the liberty of proffering therefor, an original letter of Arthur Lee to R. H. L.,--the most interesting in the whole collection, as I think you would acknowledge in inspection. This is one of only three or four which I retained from the Lee Papers, in consideration of the labour I bestowed on them, & because these were Duplicates of the same. I want a letter of T. L. L. not for myself now, but for a gentleman at the North – a statesman & man of Letters who is fond of such things & who has laid me under some obligations, which I would willingly repay, in this, the only mode which would be acceptable to him as a gentleman.—I lately requested my nephew Jno. B. Cocke to enquire of you also whether you either had or could procure a letter of your brother Henry, & of Cmy Genl Charles Lee, who, if I mistake not, was your uncle?—These also are desired by the same gentn., who seems to have a perfect fervor for such relics of distinguished Virginians of other days, & so he sent me a long list of names most of which I fortunately either had or have been able to obtain, & I would gladly add the above to the number. Can you also tell me in what volume of the Messr. appeared your father’s Impromptu Eulogy on hearing of the death of Patrick Henry? There is a [?] of some years in my set, of some 2 or 3 volumes; but on twice looking through the Indexes I have failed to find it in those I have. If not too great a trespass on yr. time & courtesy I would ask a new copy if not otherwise to be had.

            I am pleased to learn that my ‘Fragment’ of a History of the Early Agriculture meets your approbation & shall be happy to recieve a copy of your Georgics[7] in return. –The matter of the former is no doubt more curious than useful at the present day, but as such, nevertheless, our reading powers ought to be possessed of, & for want of a better, will do as a prelude to the History of our Modern Improvements in the same Department, for which I have collected some materials, but Heaven knows when or whether I shall find time to put them together.

—But  I have bored you enough for now—& will only add, that I would gladly talk over these & other matters now at large, could we meet,--in the hope of which I remain

Very respectfully & truly yrs

N. F. Cabell[8]


P.S. By the bye, could you not find the liesure to visit your lady-relative in this neighborhood during the present year? And as her residence is within walking distance, I might there hope to see you under my own roof.

P.S. 2 When Mr. C. is done with them you are perfectly welcome to a select of the MSS. now in his possession—should you desire it. And as they are copied in a fair hand, they are perhaps more readable than the originals.—You could look therein over in the liesure of in a few days, if you travel with half the speed of a modern novel-reader.




Source: The Archives of the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation, Papers of the Lee Family, Box 3, M2009.243, Jessie Ball duPont Library, Stratford Hall


Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2015 November 10

[1] Dr. Frank Carr (1784-1843).

[2] William Lee (1739-1795) was made alderman shortly before the American Revolution broke out.

[3] Charles Campbell, History of the Colony and Ancient Dominion of Virginia, 1860.

[4] George Weedon (1734-1793), brigadier general in the Continental Army. He was from Fredericksburg, Virginia.

[5] His wives were both named Anne: Anne Aylett (d. 1768) and Anne Gaskins Pinckard.

[6] For use of this phrase, see Thomas Paine in Age of Reason and his discussion of the New Testament, “The story of Jesus Christ appearing after he was dead is the story of an apparition, such as timid imaginations can always create in vision, and credulity believe. Stories of this kind had been told of the assassination of Julius Caesar, not many years before; and they generally have their origin in violent deaths, or in the execution of innocent persons. In cases of this kind, compassion lends its aid and benevolently stretches the story. It goes on a little and a little further till it becomes a most certain truth. Once start a ghost and credulity fills up the history of its life, and assigns the cause of its appearance! one tells it one way, another another way, till there are as many stories about the ghost and about the proprietor of the ghost, as there are about Jesus Christ in these four books.”

[7] Charles Carter Lee, Virginia Georgics: Written for the Hole and Corner Club of Powhatan (Richmond: J. Woodhouse Co., 1858).

[8]Nathaniel F. Cabell (1807-1891). 

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