Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia,
October 14, 1864.
His Excellency William Smith,
Governor of Virginia, Richmond, Va.:
Governor: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 12th instant, and fully appreciate the patriotic interest in the welfare of the country and the success of our cause by which you are actuated. I have given to the views you express the consideration which their important deserves, and shall transmit your communications to the Secretary of War, to whose province I think they belong more appropriately than to my own. I regret that I failed to make myself understood with reference to the weight to be given to public opinion as to the capacity or merits of a commanding officer. I intended to confine my remarks to the opinion of the army, and to say that when a commander has in any way lost the confidence of his troops, he should be relieved without regard to the cause. As to the opinion of the community at large, I think it more likely to be erroneous on military matters than any other, for the reason that the secrecy necessary to be observed in military operations prevents those not connected with their direction from possessing themselves of the facts essential to a fair and intelligent opinion. The result of operations is usually the only test the people have of the merit of him who conducts them and their judgment is generally made up accordingly. I think you will agree with me that this is not as safe a guide as a knowledge of all the circumstances surrounding the officer, his resources as compared with those of the enemy, his information as to the movements and designs of the latter, the nature of his command, and the object he has in view. I also desire Your Excellency to understand that I do not regard the facts upon which your opinion as to the expediency of removing General Early is based, as being stated by you as of your own knowledge. You necessarily know only what others tell you, and, like myself, are dependent for the accuracy of your information upon the character of your informant. The reports that have reached me as to several of the subjects of complaint against General Early differ from those you have received. I will only illustrate this difference by reference to the reverse at Winchester, which your informant alleges to have been the result of a surprise.
General Breckinridge, who was present on that occasion, informed me that in his opinion the dispositions made by General Early to resist the enemy were judicious and successful until rendered abortive by a misfortune which he could not prevent and which might have befallen any other commander. He also spoke in high terms of General Early’s capacity and energy as displayed in the campaign while General B. was with him. You will readily perceive the little importance to be attached to the statement of a subordinate officer as to the propriety of any movement when he does not profess to know the reasons which induced his superior to order it. I do not myself know why General Early marched from Waynesborough when he did. I had, however, directed him, as soon as he heard that the enemy was retiring or had ceased to advance, to make a forward movement, if practicable, with a view of inflicting such injury as he could, compelling the enemy to keep his troops together instead of spreading them over the country to devastate and plunder and to restore confidence and heart to his own command. My instructions may have caused him to make the movement complained of. But I do not propose to enter into any argument on these points. My purpose is merely to indicate how necessary it is to use the utmost caution in deciding a matter which involves the safety of the army and the defense of the country. So far as my information extends General Early has conducted his operations with judgment, and until his late reverses rendered very valuable service considering the means at his disposal. I lament those disasters as much as yourself, but I am not prepared to say that they proceeded from such want of capacity on the part of General Early as to warrant me in recommending his recall. If a more competent commander can be designated for that department I need not say that I should earnestly advise his assignment to it, my sole object being to have the services of the best man that can be found, and such I am fully persuaded is the motive which actuates Your Excellency.
Thanking you for the interest you manifest in our success and for the zealous support you are always ready to render to the army, I remain, with high respect, your obedient servant,
R. E. Lee
Source: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 43, Part 2, pp. 897-898.
Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2016 April 21