Washington and Lee University

Review of Charles Alfred Graves's
The Forged Letter of General Robert E. Lee
George B. Eager, Jr.

Note: The following is taken from the April 1916 issue of the Virginia Law Review (volume 3), pp. 567–68


THE FORGED LETTER OF GENERAL ROBERT E. LEE, by Charles Alfred Graves, Professor of Law in the University of Virginia. (A paper read before the Virginia State Bar Association, printed in the reports of the Association for 1914, Vol. XXVII, and supplemented in the reports for 1915, Vol. XXVIII.)

In this paper the author attacks as a literary forgery the so-called “Duty Letter,” long attributed to General Robert E. Lee, which contains the oft quoted sentence: “Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language.”

Emerson once said: “The nobler the truth or sentiment, the less imports the question of authorship,” and by such a standard, one must conclude, the game is hardly worth the candle. The author, however, who had the honor of being a student under General Lee, holds the opinion that “loyalty to Lee requires repudiation of a letter falsely masquerading under his name.” Though it be “a harmless deception, yet the cause of truth needs this refutation,” and the author has, therefore set himself to this “labor of love.”

The paper has its consideration in this journal not for its end but for its means; as a problem in evidence, and a demonstration of the principles of judicial proof.

Judged by Victor Hugo's test—“L'ouvrage est-il bon ou est-il mauvais?”—there can be but one conclusion—it is masterly. Without inquiry as to the legal burden of proof, the author concedes that the letter should be taken as prima facie genuine, and assumes the task of proving it spurious by a preponderance, at least, of the evidence. He begins by proving indubitably that the letter, as printed, first in the New York Sun of Nov. 26, 1864 and later in the Richmond Whig and the Richmond Sentinel, could not have been genuine in toto, especially with reference to the date and the first two sentences. Not content with this, the author proceeds to take up in detail every possible theory or supposition upon which the substantial genuineness of the rest of the letter might be maintained. Listing these theories as (1) The Wrong Date Theory; (2) The Editorial Emendation Theory, and (3) The Compilation Theory, the author admits, for the sake of argument, the truth of every possible supposition which could be advanced to establish the authenticity of the questioned document, and with merciless logic based upon a mass of evidence irresistibly refutes the respective theories in their order.

The supplementary paper was not essential to complete the case, but the evidence there adduced has removed the question from the field of controversy. The indictment has been sustained beyond a reasonable doubt; the Duty Letter is a forgery to a moral certainty.

Since these papers are here reviewed primarily as the working out of a problem in evidence, it would seem not amiss to add what has been said of them by no less an authority in the field of evidence than Professor John Henry Wigmore: “For pure unmixed interest as an evidence problem, it is at the head of such things. * * * The manner in which every little sidepath is followed out and blocked up is also masterly, and serves as a lesson in rigid accuracy of scholarship.”

GEO. B. EAGER, JR.