Review of Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee
John R. Ficklen
Note: The following is taken from the April 1905 issue of The American Historical Review (volume 10), pp. 674–76.
Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee. By Captain ROBERT E. LEE. (New York: Doubleday, Page, and Company. 1904. Pp. xiii, 461.)
THESE recollections and letters of General Lee, by his youngest son, fill a distinct place among the many works of which this remarkable man has been the subject. They give us side-lights upon his career from his return from the Mexican War in 1848 to his death in 1870. The letters given are for the most part addressed to the members of his family, many of them to the son who now edits them. They all reveal, as nothing else could, the wealth of affecton that he treasured up for wife and children, as well as the moral and religious elements of his character. It has often been remarked that no son should write the biography of his father—such a work being likely to degenerate into mere eulogy. Captain Lee, however, has not cared to intrude, to any great extent, his own impressions of his father's character. His contributions to this work take the form of explanations which render the letters intelligible, or of such recollections of his relations with his father in times of war and peace as every one will be glad to read. Moreover, the character of General Lee was so nearly perfect that there is no extraordinary danger of overpraise even from the partiality of a devoted son. Certainly such comments as Captain Lee has added are delighfully told and in perfect good taste. The style is simple, but betrays a practised hand. Where there are lacunæ in the letters, the writer quotes from Professor Trent's Robert E. Lee or from Colonel Taylor's Four Years with General Lee.
Of the letters themselves, a few contain details of family life which have no significance and might have been omitted; but the great majority fill in the outlines of General Lee's life in a most satisfactory fashion. Among the first given is the one, written February 25, 1868, in which Lee speaks of his resignation from the Federal army and denies the charge that he ever “intimated to any one” that he “desired the command”of that army (pp. 27–28). “Nor did I ever”, he adds, “have a conversation with but one gentleman, Mr. Francis Preston Blair, on the subject, which was at his invitation, and, as I understood, at the instance of President Lincoln. After listening to his remarks, I declined the offer he made me, to take command of the army that was to be brought into the field; stating, as candidly and as courteously as I could, that, though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States. I went directly from the interview with Mr. Blair to the office of General Scott; told him of the proposition that had been made to me, and my decision. Upon reflection after returning to my home, I concluded that I ought no longer to retain the commission I held in the United States Army, and on the second morning thereafter [April 20, 1861] I forwarded my resignation to General Scott. At the time, I hoped that peace would have been preserved. . . . To days afterward, upon the invitation of the Governor of Virginia, I repaired to Richmond; found that the Convention then in session had passed the ordinance withdrawing the State from the Union; and accepted the commission of commander of its forces, which was tendered to me.”
General Lee's war record is so well known that the most valuable of these letters are those in which we catch glimpses of those deeper thoughts and feelings which he revealed to his family. His most marked characteristic is his religiousness—hardly less profound than that of Jackson himself. This is seen throughout the letters, but especially in those written in the trying times of war. “One of the miseries of war”, he writes to his wife, “is that there is no Sabbath, and the current of work and strife has no cessation.” In other letters is shown his intense belief in a special Providence. Speaking of his campaign in West Virginia, he writes: “I had taken every precaution to ensure success and counted on it; but the Ruler of the Universe willed otherwise, and sent a storm to disconcert a well-laid plan and to destroy my hopes.”
When the war was over, Lee wished to seek a quiet home and to escape the hero-worship of the South; but he was soon called to the presidency of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University). here he was to devote his remaining years to the education of Southern youth. Insurance companies and commercial enterprises wooed him in vain. “I am grateful”, he wrote in anser to one proposal of this character, “but I have a self-imposed task which I must accomplish. I have led the young men of the South in battle; I have seen many of them die on the field; I shall devote my remaining energies to training young men to do their duty in life.” During the period of Reconstruction no word of bitterness escaped his lips, though he felt deeply the degradation of his state. His advice to young men always contained a note of cheer. When one of his young cousins in 1870 was wondering what fate was in store for “us poor Virginians”, Lee replied: “You can work for Virginia, to build her up again, to make her great again. You can teach your children to love and cherish her.” His philosophy of life, moreover, was lightened by a canny humor, which he never lost even amid the hardships of war and which made him a favorite companion of children. These letters show that in play and conversation with children this great captain of the south found the deepest joy of his life.
The book is handsomely bound and printed, with fine portraits of Lee at different periods of his life. The last picture represents Valentine's wonderful recumbent statue. To the whole is added a good index of twenty pages.
JOHN R. FICKLEN.