Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee, Jr.

CHAPTER VI
THE WINTER OF 1863—4

THE LEE FAMILY IN RICHMOND—THE GENERAL’S LETTERS TO THEM FROM CAMPS RAPPAHANNOCK AND RAPIDAN—DEATH OF MRS. FITZHUGH LEE—PREPARATIONS TO MEET GENERAL GRANT—THE WILDERNESS—SPOTTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE—DEATH OF GENERAL STUART—GENERAL LEE’S ILLNESS

MY mother had quite recently rented a house on Clay Street in Richmond which, though small, gave her a roof of her own, and it also enabled her at times to entertain some of her many friends. Of this new home, and of a visit of a soldier’s wife to him, the General thus writes:

CAMP RAPPAHANNOCK, November 1, 1863.

I received yesterday, dear Mary, your letter of the 29th, and am very glad to learn that you find your new abode so comfortable and so well arranged. The only fault I find in it is that it is not large enough for you all, and that Charlotte, whom I fear requires much attention, is by herself. Where is “Life” to go, too, for I suppose she is a very big personage? But you have never told me where it is situated, or how I am to direct to you. Perhaps that may be the cause of delay in my letters. I am sorry you find such difficulty in procuring yarn for socks, etc. I fear my daughters have not taken to the spinning-wheel and loom, as I have recommended. I shall not be able to recommend them to the brave soldiers for wives. I had a visit from a soldier’s wife to-day, who was on a visit with her husband. She was from Abbeville district, S.C. Said she had not seen her husband for more than two years, and, as he had written to her for clothes, she herself thought she would bring them on. It was the first time she had travelled by railroad, but she got along very well by herself. She brought an entire suit of her own manufacture for her husband. She spun the yarn and made the clothes herself. She clad her three young children in the same way, and had on a beautiful pair of gloves she had made for herself. Her children she had left with her sister. She said she had been here a week and must return to-morrow, and thought she could not go back without seeing me. Her husband accompanied her to my tent, in his nice gray suit. She was very pleasing in her address and modest in her manner, and was clad in a nice, new alpaca. I am certain she could not have made that. Ask Misses Agnes and Sally Warwick what they think of that. They need not ask me for permission to get married until they can do likewise. She, in fact, was an admirable woman. Said she was willing to give up everything she had in the world to attain our independence, and the only complaint she made of the conduct of our enemies was their arming our servants against us. Her greatest difficulty was to procure shoes. She made them for herself and children of cloth with leather soles. She sat with me about ten minutes and took her leave—another mark of sense—and made no request for herself or husband. I wrote you about my wants in my former letter. My rheumatism I hope is a little better, but I have had to-day, and indeed always have, much pain. I trust it will pass away. . . . I have just had a visit from my nephews, Fitz, John, and Henry.[note 36] The former is now on a little expedition. The latter accompanies him. As soon as I was left alone, I committed them in a fervent prayer to the care and guidance of our Heavenly Father. . . . I pray you may be made whole and happy. Truly and devotedly yours,

R. E. LEE.

Another letter from the same camp is interesting:

CAMP RAPPAHANNOCK, November 5, 1863.

I received last night, dear Mary, your letter of the 2d. . . . I am glad to hear that Charlotte is better. I hope that she will get strong and well, poor child. The visit of her “grandpa” will cheer her up. I trust, and I know, he gave her plenty of good advice. Tell Mrs. Atkinson that her son Nelson is a very good scout and a good soldier. I wish I had some way of promoting him. I received the bucket of butter she was so kind as to send me, but have had no opportunity of returning the vessel, which I hope to be able to do. I am sorry Smith does not like your house. I have told you my only objection to it, and wish it were large enough to hold Charlotte. It must have reminded you of old times to have your brother Carter and Uncle Williams[note 37] to see you. I think my rheumatism is better to-day. I have been through a great deal with comparatively little suffering. I have been wanting to review the cavalry for some time, and appointed to-day with fear and trembling. I had not been on horseback for five days previously and feared I should not get through. The governor was here and told me Mrs. Letcher had seen you recently. I saw all my nephews looking very handsome, and Rob too. The latter says he has written to you three times since he crossed the river. Tell “Chas.” I think F’s old regiment, the 9th, made the best appearance in review.

While on the ground, a man rode up to me and said he was just from Alexandria and had been requested to give me a box, which he handed me, but did not know who sent it. It contained a handsome pair of gilt spurs. Good-night. May a kind heavenly Father guard you all. Truly and affectionately,

R. E. LEE.

When our cavalry was reviewed the preceding summer, it happened that we engaged the next day, June 9th, the enemy’s entire force of that arm, in the famous battle of Brandy Station. Since then there had been a sort of superstition amongst us that if we wanted a fight all that was necessary was to have a review. We were now on the same ground we had occupied in June, and the enemy was in force just across the river. As it happened, the fighting did take place, though the cavalry was not alone engaged. Not the day after the review, but on November 7th, Meade advanced and crossed the Rappahannock, while our army fell back and took up our position on the line of the Rapidan.

Before the two armies settled down into winter quarters, General Meade tried once more to get at us, and on the 26th of November, with ten days’ rations and in light marching order, he crossed the Rapidan and attempted to turn our right. But he was unable to do anything, being met at every point by the Army of Northern Virginia, heavily entrenched and anxious for an attack. Long says:

Meade declared that the position could not be carried without the loss of thirty thousand men. This contingency was too terrible to be entertained—yet the rations of the men were nearly exhausted, and nothing remained but retreat. This was safely accomplished on the night of December 1st. . . .

Lee was more surprised at the retreat of Meade than he had been at his advance, and his men, who had been in high spirits at the prospect of obliterating the memory of Gettysburg, were sadly disappointed at the loss of the opportunity. To my mother, General Lee wrote on December 4th, from “Camp Rapidan”:

. . . You will probably have seen that General Meade has retired to his old position on the Rappahannock, without giving us battle. I had expected from his movements, and all that I had heard, that it was his intention to do so, and after the first day, when I thought it necessary to skirmish pretty sharply with him, on both flanks, to ascertain his views, I waited, patiently, his attack. On Tuesday, however, I thought he had changed his mind, and that night made preparations to move around his left next morning and attack him. But when day dawned he was nowhere to be seen. He had commenced to withdraw at dark Tuesday evening. We pursued to the Rapidan, but he was over. Owing to the nature of the ground, it was to our advantage to receive rather than to make the attack. I am greatly disappointed at his getting off with so little damage, but we do not know what is best for us. I believe a kind God has ordered all things for our good. . . .

About this time the people of the City of Richmond, to show their esteem for my father, desired to present him with a home. General Lee, on hearing of it, thus wrote to the President of the Council:

. . . I assure you, sir, that no want of appreciation of the honour conferred upon me by this resolution—or insensibility to the kind feelings which prompted it—induces me to ask, as I most respectfully do, that no further proceedings be taken with reference to the subject. The house is not necessary for the use of my family, and my own duties will prevent my residence in Richmond. I should therefore be compelled to decline the generous offer, and I trust that whatever means the City Council may have to spare for this purpose may be devoted to the relief of the families of our soldiers in the field, who are more in want of assistance, and more deserving it, than myself. . . .

My brother was still in prison, and his detention gave my father great concern. In a letter to my mother, written November 21st, he says:

. . . I see by the papers that our son has been sent to Fort Lafayette. Any place would be better than Fort Monroe, with Butler in command. His long confinement is very grievous to me, yet it may all turn out for the best. . . .

To his daughter-in-law my father was devoutedly attached. His love for her was like that for his own children, and when her husband was captured and thrown, wounded, into prison, his great tenderness for her was shown on all occasions. Her death about this time, though expected, was a great blow to him. When news came to Gen. W. H. F. Lee, at Fortress Monroe, that his wife Charlotte was dying in Richmond, he made application to General Butler, commanding that post, that he be allowed to go to her for 48 hours, his brother Custis Lee, of equal rank with himself, having formally volunteered in writing to take his place, as a hostage, was curtly and peremptorily refused.

In his letter to my mother, of December 27th, my father says:

. . . Custis’s despatch which I received last night demolished all the hopes, in which I had been indulging during the day, of dear Charlotte’s recovery. It has pleased God to take from us one exceedingly dear to us, and we must be resigned to His holy will. She, I trust, will enjoy peace and happiness forever, while we must patiently struggle on under all the ills that may be in store for us. What a glorious thought it is that she has joined her little cherubs and our angel Annie[note 38] in Heaven. Thus is link by link the strong chain broken that binds us to the earth, and our passage soothed to another world. Oh, that we may be at last united in that heaven of rest, where trouble and sorrow never enter, to join in an everlasting chorus of praise and glory to our Lord and Saviour! I grieve for our lost darling as a father only can grieve for a daughter, and my sorrow is heightened by the thought of the anguish her death will cause our dear son and the poignancy it will give to the bars of his prison. May God in His mercy enable him to bear the blow He has so suddenly dealt, and sanctify it to his everlasting happiness!

After Meade’s last move, the weather becoming wintry, the troops fixed up for themselves winter quarters, and the cavalry and artillery were sent back along the line of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, where forage could be more easily obtained for their horses. On January 24, 1864, the General writes to my mother:

. . . I have had to disperse the cavalry as much as possible, to obtain forage for their horses, and it is that which causes trouble. Provisions for the men, too, are very scarce, and, with very light diet and light clothing, I fear they suffer, but still they are cheerful and uncomplaining. I received a report from one division the other day in which it stated that over four hundred men were barefooted and over a thousand without blankets.

Lee was the idol of his men. Colonel Charles Marshall, who was his A.D.C. and military secretary, illustrates this well in the following incident:

While the Army was on the Rapidan, in the winter of 1863–4, it became necessary, as was often the case, to put the men on very short rations. Their duty was hard, not only on the outposts during the winter, but in the construction of roads, to facilitate communication between the different parts of the army. One day General Lee received a letter from a private soldier, whose name I do not now remember, informing him of the work that he had to do, and stating that his rations were not sufficient to enable him to undergo the fatigue. He said, however, that if it was absolutely necessary to put him on such short allowance, he would make the best of it, but that he and his comrades wanted to know if General Lee was aware that his men were getting so little to eat, because if he was aware of it he was sure there must be some necessity for it. General Lee did not reply directly to the letter, but issued a general order in which he informed the soldiers of his efforts in their behalf, and that their privation was beyond his means of present relief, but assured them that he was making every effort to procure sufficient supplies. After that there was not a murmur in the army, and the hungry men went cheerfully to their hard work.

When I returned to the army in the summer, I reported to my old brigade, which was gallantly commanded by John R. Chambliss, colonel of the 13th Virginia Cavalry, the senior officer of the brigade. Later, I had been assigned to duty with General Fitz Lee and was with him at this time. My mother was anxious that I should be with my father, thinking, I have no doubt, that my continued presence would be a comfort to him. She must have written him to that effect, for in a letter to her, dated February, 1864, he says:

. . . In reference to Rob, his company would be a great pleasure and comfort to me, and he would be extremely useful in various ways, but I am opposed to officers surrounding themselves with their sons and relatives. It is wrong in principle, and in that case selections would be made from private and social relations, rather than for the public good. There is the same objection to his going with Fitz Lee. I should prefer Rob’s being in the line, in an independent position, where he could rise by his own merit and not through the recommendation of his relatives. I expect him soon, when I can better see what he himself thinks. The young men have no fondness for the society of the old general. He is too heavy and sombre for them. . . .

If anything was said to me on this occasion by my father, I do not remember it. I rather think that something prevented the interview, for I cannot believe that it could have entirely escaped my memory. At any rate, I remained with General Fitz Lee until my brother’s return from prison in April of that year. Fitz Lee’s brigade camped near Charlottesville, on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, in January, in order that forage could be more readily obtained. The officers, to amuse themselves and to return in part the courtesies and kindnesses of the ladies of the town, gave a ball. It was a grand affair for those times. Committees were appointed and printed invitations issued. As a member of the invitation committee, I sent one to the general commanding the army. Here is his opinion of it, in a letter to me:

. . . I inclose a letter for you, which has been sent to my care. I hope you are well and all around you are so. Tell Fitz I grieve over the hardships and sufferings of his men, in their late expedition. I should have preferred his waiting for more favourable weather. He accomplished much under the circumstances, but would have done more in better weather. I am afraid he was anxious to get back to the ball. This is a bad time for such things. We have too grave subjects on hand to engage in such trivial amusements. I would rather his officers should entertain themselves in fattening their horses, healing their men, and recruiting their regiments. There are too many Lees on the committee. I like all to be present at the battles, but can excuse them at balls. But the saying is, “Children will be children.” I think he had better move his camp farther from Charlottesville, and perhaps he will get more work and less play. He and I are too old for such assemblies. I want him to write me how his men are, his horses, and what I can do to fill up the ranks. . . .

In this winter and spring of 1864, every exertion possible was made by my father to increase the strength of his army and to improve its efficiency. He knew full well that the enemy was getting together an enormous force, and that his vast resources would be put forth to crush us in the spring. His letters at this time to President Davis and the Secretary of War show how well he understood the difficulties of his position.

“In none of them,” General Long says, “does he show a symptom of despair or breathe a thought of giving up the contest. To the last, he remained full of resources, energetic and defiant, and ready to bear upon his shoulders the whole burden of the conduct of the war.”

In a letter to President Davis, written March, 1864, he says:

Mr. President: Since my former letter on the subject, the indications that operations in Virginia will be vigorously prosecuted by the enemy are stronger than they then were. General Grant has returned from the army in the West. He is, at present, with the Army of the Potomac, which is being organised and recruited. . . . Every train brings recruits, and it is stated that every available regiment at the North is added to it. . . . Their plans are not sufficiently developed to discover them, but I think we can assume that, if General Grant is to direct operations on this frontier, he will concentrate a large force on one or more lines, and prudence dictates that we should make such preparations as are in our power. . . .

On April 6th he again writes to the President:

. . . All the information I receive tends to show that the great effort of the enemy in this campaign will be made in Virginia. . . . Reinforcements are certainly daily arriving to the Army of the Potomac. . . . The tone of the Northern papers, as well as the impression prevailing in their armies, go to show that Grant with a large force is to move against Richmond. . . . The movements and reports of the enemy may be intended to mislead us, and should therefore be carefully observed. But all the information that reaches me goes to strengthen the belief that General Grant is preparing to move against Richmond.

The question of feeding his army was ever before him. To see his men hungry and cold, and his horses ill fed, was a great pain to him. To Mr. Davis he thus writes on this subject:

HEADQUARTERS, April 12, 1864.

Mr. President: My anxiety on the subject of provisions for the army is so great that I cannot refrain from expressing it to Your Excellency. I cannot see how we can operate with our present supplies. Any derangement in their arrival or disaster to the railroad would render it impossible for me to keep the army together, and might force a retreat to North Carolina. There is nothing to be had in this section for men or animals. We have rations for the troops to-day and to-morrow. I hope a new supply arrived last night, but I have not yet had a report. Every exertion should be made to supply the depots at Richmond and at other points. All pleasure travel should cease, and everything be devoted to necessary wants. I am, with great respect, your obedient servant,

R. E. LEE, General.

In a letter written to our cousin, Margaret Stuart, of whom he was very fond, dated March 29th, he says:

. . . The indications at present are that we shall have a hard struggle. General Grant is with the Army of the Potomac. All the officer’s wives, sick, etc., have been sent to Washington. No ingress into or egress from the lines is now permitted and no papers are allowed to come out—they claim to be assembling a large force. . . .

Again, April 28th, he writes to this same young cousin:

. . . I dislike to send letters within reach of the enemy, as they might serve, if captured, to bring distress on others. But you must sometimes cast your thoughts on the Army of Northern Virginia, and never forget it in your prayers. It is preparing for a great struggle, but I pray and trust that the great God, mighty to deliver, will spread over it His almighty arms, and drive its enemies before it. . . .

One perceives from these letters how clearly my father foresaw the storm that was so soon to burst upon him. He used every means within his power to increase and strengthen his army to meet it, and he continually urged the authorities at Richmond to make preparations in the way of supplies of ammunition, rations, and clothing.

I shall not attempt to describe any part of this campaign except in a very general way. It has been well written up by both sides, and what was done by the Army of Northern Virginia we all know. I saw my father only once or twice, to speak to him, during the thirty odd days from the Wilderness to Petersburg, but, in common with all his soldiers, I felt that he was ever near, that he could be entirely trusted with the care of us, that he would not fail us, that it would all end well. The feeling of trust that we had in him was simply sublime. When I say “we,” I mean the men of my age and standing, officers and privates alike. Older heads may have begun to see the “beginning of the end” when they saw that slaughter and defeat did not deter our enemy, but made him the more determined in his “hammering” process; but it never occurred to me, and to thousands and thousands like me, that there was any occasion for uneasiness. We firmly believed that “Marse Robert,” as his soldiers lovingly called him, would bring us out of this trouble all right.

When Grant reached Spottsylvania Court House, he sent all of his cavalry, under Sheridan, to break our communications. They were met at Yellow Tavern, six miles from Richmond, by General Stuart, with three brigades of Confederate cavalry, and were attacked so fiercely that they were held there nearly all day, giving time for the troops around Richmond to concentrate for the defense of the city.

In this fight General Stuart fell mortally wounded, and he died the next day in Richmond. The death of our noted cavalry leader was a great blow to our cause—a loss second only to that of Jackson.

Captain W. Gordon McCabe writes me:

I was sitting on my horse very near to General Lee, who was talking to my colonel, William Johnson Pegram, when a courier galloped up with the despatch announcing that Stuart had been mortally wounded and was dying. General Lee was evidently greatly affected, and said slowly, as he folded up the despatch, “General Stuart has been mortally wounded: a most valuable and able officer.” Then, after a moment, he added in a voice of deep feeling “He never brought me a piece of false information”—turned and looked away. What praise dearer to a soldier’s heart could fall from the lips of the commanding general touching his Chief of Cavalry! These simple words of Lee constitute, I think, the fittest inscription for the monument that is soon to be erected to the memory of the great cavalry leader of the “Army of Northern Virginia.”

In a letter from my father to my mother, dated Spottsylvania Court House, May 16th, he says:

. . . As I write I am expecting the sound of the guns every moment. I grieve over the loss of our gallant officers and men, and miss their aid and sympathy. A more zealous, ardent, brave, and devoted soldier than Stuart the Confederacy cannot have. Praise be to God for having sustained us so far. I have thought of you very often in these eventful days. God bless and preserve you.

General Lee, in his order announcing the death of Stuart, thus speaks of him:

. . . Among the gallant soldiers who have fallen in this war, General Stuart was second to none in valour, in zeal, and in unflinching devotion to his country. His achievements form a conspicuous part of the history of this army, with which his name and services will be forever associated. To military capacity of a high order and to the noble virtues of the soldier he added the brighter graces of a pure life, guided and sustained by the Christian’s faith and hope. The mysterious hand of an all-wise God has removed him from the scene of his usefulness and fame. His grateful countrymen will mourn his loss and cherish his memory. To his comrades in arms he has left the proud recollections of his deeds and the inspiring influence of his example.

Speaking of the operations around Spottsylvania Court House, Swinton, the historian of the Army of the Potomac, says:

Before the lines of Spottsylvania, the Army of the Potomac had for twelve days and nights engaged in a fierce wrestle in which it had done all that valour may do to carry a position by nature and art impregnable. In this contest, unparalleled in its continuous fury, and swelling to the proportions of a campaign, language is inadequate to convey an impression of the labours, fatigues, and sufferings of the troops, who fought by day, only to march by night, from point to point of the long line, and renew the fight on the morrow. Above forty thousand men had already fallen in the bloody encounters of the Wilderness and Spottsylvania, and the exhausted army began to lose its spirits. It was with joy, therefore, that it at length turned its back upon the lines of Spottsylvania.

General Long, in his “Memoirs of General Lee,” speaking of our army at this time, says:

In no previous operations did the Army of Northern Virginia display higher soldierly qualities. Regardless of numbers, every breach was filled, and, with unparalleled stubbornness, its lines were maintained. The soldiers of that army not only gratified their countrymen, but by their gallantry and vigour won the admiration of their enemies. Whenever the men in blue appeared they were met by those in gray, and muzzle to muzzle and point to point they measured their foeman’s strength.

When we learned that General Lee was ill—confined for a day or two to his tent, at the time he was confronting General Grant on the North Anna—this terrible thought forced itself upon us: Suppose disease should disable him, even for a time, or, worse, should take him forever from the front of his men! It could not be! It was too awful to consider! And we banished any such possibility from our minds. When we saw him out again, on the lines, riding Traveller as usual, it was as if some great crushing weight had been suddenly lifted from our hearts. Colonel Walter H. Taylor, his adjutant-general, says:

The indisposition of General Lee . . . was more serious than was generally supposed. Those near him were very apprehensive lest he should be compelled to give up.

General Early also writes of this circumstance:

One of his three corps commanders[note 39] had been disabled by wounds at the Wilderness, and another was too unwell to command his corps,[note 40] while he (General Lee) was suffering from a most annoying and weakening disease. In fact, nothing but his own determined will enabled him to keep the field at all; and it was then rendered more manifest than ever that he was the head and front, the very life and soul of the army.

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