The Forged Letter of General Robert E. Lee

Paper Read by
of the Law School, of the University of Virginia


Virginia State Bar Association
Hot Springs, Va.
August 4th, 5th, and 6th, 1914


The Forged Letter of General Robert E. Lee.

A Paper Read By Professor CHARLES A. GRAVES

Of the Law School of the University of Virginia.


Nearly fifty years ago, on November 26, 1864, the New York Sun published a letter, purporting to be by General Robert E. Lee to his son, G. W. Custis Lee, with this heading and introduction:


The original of the following private letter from General Lee to his son was found at Arlington House, and is interesting as illustrating a phase in his character.

This is the forged letter; and as printed in the Sun, it is in these words and figures, to wit:

April 5, 1852.

My Dear Son: I am just in the act of leaving home for New Mexico. My fine old regiment has been ordered to that distant region, and I must hasten to see that they are properly taken care of. I have but little to add in reply to your letters of March 26, 27 and 28. Your letters breathe a true spirit of frankness; they have given myself and your mother great pleasure. You must study to be frank with the world: frankness is the child of honesty and courage. Say what you mean to do on every occasion, and take it for granted you mean to do right. If a friend asks a favor, you should grant it, if it is reasonable; if not, tell him plainly why you cannot; you will wrong him and wrong yourself by equivocation of any kind. Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or keep one; the man who requires you to do so is dearly purchased at a sacrifice. Deal kindly, but firmly, with all your classmates; you will find it the policy which wears best. Above all, do not appear to others what you are not. If you have any fault to find with anyone, tell him, not others, of what you complain; there is no more dangerous experiment than that of undertaking to be one thing before a man’s face and another behind his back. We should live, act and say nothing to the injury of any one. It is not only best as a matter of principle, but it is the path to peace and honor.

In regard to duty, let me, in conclusion of this hasty letter, inform you that nearly a hundred years ago there was a day of remarkable gloom and darkness—still known as the dark day— a day when the light of the sun was slowly extinguished as if by an eclipse. The Legislature of Connecticut was in session, and as its members saw the unexpected and unaccountable darkness coming on, they shared in the general awe and terror. It was supposed by many that the last day—the day of judgment—had come. Someone, in the consternation of the hour, moved an adjournment. Then there arose an old Puritan legislator, Devenport of Stamford, and said, that if the last day had come, he desired to be found at his place doing his duty, and, therefore, moved that candles be brought in so that the house could proceed with its duty. There was quietness in that man’s mind, the quietness of heavenly wisdom and inflexible willingness to obey present duty. Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things like the old Puritan. You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less. Never let me and your mother wear one gray hair for any lack of duty on your part. Your affectionate father,

R. E. LEE.



Is it a fact that the above letter is a true copy of a letter written by General R. E. Lee? The Sun does not profess to print from the original, which is not produced, nor its absence accounted for. Whoever sent the copy to the Sun affirmed that the original had been found at Arlington House, and the Sun published the letter on the faith of that statement. This, at least, is the presumption. No one now connected with the Sun has any knowledge of the facts.

Without insisting on the rules of evidence, but freely admitting any matter, which, as a basis of inference, is in its nature probatory, let us examine on what grounds the authenticity of the above letter, which we shall hereafter call The Duty Letter, has been questioned. And without inquiry as to the legal burden of proof, let us concede that this letter should be taken as prima facie genuine, and that those who deny its authenticity should prove it spurious by a preponderance, at least, of evidence. For this letter has been accepted as genuine by two generations of Americans. In the South, it has been esteemed by many as almost a new gospel; and it has been taught to children with the Bible and the catechism. And when its authenticity is denied, the lovers of Lee (and who is not?) cling to it with a passionate tenacity that is almost pathetic, as if their loyalty to Lee required loyalty to The Duty Letter.2 In the words of Dr. Gamaliel Bradford, Jr., author of Lee the American, an appreciative and discriminating psychography of General Lee: “A doucment so widely known as this referring to the Duty Letter, and, as I understand it, studied and quoted constantly by thousands, is certainly worthy of being examined with the closest scrutiny. It is as if Washington’s Farewell Address, or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Speech, were brought into dispute.”3


The Duty Letter was published, as has been stated above, in the New York Sun on November 26, 1864. On December 2, 1864, it was published in the Richmond (Va.) Whig, precisely as printed in the Sun, but without being credited to the Sun, or to any other paper. And on December 16, 1864 (just two weeks after its appearance in the Whig), The Duty Letter was published in the Richmond (Va.) Sentinel, with credit to the Philadelphia Inquirer.4

And now comes a dramatic denouement in the history of The Duty Letter. The Sentinel, a semi-weekly publication, had printed the letter, with high praise, in its issue of Friday, December 16, 1864.5 But in its next issue, Tuesday, December 20, the Sentinel confesses that it was imposed on, and denounces the letter as a “Yankee Forgery,”6 and prints as its authority a letter, unsigned, but described as “from a source entitled to know.” This letter which we shall call the Repudiation Letter, is as follows:

I have read the published letter, said to have been written by General R. E. Lee. There is nothing about it that can be recognized as genuine by anyone familiar with his style. He never dated any of his letters Arlington House. In April, 1852, he never had belonged to any regiment, and could not, therefore, have been about to search for it in New Mexico. He was transferred to the Cavalry in 1855, and had previously been in the Engineer Corps. In the spring of 1852, he was engaged in the construction of the Fort at Sollers Point Flats (near Baltimore), and preparing to go to West Point, as Superintendent of the Military Academy there. He has never been to New Mexico. This plain statement of facts is made to furnish another example of the mendacity of our enemies, and how they publish things that are utterly false. There seems to have been no object in this publication bul to amuse the people. So far, it is a harmless deception, yet the cause of truth needs this refutation.7

This Repudiation Letter, from “a source entitled to know,” administers a knock-out blow to The Duty Letter. Unforunately it lay hidden in the files of the Sentinel for nearly half a century, when it was discovered, in 1913, in a search made on my behalf, by Louis K. Gould. Esq., Counselor at Law, of Bridgeport, Connecticut, to whom I am indebted for the discovery of the original publication of The Duty Letter in the New York Sun. I can but think that if this Repudiation Letter had been known to the early biographers of General Lee, The Duty Letter would never have attained its vogue and celebrity.


But who was “the source entitled to know,” from whom the Sentinel received the Repudiation Letter? Obviously someone very near to General Lee. Never did a letter speak more ex cathedra; and every fact stated in it is correct. More than this, whoever wrote this letter had doubtless consulted with General Lee (there was ample time during the two weeks after its first publication in the Whig), for who but General Lee would know that he never dated any of his letters “Arlington House” (though his father-in-law, G. W. Parke Custis, did), or that he had never been in New Mexico? And, without authority from General Lee, who would have dared to denounce publicly, as “utterly false,” a letter like The Duty Letter, which many still refuse to believe spurious, and esteem worthy of the South’s great hero? General Lee was at Petersburg, only 22 miles from Richmond. He could easily have been consulted, personally or by letter. Can it be believed that this was not done?

But if General Lee did not give his express assent to the Repudiation Letter surely he knew of it, and acquiesced in it. He was an assiduous reader of the newspapers Northern and Southern, as, indeed, was his duty. He was in winter quarters, an hour’s ride by rail from Richmond. On December 14, 1864, only two days before the publication of The Duty Letter in the Sentinel, and six days before its repudiation in the same paper, General Lee wrote to President Davis: “Everything at this time is quiet in the Departments of Virginia and North Carolina.”

Both the Whig and the Sentinel were small papers; and the Repudiation Letter in the Sentinel was accompanied by extended comment. How could General Lee have failed to see The Duty Letter in the Whig and Sentinel, and its commendation and final repudiation in the Sentinel? And if he had overlooked all of these, would they not have been brought to his attention by some member of his staff, or certainly by some member of his family? In December, 1864, Mrs. Lee and her three daughters were residing in Richmond. General Custis Lee was stationed in Richmond. There were other Lees in the vicinity, officers in the Confederate army. How could General Lee have remained ignorant of The Duty Letter, and of its repudiation? And if he knew of the repudiation, and passed it by in silence, did he not acquiesce in the repudiation? And can it not be claimed that The Duty Letter was repudiated by General Lee himself? And this explains why it has always been repudiated by the Lee family.

Another consideration which tends strongly to prove that the “source entitled to know” was so close to General Lee as to be virtually himself, is the conduct of the editor of the Sentinel on the receipt of the Repudiation Letter. He had uttered an “exceeding bitter cry,” when he found that he was “stung.” He knew the “source entitled to know” (though we can only guess), and did not doubt or question. The psychology of this is impressive. This editor had believed the letter genuine; but when he learned the source of its repudiation, he submits at once, as De Bracy, in Ivanhoe, surrenders, “rescue or no rescue,” when the name of Richard Cœur de Lion is whispered in his ear. And the editor does not imagine, as some now do, that there is hope of escape from the forgery of The Duty Letter. Like De Bracy, he surrenders, “rescue or no rescue.”


We have now seen that The Duty Letter was, on its first appearance in Richmond, repudiated, virtually at least, by the alleged writer. But how as to the person to whom it purported to be written, G. W. Custis Lee? Did he accept it as genuine? Fortunately, he can speak for himself. When, nearly four years ago, I decided to inquire into the authenticity of The Duty Letter, I wrote to General Custis Lee, at Ravensworth, and received this reply, dated October 23, 1910:

General Lee was a member of the Corps of Engineers. U.S. Army, until the spring or summer of 1855, when he was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel of the Second Cavalry. The First and Second Regiments of Cavalry were authorized by Act of Congress passed during the winter of l854–’55, and had no previous existence. The first part of the letter enclosed was not, therefore, written by General Lee.8

As to the rest of the letter as a whole, I have no recollection of it, although the sentiments expressed may have been contained in one or more letters received by me before April, 1852. I was then in my 20th year of age, and had a respectable standing at the U.S. Military Academy. It is probable that the letter in question was compiled from several letters from my father, with such additions and variations as suited the compiler’s fancy. The general tenor of the letter is very much in my father’s style, and is probably taken in part from some of his letters.

(Signed) G. W. C. LEE.

It would seem that The Duty Letter, repudiated by both the alleged writer and the addressee, is so discredited, that its spuriousness would be conceded, “without hope of rescue.” But this is by no means the case; and we must now examine several theories (or suppositions) upon which its substantial genuineness is by some still maintained. These theories I shall call (1) The Wrong Date Theory; (2) The Editorial Emendation Theory, and (3) The Compilation Theory. Let us examine them in their order.



This is the theory of several valued correspondents; and at first blush it seems plausible. The date of The Duty Letter, it will be remembered, is “April 5, 1852,” three years before General Lee became Lieutenant-Colonel of the Second Cavalry. He could not, therefore, at that time, have written the first two sentences.

But may not “April 5, 1852,” it is asked by those who espouse The Wrong Date Theory, be an error of General Lee, or of the copyist, or of the printer? Should not the date be changed to some other time which will fit the facts? Is it not more reasonable, they ask, that there should be an error in the date of The Duty Letter, than that the first two sentences, assuming the date to be correct, should contain so glaring an anachronism, so egregious a blunder? And they insist, when General Custis Lee declares, after showing the mistake in the first two sentences, “The first part of the letter enclosed was not, therefore, written by General Lee,” that this means no more than that it was not written by General Lee at the date on the face of the letter. General Custis Lee may not have thought of the possibility of an erroneous date; and his statement must be confined to the time when the letter bears date.9

The answer to this theory of wrong date is furnished by the facts. Change the date of The Duty Letter to whatever time you please, and the first two sentences are still impossible. They affirm two things: (1) “I am just in the act of leaving home for New Mexico”; and (2) “My fine old regiment has been ordered to that distant region, and I must hasten to see that they are properly taken care of.” So the new date must satisfy two conditions, which must concur and co-exist, viz.: (1) General Lee must be at home, in the act of leaving, in haste, for New Mexico, and (2) his fine old regiment must recently (this is clearly implied) have been ordered to New Mexico. But as General Lee was never in New Mexico, nor was the Second Cavalry ever ordered to New Mexico,10 let us change “New Mexico.” as written in The Duty Letter, to Texas, treating “New Mexico,” as a slip of the pen, when Texas was meant. Such heterophemy is totally unlike General Lee, but let it be supposed as a concession for the sake of the argument.

When, then, did General Lee, after he became Lieutenant-Colonel of the Second Cavalry, leave home (Arlington) to join his regimenl in Texas? Only twice, once in February, 1856, and again in February, 1860. This is shown, not only by the records in the office of the adjutant-general at Washington, but also appears conclusively from General Lee’s letters and Memorandum Book covering the period from 1855, when the Second Cavalry was organized, until early in 1861.11 The only years, then, to which the date of The Duty Letter, April 5, 1852, can be changed, with any possibility of satisfying the two conditions stated above, are 1856 and 1860. Let us examine these years separately.12

(1.) THE YEAR 1856.

On November 21, 1855, Lieutenant-Colonel Lee, who had been absent from his regiment, at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley, as a member of a Court-Martial, records in his Memorandum Book, that he arrived at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, Missouri (where the Second Cavalry had rendezvoused), and “Found no orders for my future movements. The Regiment gone to Texas.”13 Here, then, was Lieutenant-Colonel Lee’s chance, according to the first two sentences of The Duty Letter, to hasten to Texas, join his “fine old regiment,” and see that the men “are properly taken care of.” But on November 24, 1855, the Memorandum Book contains this entry: “Left St. Louis for Texas to join my regiment. Shipped my baggage to New Orleans. Decided to take Arlington on my way.” (Italics mine.)

To Texas, from St. Louis, by way of Arlington, was certainly a roundabout route; and does not exhibit such haste on the part of Lieutenant-Colonel Lee to join his regiment, and see that the men were properly taken care of, as The Duty Letter seems to call for. The fabricator of that letter sets too high a standard of duty. Perhaps Lieutenant-Colonel Lee reflected that the Colonel of the regiment, Albert Sidney Johnston, an adopted son of Texas, and familiar (as Lieutenant-Colonel Lee was not) with the climate and conditions in Texas, could be relied on to see that the men were properly taken care of.

Be this as it may, the Second Cavalry, after many hardships (recorded in Colonel William Preston Johnston’s Life of his father),14 arrived at its destination, Fort Mason, Texas, on January 14, 1856, having left Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, for Texas, October 27, 1855, as we have seen. And when did Lieutenant-Colonel Lee leave Arlington for Texas? He had reported to the Adjutant-General, in Washington, on November 1855, and was by him authorized to delay his journey to Texas.15 His Memorandum Book records, on February 12, 1856, “left Alexandria on my way to Texas to rejoin my regiment.” He was detained, however, by business connected with the estate of his father-in-law, G. W. Parke Custis; and on February 20, 1856, the record is: “At 3 P.M., continue my journey to Texas.” This time he did not stop, and on March 25, 1856, he records that he arrived at Fort Mason, Texas, and reported to his Colonel, Albert Sidney Johnston.

In the face of the above facts, to what time in the year 1856 can the date of The Duty Letter be changed so that Lieutenant-Colonel Lee could have written: “I am just in the act of leaving home for New Mexico (Texas). My fine old regiment has been ordered to that distant region, and I must hasten to see that they are properly taken care of.” When he did leave home for Texas, on February 20, 1856, his regiment had been there since January 14, 1856, more than a month. It had been ordered to Texas October 27, 1855, nearly four months before Lieutenant-Colonel Lee started on his journey “to that distant region.” Now change the date of The Duty Letter to February 20, 1856, and though Lieut.-Colonel Lee was “in the act of leaving home for New-Mexico (Texas),” it would be absurd for him to write “my fine old regiment has been ordered to that distant region,” as if the order had just been given, and that he “must hasten to see that they are properly taken care of.” These words might have been written by him at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, on November 21, 1855, when he records in his Memorandum Book, “The Regiment gone to Texas”; but if he wrote them then, he must have changed his mind when he “determined to take Arlington on my way,” and did not join his regiment until March 25, 1856. Besides, The Duty Letter is dated “Arlington House,” and declares that he is ”in the act of leaving home.” Must this be changed as well as the date of the letter?

Another objection to the year 1856 is that the letter is addressed to “G. W. Custis Lee,” and in it he is advised: “Deal kindly, but firmly, with all your classmates.” But what “classmates” did Custis Lee have in 1856, nearly two years after his graduation from West Point, in June, 1854? He was, in 1856, in the Corps of Engineers, and might have messmates, but surely not classmates. Besides, in 1856, Custis Lee, a man grown, having graduated first in his class at West Point, where he was Adjutant of the Corps, a young man of the highest character, would hardly receive from his father such a letter as The Duty Letter. But, in 1856, W. H. Fitzhugh Lee was a student at Harvard, and had classmates, and it has been suggested that the letter was written to him. But while this would explain the word “classmates,” it does not reconcile the first two sentences of The Duty Letter with the known facts. Besides, the letter was addressed to “G. W. Custis Lee,” not to W. H. Fitzhugh Lee. Is it possible that General Lee would not only give a wrong date to his letter, but would also address it to the wrong son? And when all this is done, the first two sentences still remain impossible. And if, to save General Lee from such blundering, it is suggested that some copyist made these mistakes, this seems incredible. And if it is suggested that General Lee’s letter was correct, as he wrote it, but that some one intentionally changed it, the reply is, with what conceivable motive?

(2.) The Year 1860.

It was in 1860, as has been stated, that General Lee returned for the second time to join his regiment in Texas. On February 10, 1860, his Memorandum Book records: “At 6 A.M. left Arlington and its dear inhabitants for Texas.” On February 20, 1860, he records that he assumed command of the Department of Texas.16

That the year 1860 cannot satisfy the conditions necessary in order to retain the first two sentences of The Duty Letter is manifest. What has been said as to the year 1856 is applicable a fortiori, to the year 1860. At that time Lieutenant-Colonel Lee’s “fine old regiment” had been in Texas more than four years. He would hardly say in 1860 that the regiment “has been ordered to New Mexico (Texas), and I must hasten to see that they are properly taken care of.”

In 1860, Custis Lee had been assigned to the “Engineer Bureau” in Washington. W. H. F. Lee had resigned from the Army, was married, and was living, a farmer, at the “White House,” New Kent County, Virginia. Neither of them had “classmates.“ Both of them had reached such maturity of life and character as to render the admonitions of The Duty Letter hardly necessary or appropriate.

But there was still another son, Robert E. Lee. Jr., (now Captain Lee. of Romancoke),17 then a youth of sixteen, and away from home at boarding school. Why, it has been asked, may not the letter have been written to Robert E. Lee, Jr.? Those who “catch at straws” point out that in 1860, General Lee could properly have said “my fine old regiment,” a description inapplicable in 1856, to raw recruits just ordered to Texas. Besides, it is argued, might not the Second Cavalry have been ordered in 1860 to go from Texas to New Mexico, “that distant region,” thus escaping the change in the letter of “New Mexico” to Texas? But this gun is spiked at once by a letter to the writer from the Adjutant-General, July 27, 1914 (already quoted): “I have the honor to inform you that the Second Cavalry did not serve in New Mexico, at any time prior to the Civil War.” And as to the suggestion that The Duty Letter was written to Robert E. Lee, Jr., who, in 1860, had “classmates,” and was at an age to expect parental advice, Captain Lee, in a letter to the writer, July 29, 1914, says: “I am positive that no such letter was ever written to me, before, during, or since the war.”18



This is the theory advanced by Mr. Montgomery Wright, of Washington, D.C. In a letter to the New York Sun, printed February 25, 1913,19 Mr. Wright shows, for the same reasons which are given in the Repudiation Letter, of December 20, 1864, and in the letter of General Custis Lee, October 23, 1910, that General Lee could not, in 1852, have written the first two sentences of The Duty Letter.20 But he adds: “General Lee’s letter to his son is too valuable to have its authenticity cast in doubt by historical mistakes that seem to have been introduced by some one attempting to edit the letter.” And he adds: “As Custis Lee was a cadet on April 5, 1852, there appears no probability of an error in the date of the letter.”

This theory, then, retaining both the date of the letter and the addressee, justifies the reference to “classmates”; and by the omission of the first two sentences corrects the anachronism of General Lee’s leaving home to join his “fine old regiment,” three years before it came into existence. Undoubtedly, this theory is the most favorable to the genuineness of The Duty Letter, and it deserves careful consideration. The difficulties in the way of its adoption are as follows:

(1). It seems an easy mode of avoiding anachronism—the rock on which literary impostures are usually wrecked—to resort to the heroic treatment of expunging the anachronism as itself a forgery, and this with no other evidence than the fact of anachronism. Assuming that whoever sent the copy of The Duty Letter to the New York Sun had the original letter in his possession, why should he wish to “queer” it, by adding the first two sentences, and that with utter disregard of well-known facts? The genuine letter, if there was one, began, no doubt, with some kind of introduction. If something preceded the third sentence: “I have but little to add in reply to your letters of March 26, 27, and 28,” why not leave it as General Lee wrote it, instead of substituting something else? And if nothing preceded the third sentence, was not that sentence a sufficient introduction? The same questions may be asked as to what took place in the office of the New York Sun, supposing the “editing” to have been done there. Editing implies design. An editor may correct errors, expunge objectionable matter, shorten what is too long to print in full. But why should the editor of the Sun, any more than the sender of the copy of The Duty Letter, think it necessary to substitute his own introduction (and what an introduction!) for what General Lee had already written; or to supply an introduction which General Lee did not write— being himself, in either case, guilty of literary forgery? It is simply inconceivable. It is far easier to believe that the whole letter is a forgery, for which, as we shall see, plausible motives can be suggested, than to believe that the first two sentences are a forgery, for whose fabrication it is impossible to suggest any motive whatever. The first answer, then, to “The Editorial Emendation Theory” is that it rests upon a gratuitous assumption, so incredible as to be negligible.

(2). But conceding, for the sake of argument merely, that the first two sentences of The Duty Letter should be stricken out, as added in “editing,” will this remove all the difficulties which render its authenticity doubtful? I think it can be shown, without the first two sentences, that The Duty Letter is a forgery. The reasons are as follows:

(a). Neither the original of The Duty Letter, nor any copy of it (General Lee copied, in his own hand, many of his letters), has been found among the papers of General Lee. The Sun printed from a copy. It did not profess to have the original.

(b). General Custis Lee does not remember that he ever received such a letter. Could he forget it, when half of it was devoted to the striking anecdote of the “Dark Day,” and the devotion to duty of the “old Puritan”—matters which would impress the imagination, and sink deep in the memory, of a brilliant young cadet, not yet twenty-one? And the occasion when he wrote to his father three letters on three successive days, could he forget that?

(c). Shortly after its publication in Richmond, in December, 1864, The Duty Letter was publicly repudiated and pronounced a forgery. This repudiation was, no doubt, either authorized, or acquiesced in, by General Lee. And this repudiation was not merely of the first two sentences; it was a repudiation of the whole letter. The writer of the Repudiation Letter—the “source entitled to know”—declares: “There is nothing in it that can be recognized as genuine by any one familiar with his General Lee’s style.” He also speaks of “the mendacity of our enemies, and how they publish things that are utterly false.” Plainly this is a repudiation of the whole letter, and not of the first two sentences only. And General Lee suffered it to pass without contradiction!

The style of the disputed letter differs from that of General Lee. This is asserted, unequivocally, by the “source entitled to know,” as stated above. How near this “source” must have been to General Lee is manifest when we reflect that in 1864 none of General Lee’s private letters had been published; and within the Confederate lines there was no free access to General Lee’s private correspondence—such as was permitted at Arlington.

But opinions may differ as to a writer’s style, even among those familiar with it. Many of General Lee’s private letters social and domestic, have now been published, and have been studied critically by students of the Lee literature. As to his style, then, and its resemblance to that of The Duty Letter, let us call experts of the highest authority. And for once the experts do not differ in opinion.

Captain W. Gordon McCabe, who is recognized authority on all matters pertaining to General Lee, says:21 “The moment I read the Lee letter, years ago, I knew it was spurious, quite apart from the first sentence (first two sentences). I am very familiar with Lee’s letters (published and unpublished), and the whole style of this letter is foreign to him. Lee no more wrote that letter (whether we consider it from an objective or subjective point of view) than did the Apostle Paul.”

Professor Edward S. Joynes, a member of General Lee’s faculty at Washington College (now Washington and Lee University), whose knowledge of English and ability to use it are unsurpassed in the South, writes:22 “Style is something so subtle, and varies so much with the mood of the writer, that it is difficult to say, generally, whether such or such a writing is or is not in the style of a given man. I should say, with Custis Lee, that this writing (Duty Letter) is a fair imitation of General Lee’s style—that is, of his mode of thought and expression. Yet, somehow—I cannot say exactly how—it seems to me not like him. The story of the old Puritan is not like him. I doubt if any similar passage can be found in his writings. And the very sentence, ‘Duty,’ etc., does not sound like him; for General Lee thought or cared little about ‘words.’ He would hardly have said: ‘Duty is the sublimest word.’ Yet all this is conjectural; for style is too subtle a thing to be positively identified.”

The third expert is Dr. Gamaliel Bradford, Jr., whose remarkable book, “Lee the American,” has already been referred to. In a letter to the writer, dated July 22, 1914, Dr. Bradford says: “With my present knowledge on the subject, it would ill become me to differ from such experts as Colonel McCabe and Professor Joynes, and on the whole my impression agrees with theirs in doubting the genuineness of the whole letter, though I frankly confess that, had I not been rendered suspicious by external circumstances, I do not know whether any such doubt would have occurred to me. In other words, the forgery, if it is one, is executed with surprising cleverness. The error, if there is an error, consists in slightly exaggerating General Lee’s habits of thought and expression, so that it is extremely difficult to determine where the genuine begins, and the spurious ends. . . . Still, it does seem to me that something in the tone of the moralizing of the suspected letter is a little more strained, a little more formal, than is ordinary in other letters (of General Lee). The sermonizing (in other letters) is not generally so sustained or keyed to such an elaborate pitch. Especially, I cannot quite reconcile myself to the anecdote which constitutes the last paragraph. Yet it is in that paragraph that the often quoted phrase (Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language) occurs. . . . But did he say, ‘Duty is the sublimest word in the language’? I would give a great deal to know, and that is why I am so much interested in the authenticity of this letter.”

In an earlier letter to the writer, dated July 13, 1913, Dr. Bradford says: “The sublimest word passage, however, seems to me decidedly characteristic (of Lee), both positively and negatively; for I should not myself be ready to say that duty was the sublimest word in our language. As for the remainder of the forged letter, I could never feel that the somewhat melodramatic conclusion was quite like Lee.” And in a letter published in the Boston Transcript, February 28, 1913, Dr. Bradford says of The Duty Letter: “I suppose that, in spite of all protest, this document which rather libels Lee in its excess of preachment will go down to future generations with the Cherry Tree Story of Washington.”

In addition to the expert testimony, unfavorable to the authenticity of The Duty Letter from the standpoint of its style, I now desire to call attention to some specific objections based on its contents.

(a). It is dated from “Arlington House, April 5, 1852,” and represents General Lee as “just in the act of leaving home.” At that time General Lee’s home was in Baltimore, not ar Arlington. He removed to West Point, as Superintendent of the United States Military Academy, on September 1, 1852. He remained at West Point until April 3, 1855, when he closed his connection with the Military Academy. On April 2, 1855, he wrote to Albert Sidney Johnston, Colonel of the Second Cavalry, Louisville, Ky., and stated, “my address will be Arlington, near Alexandria.” All of the above facts are shown by General Lee’s letters.

(b). The Duty Letter is dated from “Arlington House.” In no undisputed letter by General Lee does he write “Arlington House.” Usually he wrote “Arlington, Virginia,” but sometimes added “near Alexandria,” as in the letter to Colonel Johnston above; or “Arlington, Washington City, D.C,[”] or “Arlington, Washington City P.O.,” but never “Arlington House.”23

(c). Passing by the first two sentences, with their bald blunders which have been sufficiently exposed, the third sentence is remarkable. General Lee is made to say, “I have but little to add in reply to your letters of March 26, 27 and 28.” Is it probable that Custis Lee, a cadet at West Point, would write to his father on three successive days? Further comment on this sentence will be made in the sequel.

(d). In genuine letters, General Lee’s style is severely plain. He does not use metaphors or superlatives. But the writer of The Duty Letter says: “Your letters breathe a true spirit of frankness”; “Frankness is the child of honesty and courage”; “Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language,” which has been commented on above by Dr. Joynes.

(e). In genuine letters, General Lee’s grammar and syntax, though not always faultless, are free from gross errors. But in The Duty Letter (waiving a mistake in the second sentence) he is made to say, “myself and your mother,” “me and your mother,” for which cannot be pleaded Cardinal Wolsey’s excuse for “Ego et Rex meus” which so offended Henry VIII. And then there is the extraordinary sentence: “We should live, act, and say nothing to the injury of another.” Live nothing to the injury of another! Act nothing to the injury of another! Shade of Lindley Murray!

(f). The story of the old Puritan, which awakens the suspicion of both Dr. Joynes and Dr. Bradford, is found in “Barber’s Historical Connecticut Collections,” a purely local book giving an account of the counties, towns and cities of that state, the first edition of which was published in 1838.24 There is no evidence that General Lee knew of this anecdote. He does not mention it in any undisputed letter, and I cannot learn that he ever alluded to it in his family.

In The Duty Letter, General Lee is made to introduce the Old Puritan in this rather pompous manner: “As to duty (which had not been mentioned before and seems lugged in here to lead up to the anecdote), I must now inform you,” etc. He then proceeds to expand and embellish the anecdote far beyond the few lines in Barber, and in a way which Dr. Bradford describes “somewhat melodramatic.” Surely this is not our Lee! Quantum mutatus ab illo!

While some of the above objections may seem trivial, we should not forget the cumulative effect of circumstantial evidence. Everything, great and small, points in the same direction—to the forgery of The Duty Letter. Circumstantial evidence may be likened to the strands of a rope. A single strand may be easily broken; but many strands, woven into a cable, will hold a battleship at anchor.



This third theory concerning The Duty Letter concedes that the letter as such, is a forgery, i.e., that General Lee never, at any time, to anybody, wrote the letter printed in the New York Sun on November 26, 1864. But it is suggested that the forger, having access to genuine letters of General Lee, made use of their contents in fabricating the spurious letter, and that some of its sentences are taken from such genuine letters.

Thus General Custis Lee, in the letter already given, says: “It is probable that the letter in question was compiled from several letters from my father, with such additions and variations as suited the compiler’s fancy.” And Captain McCabe says: “I have always regarded the letter as a sort of ‘cento’ of odds and ends (badly put together) from Lee’s genuine letters.”

The same view is taken by Dr. Jones, who declares that The Duty Letter is “the product of some ingenious newspaper correspondent, who got at Arlington a number of General Lee’s letters, and taking extracts from several, manufactured one to his taste.” “Life and Letters of Robert E. Lee,” p. 436.

On the other hand, Captain R. E. Lee, in a letter to the writer, dated January 18, 1911, says: “There are many phrases which do not sound to me like my father.” (This was written after Captain Lee had published his “Recollections and Letters” in 1904). And he adds: “I cannot conceive of the motives of anyone making up this letter from several others. If so, where are those letters he made it up from?”

This challenge of Captain Lee to The Compilation Theory—“If so, where are the letters he made it up from?”—has never been accepted, and his question remains unanswered, and will so remain unless letters of General Lee, not now known, shall hereafter be discovered. The Duty Letter consists of but two topics, Frankness and Duty, with the extraordinary sentence, “We should live, act, and say nothing to the injury of another,” sandwiched between them. There are two letters, as we shall see later (which may have been in the hand of the forger) that suggest these topics, and whose style is imitated; but the treatment of the topics, and the language used, is wholly different from The Duty Letter. In other words, while the subjects are the same, the predicates are not. To this extent only does there seem to be foundation for The Compilation Theory; and this explanation of the contents, in part at least, of The Duty Letter, though suggested by General Custis Lee and Captain McCabe, and affirmed by Dr. Jones, must, I think, be rejected.25


We have now seen the evidence tending to show that General Lee did not write The Duty Letter; and with this, perhaps, the discussion might close. But the question presses, if General Lee did not write The Duty Letter, who did? Somebody wrote it. What was his motive?

This is the region of conjecture, but I believe proper inferences from known facts will disclose both the forger and his motive.

The Duty Letter was published, as has been stated, in the New York Sun, November 26, 1864, with this introduction, written by the forger, or else by the editor on information supplied by him: “The original of the following private letter, from General Lee to his son, was found at Arlington House, and is interesting as illustrating a phase in his character.” Now, it is rare that a lie is all a lie; usually it has some basis of truth. In this case, while no letter of General Lee was “found at Arlington House” of which The Duty Letter was a true copy, yet letters of General Lee were found there which suggested the literary imposture (for that is all it was), furnished the topics discussed, and served as models of General Lee’s sententious and aphoristic style, otherwise unknown to the fabricator. This assumes (1) that such genuine letters were left at Arlington, accessible to all comers, and (2) that they contained allusions, at least, to the two topics, Frankness and Duty, treated of in The Duty Letter. We shall now show that both assumptions are true.

1. I have before me the dates of a number of letters written to G. W. Custis Lee by General Lee, which were taken from Arlington, during the war, and which have since been returned to General Custis Lee, or to Miss Mary Lee, General Lee’s oldest daughter. They were all written in the years 1851 and 1852, some of them very near to the date of the forged letter, April 5, 1852.26

As recently as July 11, 1913, Mr. W. H. Hawkins, of Springfield, Massachusetts, returned to Miss Mary Lee four letters found by him, during the war, at Arlington. He gave this account of finding these letters, in a communication to the Times-Dispatch, offering to return them: “I found these letters on the walk, leading from the front to the rear, along one side of the Lee mansion, at Arlington, when my regiment was stationed in that vicinity, in the Spring of 1863.” These letters were dated in 1851 and 1852; and one of them from General Lee to Custis Lee, was dated February 1, 1852, about two months before the date of the forged letter.27

2. Among the letters left al Arlington, and since returned to the Lee family, there are two which refer to the topics of The Duty Letter, and which may have been used by the forger.

(1). Letter dated Baltimore, May 4. 1851, from General Lee to Custis Lee, then a cadet at West Point. This letter is printed on pages 71–74, of Dr. J. William Jones’ second book on General Lee, published in 1906, entitled “Life and Letters of Robert E. Lee.” The time at which this letter was first printed, and other circumstances, indicate that it is one of those left at Arlington, and afterwards recovered by the Lee family, but the fact cannot be fully established by external evidence. But the internal evidence points strongly to its use by the forger, as supplying the topics Frankness and Duty discussed in The Duty Letter.28

Comparing The Duty Letter with the first two paragraphs of the letter of May, 1851, as printed in the footnote, it will he seen that in both letters the “frankness” of Custis Lee is commended (in The Duty Letter a homily is written on “frankness”). In both letters reference is made to Custis Lee’s fellow-students, though in The Duty Letter they are called “classmates,” and in the other “cadet friends.” In both letters there is a reference to duty. In The Duty Letter the old Puritan anecdote is introduced, with comments which Dr. Bradford thinks “somewhat melodramatic”; in the other letter, General Lee says: “Your efforts to do your duty will bring you delight and gratification far surpassing all that idleness and selfishness can give.” But the genuine letter ignores the “Old Puritan”; and the sentence about duty is in plain words, omitting the bold figure: “Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language.”29

(2). Letter dated January 12, 1852, by General Lee to Custis Lee. This is a letter of congratulation on Custis Lee’s becoming a Corporal in the Cadet Corps.

It is certain that this letter was found at Arlington during the war and was returned to General Custis Lee some years ago: A brief extract will show how it rings the changes on duty. “Do your duty honestly and faithfully, without favor and without partiality. Do not seek to report, but let it be seen that though it gives you pain, still you must do your duty. That this duty is equal. Never more or less rigid, but always the same, and your duty. The same as regards your dearest friend or worst enemy. You will thus gain esteem and affection, and not dislike or hatred. The just are always loved and never hated.” It will be observed how close the date of the letter, January 12, 1852, is to that of The Duty Letter. Also that it is an excellent example of General Lee’s style in his familiar letters to his children.


But admitting that the forger, who connects himself with Arlington in what he wrote to the New York Sun, might have had access to letters of General Lee, disclosing his style, and suggesting the topics of The Duty Letter, the question of motive remains to be considered. One may borrow the “livery of Heaven to serve the Devil in,” but why falsely assume the livery of Heaven to inculcate duty and teach morality? It has been said that one capable of feeling that “Duty is the sublimest word in our language,” would hardly be capable, while penning that sentence, of committing a breach of duty by perpetrating a forgery. This seems paradoxical; but I think the explanation is plain, when we approach The Duty Letter from the right angle.

The key to the solution of the problem is found by remembering that The Duty Letter should not be taken too seriously. It is not forgery in a legal sense (such a letter could not be); it is not a crime, but only a literary imposture, by way of imitation of another’s style and sentiments, of which there are numerous instances. One of the recognized motives for such imposture is fun—the pleasure of a practical joke, mere mental diversion, without malice, or the desire to injure any one. It may serve to while away an idle hour, as a test of one’s power of imitation.30

The reference to Arlington in the forged letter points to that place as the scene of the concoction of the forged letter; and the “old Puritan” anecdote, from the local history of Connecticut, indicates someone from that state as the villain in the play. Not a newspaper correspondent, as Dr. Jones suggests—such “copy” would not be expected from a war correspondent—but rather some bright young graduate from Yale, a soldier in the Federal Army, and now in camp at Arlington. Here time hangs heavy on his hands. To relieve ennui, he examines the letters of General Lee scattered around, and among them the two referred to above as suggesting the forged letter. He is struck by their sententious, didactic style (General Lee, himself, has spoken of his “old habit of giving advice”); and the thought occurs to him that it would be easy of imitation. He is familiar with literary impostures, but probably, as yet, the thought of publication has not occurred to him.

With the letter of May 4, 1851, as the cue, he begins with, “Your letters breathe a true spirit of frankness,” and writes the paragraph on that topic—commonplace enough—but still in imitation of the style of Lee. But what next? He sees that both letters speak of duty, and he recalls the anecdote of the “Old Puritan” from the local history of his own state. He tells the story, and his comment on it concludes the letter. As he re-reads the letter, and recalls that General Lee is known as the great exemplar of devotion to duty, he smiles as he thinks that he has made Lee of Arlington sit at the feel of Davenport of Stamford, that he has made the Virginia Cavalier learn duty from the Connecticul Puritan!

And now he falls in love with his imitation—and especially with the old Puritan story unknown as yet outside of Connecticut and the thought of newspaper publication occurs to him. Could he deceive a paper like the New York Sun, and add one more to the long list of literary impostures? He decides to try. But now comes the rub. It was easy to follow the model letters as to style and topics, and address the forged letter to G. W. Custis Lee, at a date near that of the model letters when he was a cadet at West Point. But how begin the letter? In the pretended copy sent to the Sun, the original not being produced, there must be an introduction, and that introduction must have vraisemblance, or success will be impossible. He knows that General Lee resigned his commission as Colonel of a Calvalry regiment, when on his State’s secession, he left the service of the United States for that of his native Virginia. He also knows that for some years prior to the war he had been stationed somewhere in the distant Southwest. He knows that the letter must be short (it is said that Shakespeare killed Mercutio because he could not sustain the character any longer), and so he decides to represent the letter as “hasty.” But why haste? Because General Lee is in the act of leaving home to join his regiment just ordered somewhere, from Texas to New Mexico, probably. Hence the first two sentences. He knew that he was weak on his facts; but he hoped that this introduction would be “a good enough Morgan until after the election.” And so it proved. Though he “missed with both barrels”—as to time and place, was not the New York Sun deceived, and also the Whig, and the Sentinel? Doubtless he expected detection ultimately, but this would be a part of the fun. What is the good of a practical joke if its victim is never the wiser?

But he was not content with the first two sentences of the introduction. He adds a third, which for a long time was a puzzle to me—the fact stated is so unnecessary, and so improbable. It is this: “I have but little to add in reply to your letters of March 26, 27, and 28.” Custis Lee writes to his father on three successive days, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, instead of waiting till Sunday, the regulation day for filial correspondence! Custis Lee, a cadet at West Point, and then and always chary of letter-writing. And his father is pleased to receive the three letters—such dutiful behavior! And this, though at this time he was urging Custis to strain every nerve to stand at the head of his class. And although General Lee had already answered the three letters once (“I have but little to add in reply”), he proceeds to answer them a second time! And while in haste, because just in the act of leaving home for New Mexico, he writes what sounds like a leisurely disquisition on morals, and the proper conduct of life!

To explain the mystery of the three letters it has been suggested that Custis Lee was in some trouble, and was seeking his father’s help. But General Lee’s reply does not indicate this. And the Adjutant of West Point declares31 that, at the date of The Duty Letter, April 2, 1852, “The records of the Military Academy reveal nothing, not even a report, that might cause this cadet (G. W. Custis Lee) discontent; nor is his name mentioned in any of the letters sent or received at these headquarters at that time.”

What, then, is the explanation of the three letters? Simply this—the fabricator knew that it would seem strange if General Lee, about to leave home for a long absence, should write a letter to his son containing nothing but “preachment,” and an anecdote brought from a sufficient distance as a text for more preachment. What father would write such a letter under such circumstances? It was a characteristic of General Lee (and the full text of the model letters shows it), to write all the news. His letters are full of personals about the family and friends. In his “Recollections and Letters” (p. 206) Captain Lee says of his father: “To the members of his family who were away he wrote regularly, and was their best correspondent on home matters, telling in his charming way all the sayings and doings of the household and the neighbors.”

The fabricator of The Duty Letter was a bright young fellow (though a little weak on his English, as is the case with a good many college graduates), and he saw that the total absence of personal allusions might arouse suspicion, and lead to discovery of the forgery. But how venture on personals? Ignorance and blunders would surely betray him. In this dilemma he resorted tn the ingenious device of pretending that the forged letter was a second reply to letters already once answered. And he makes General Lee refer to the receipt of three letters to explain the need of a second reply. Doubtless he was aware how extraordinary, not to say preposterous, three letters on three successive days, by a young man to his father, would appear to anyone who had ever been a student or a cadet; but again he reflected that this sentence, too, would be “a good enough Morgan until after the election”—and the event so proved.

It has been objected, however, that this explanation of the genesis of the forged letter fails, in that it does not take account of the war, and the bitter feeling between the North and the South. Why, it is asked, should a Northern man, a “warrior in arms” against General Lee, fabricate a letter so much to his credit, thus giving aid and comfort to the South? But how else could the fabricator impersonate Lee, with any hope that his imposture would be successful? North and South, General Lee was already recognized as “a noble figure, lofty and patriotic”—man who “reverenced his conscience as his King,” and ever gave ear to Duty, that “Stern Daughter of the Voice of God.” There was no bitterness against General Lee in the North (as there was against Jefferson Davis). Is it inconceivable that such a letter should be written in the name of Lee by a Federal soldier, when we know that the New York Sun, in 1864, had the courage and magnanimity to publish it (believing it genuine), and to scatter it broadcast through the North? The Sun, however, did not forget to remind its readers that the letter “illustrated one phase of Lee’s character.” (Italics mine.) There might be others not so amiable.

And now our inquiry into the authenticity of this famous Duty Letter is ended. Was ever a genuine letter enmeshed in such a network of suspicious circumstances—all pointing one way, and that way forgery! The evidence is not only consistent with forgery, but inconsistent with any other hypothesis. It is said that the letter is “mysterious.” So it is mysterious, more than mysterious, utterly bewildering, indeed, if we assume it to be genuine. But on the hypothesis of forgery, all is clear. This is the clue to the labyrinth, this the master-key that unlocks all doors. I indict The Duty Letter as guilty of literary forgery. And I believe that, taking into consideration the cumulative effect of all the evidence, there can be but one verdict—guilty as indicted. And this beyond any reasonable doubt.


But, assuming now that The Duty Letter as a whole is a literary forgery, the question may still be asked, Is it not possible that the sentence, “Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language” may be saved? Take away all the rest, but leave us this! May not this sentence have occurred in a genuine letter of Lee, where it was found by the forger and transferred to The Duty Letter? In other words, may not The Compilation Theory, to this extent, at least, be true? The Duty Sentence is now so associated with General Lee, is so universally taken as the keynote of his character, that to deny its authenticity seems almost sacrilegious. Even Gamaliel Bradford, who does not admire The Duty Letter as a whole, declares of the Duty Sentence: “I would give a great deal to be assured that it is a genuine utterance of Lee.”

This theory of repudiation of The Duty Letter as a whole, with the acceptance, nevertheless, of the Duty Sentence as genuine, has the support of no less an authority than Dr. J. William Jones, one of the earliest and best-known biographers of General Lee. Thus in Jones’ “Personal Reminiscences of General R. E. Lee,” published in 1874, it is said (p. 133): “The letter which has been so widely published, purporting to have been written by General Lee at Arlington to his son Custis at West Point, is unquestionably spurious. But the expression, ‘Duty is the sublimest word in the English [should be ‘our’] language,’ did occur in a letter to his son.” And this positive affirmation, both as to the spuriousness of The Duty Letter, and the genuineness of the Duty Sentence, is repeated by Dr. Jones in “Life Letters of Robert E. Lee,” published in 1906. (See page 436).

It is a remarkable fact that neither in his first book concerning General Lee, published in 1874, nor in the second, published in 1906, thirty-two years later, does Dr. Jones give any reason, whatever, for pronouncing The Duty Letter “unquestionably spurious,” or any authority for his emphatic statement that the expression, “Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language,” “did occur in a letter to his son.” And yet he must have known, when he published his second book, that many had refused to accept his ipse dixit as to the spuriousness of The Duty Letter; and that those who relied on his assurance of the genuineness of the Duty Sentence, yet longed “to make assurance doubly sure” by being told when the letter containing this precious sentence was written, to which son (General Lee had three sons), and with what context. On all these matters, in both his books, Dr. Jones is as silent as the grave.32

But the question presses, on what authority (he must have had some authority, real or supposed), does Dr. Jones affirm that the expression, “Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language,” “did occur in a letter by General Lee to his son.” If Dr. Jones had in his possession a letter by General Lee containing this sentence, who can doubt that he would have printed it in full If he had any definite knowledge as to such a letter, would he not have given the date, or at least the name of the son to whom it was written?

Neither the widow of Dr. Jones (who is still living), nor any one of his four sons can throw any light on the problem, beyond this statement of one of them:33 “I know that my father always said that the quotation, ‘Duty is the sublimest word in the English language,’ was not written in a letter to General Custis Lee, but was written to another son, on another occasion. I have never been able to find that letter.” But to what son, and on what occasion? All the papers of Dr. Jones have been searched in vain. All the letters of General Lee have been scrutinized by half a dozen persons34 (by some of them with especial reference to the Duty Sentence); but no one encountered the word “sublime,” or “sublimest,” in connection with duty. No living member of the Lee family has any knowledge on the subject.

As the matter is important, and it seems impossible to obtain any further evidence concerning it, I venture to offer a conjecture as to the authority on which Dr. Jones made his statement (repeated in the same words thirty-two years later) that the Duty Sentence “did occur in a letter by General Lee to his son.” In both of Dr. Jones’ books this statement follows immediately after the equally positive assertion that The Duty Letter is “unquestionably spurious.” For neither of these statements is any authority given. This suggests that the authority for both was the same, and that, for some reason, Dr. Jones preferred not to give it, and to let the statements rest on his own ipse dixit.

My conjecture (I cannot call it more) is that Dr. Jones’ authority was Mrs. Mary Custis Lee, widow of General Lee. Dr. Jones’ first book, “Personal Reminiscences of General Robert E. Lee,” was written soon after General Lee’s death; and in the preface he says, “Mrs. Lee did me the kindness to read carefully, and very warmly approve, my manuscript.” And on page 287 he gives an instance of Mrs. Lee’s comment on what he had written.

Now, I think it almost certain that this manuscript, when submitted to Mrs. Lee, contained The Duty Letter,35 and that it was Mrs. Lee who told Dr. Jones that this letter was “unquestionably spurious.” That she was right has been, I think, demonstrated. But Dr. Jones, while accepting her statement as to the spuriousness of the letter as a whole (probably based on the authority of General Lee), lamented, no doubt, the loss of the sentence: “Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language.” And Mrs. Lee may have consoled him by saying she thought General Lee had written this sentence in another letter to one of his sons. Or she may have said (mistakenly, as I believe), that General Lee did write a letter containing the Duty Sentence “to one of his sons.”

If Mrs. Lee’s conversation, as above supposed, was really the source of Dr. Jones’ assertion concerning the Duty Sentence, this would explain the strange indefiniteness of the phrase “to his son”: and the positiveness of his statement, for which he was unwilling to give Mrs. Lee as his authority. But every lawyer knows the danger of such evidence. Dr. Jones may not have remembered Mrs. Lee’s precise words. He may not have understood her correctly, and may have taken her words more strongly than she intended. It is not likely that Mrs. Lee would have declared that General Lee did write such a sentence, unless she had more definite knowledge than is indicated by the vague description, “to his son.”36


But apart from Dr. Jones’ assertion (whatever may have been its authority), the question recurs: May not General Lee have written the Duty Sentence, in some letter, to somebody? Undoubtedly he may have done so; and so may Stonewall Jackson or Jefferson Davis; and so may any other man of high character and devotion to duty. It is, of course, impossible to prove a negative. But it must be remembered that when The Duty Letter is proved a forgery, the Duty Sentence shares its fate, unless it can be found elsewhere in General Lee’s writings. But this has not been done. General Lee speaks often of duty, but always in plain, unadorned language. Why suppose that, on this occasion, he changed his style, and employed rhetoric and the superlative? The burden of proof rests heavily on those, who conceding The Duty Letter to be a forgery, would, nevertheless, save the Duty Sentence. Up to the present time, not a scintilla of evidence, if we except Dr. Jones’ ipse dixit, has been produced even tending to prove that General Lee ever wrote the sentence, “Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language.”37


Assuming, as I think we must, that the sentence, “Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language,” cannot be attributed to General Lee, our regret for its loss may be lessened by two reflections, one that the association of sublimity with duty would not have been original with General Lee, (as certainly it was not original with the fabricator of The Duty Letter); and the other that we have undisputed language of General Lee that more than compensates for the loss of the Duty Sentence. With these two reflections, this paper will be brought to an end.

1. Long before General Lee could have written, “Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language,” the German philosopher, Lavater, had said:38 “He who can at all times sacrifice pleasure to duty, approaches sublimity.” And nearly a century ago, the English essayist, De Quincey, had written. “It is an impressive truth that sometimes, in the very lowest forms of duty, less than which would mark a man as a villain, there is, nevertheless, the sublimest ascent of self-sacrifice.”

2. And now what words of General Lee can compensate us for the loss the cherished sentence, “Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language”?

Soon after General Lee’s death there was found in his army satchel, which had not been opened since the war, a sheet of paper on which he had written these noble words, which fall on the ear with the solemn tones, and majestic roll, of some great cathedral organ:

There is a true glory, and a true honor; the glory of duty done, the honor of integrity of principle.

These words were written during that dreadful winter in the trenches at Petersburg, when Lee, like a wounded lion at bay, confronted Grant for the last time. He must have seen the shadow of the black pall of Appomattox already creeping over the doomed Confederacy; and he must have felt that soon he would be called on, in his own person, to exemplify the truth of his words: “Human virtue should be equal to human calamity.”

In this hour of failure, in this wreck of a nation’s hopes, General Lee asked himself what would be the verdict of history on the Lost Cause; and on those who loved it, and fought for it to the bitter end. And he found comfort and courage in the words which have been quoted, which are worthy to be inscribed on his monument, and to be the world’s epitaph on the Southern Confederacy, and on its heroic defenders. And these words of General Lee come as his benison to all who nobly strive for the right as they see it, whether in peace or in war, whether in victory or in defeat:


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