The Forged Letter of General Robert E. Lee


Of the Law School of the University of Virginia


Virginia State Bar Association
White Sulphur Springs

August 4th, 5th and 6th, 1915


The Forged Letter of Gen. Robert E. Lee

Of the Law School of the University of Virginia.


After the publication in the Report of the Virginia State Bar Association, 1914, of the paper entitled “The Forged Letter of General Robert E. Lee,” additional evidence was discovered, tending to prove the forgery of the letter referred to. So important was this after-discovered evidence, the writer of the paper above entitled, sought and obtained from the Bar Association permission to print the new evidence, with comments, in the report of the meeting for 1915.

This new evidence consists of:

(1) An editorial published in the Richmond (Va.) Examiner, December 17, 1864;

(2) A letter by Dr. J. William Jones, published in the University Monthly, New York, March, 1872; and

(3) A letter by Dr. J. William Jones, published in the Richmond (Va.) Times, December 19, 1900.

But, in order to present a complete view of the documentary evidence in the case, and for the better understanding of the comments, it has been thought proper to print also the Duty Letter (so-called in the paper read in 1914), as it appeared in the University Monthly, New York, in November, 1871; and the Repudiation Letter (so-called in the paper read in 1914), which was published in the Richmond (Va.) Sentinel, December 20, 1864.

It has been thought best to print the comments on the documents in footnotes appended thereto. And, for brevity, the paper on the Forged Letter of General Robert E. Lee published in the Report of the Virginia State Bar Association for 1914, is uniformly referred to as follows: “Report Virginia State Bar Association, 1914,” giving the proper page.


EDITORIAL FROM THE RICHMOND (VA.) Examiner, December 17, 1864.1

A forged letter, signed “R. E. Lee,” and purporting to have been written to G. W. Custis Lee on 5th of April, 1852, is published in newspapers all over the North.”2

That is nothing; but when the production is reprinted in Richmond papers, with a certain awful reverence, and the sons of Confederate fathers are solemnly conjured to take to heart the Yankee scribbler’s trash as addressed to each of them individually by his own father, the thing becomes too stupid. It is enough for General Lee to be a great Captain; there is no need to present him also as the model father, the great common parent of us all,3 upon the credit of a Philadelphia journalist’s
dull forgery to fill up a corner of his paper.”4

Forgery, indeed, has become one large branch of industry with our Northern brethren; it has risen almost to the dignity of a fine art; but, like the other arts and sciences, is only regarded and employed by that accomplished people with a view to making it pay. By each performance of this kind there is always something to be gained; and they never practice as amateurs. If they produce, for example, an official letter from our Secretary of the Navy, it is to impose on a court of justice in England, and procure a judgment against Confederate rams. If they invent a correspondence between French shipbuilders and Confederate agents, it is to stimulate the French Government to interfere with our cruisers. If they forge letters said to have been taken from our dead soldiers on the field, expressing their private opinion that “the Confederacy has about gone up,” it is to inspire their own people with more implicit confidence in the Government. When they turn out a letter from General Lee, it is first to give a special interest to that newspaper which has had the good fortune to get hold of an original letter of the Confederate General, “found at Arlington House;” and second, to show that this great and wise Virginian, when he would set before his son an exemplar of virtue and “heavenly wisdom,” had to go for this exemplar to Connecticut, of all places in the world!

The poor wretch who forged the epistle in question had never so much as seen a letter of General Lee; or he would have known that the proprietor of Arlington never dated from “Arlington House.”5

The scribbler also was quite unacquainted with the life and actions of the man he presumed to counterfeit; he makes him talk, in 1852, of “my fine old regiment,” whereas he had no regiment whatsoever, young or old; and it further happens that, in April 1852, he was not at Arlington at all.

It would not be worth while to brand this absurd forgery so as to discredit it in the eyes of the Yankee nation (who are welcome to believe what they choose! if there were not people in this country dull enough to believe it, and disseminate it, and congratulate General Lee and his son, and all other men’s sons, on the happy revelation of so precious a monument of wisdom.

There may be persons who opine—for there is no disputing about tastes—that the choicest topics for a parent’s letter to his son are scraps from “Poor Richard;” or who hold that the most sublime of all human compositions are those sentences which school-masters have written for ages in their pupils’ copy-books: “Frankness is the child of honesty and courage;” “You will wrong yourself by equivocation of any kind;” “Do not appear to others what you are not;” “Deal kindly but firmly with your classmates;” especially that admirable “Poor Richard” maxim, “Never do a wrong thing to make a friend; the man who requires you to do so is dearly purchased at a sacrifice.” Such is the entire staple, weft and woof, of General Lee’s pretended letter; and indeed it is singular that the writer could leave off without adding: “Never pay too dear for your whistle;” “Never send a boy to mill; nor bolt the door with a boiled carrot.“

The main point of the production, however, at which the pseudo-father was in a hurry to arrive, was the story of the admirable “old Puritan Legislator” of Connecticut, who, when the Day of Judgment arrived, and the Legislature of that intelligent community was about to adjourn in honor of the event, moved, on the contrary, to order candles, so that the Judge might find them at their duty. That is the crown and climax of “heavenly wisdom;” there is the example which all fathers should exhort their sons to follow when another Day of Judgment comes around! “Do your duty, like the old Puritan,” exclaims the pseudo-parent, in closing his letter, “you cannot do more.”

The real General Lee, no doubt, is too busy to trouble himself with such silly inventions, and has no time to contradict them; but this is not the first pretended letter “picked up at Arlington House;” it may not be the last; and Virginian newspapers ought to be careful of his fame, even in the smallest matters, and not suffer a Yankee’s parts of speech to be fathered upon him.6



From the Richmond (Va.) Sentinel, December 19 (daily), and December 20, (semi-weekly), 1864.

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 but to amuse the people. So far, it is a harmless deception, yet the cause of truth needs this refutation.”7


As Printed in the University Monthly, New York, November, 1871.8


Arlington House, 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 remote region, and I must hasten to see that the men are properly taken care of. I have but little to add in reply to yours of March 26, 27, and 28th. 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 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 any one, 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 to 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. Some one, in the consternation of the hour, moved an adjournment. Then there arose an old Puritan legislator, Davenport, of Stamford, and said 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.

To G. W. Custis Lee.


Published in the University Monthly, New York, March, 1872.9


The famous letter purporting to be from General Lee, at Arlington, to his son Custis, at West Point, is unmistakably spurious. This letter, which is published in the November number of the University Monthly, has long passed current as giving the keynote of the life of the great chieftain.

It has been very extensively copied, and appears in a number of books about the war. It seems a pity to spoil all that has been written about it; and yet we have the highest authority for saying that General Lee never wrote, and his son never received, any such letter.

Its history is simply this: In the early days of the war it was published in the Northern papers purporting to be a letter found by a Federal soldier at Arlington.10

Being republished in the South, it attracted the attention of the Lee family, and the General stated that he did not remember writing it,11 and did not think that he did (a very strong denial for him)12 while his son (General Custis Lee) was confident that he “had never received it.”13 Upon these statements the Richmond Examiner denied its authenticity, and criticized
with some severity its style.14

But the letter itself bears internal evidence of being spurious. It is headed “Arlington House,” whereas General Lee and his family were always careful to write simply “Arlington,”15 to distinguish their beautiful home from “Arlington House.”16

It is dated ”April 5. 1852.” Now at this date General Lee was not at Arlington, but was at West Point in the discharge of his duties as Superintendent of the Military Academy, where he could have seen his son, and given him proper advice, without the necessity of writing.17

The letter makes General Lee say: “I am just in the act of leaving home for New Mexico. My fine old regiment has been ordered to that remote region, and I must hasten to see that the men are properly taken care of,” when he really did not leave West Point until 1855—three years after the date of this letter. The regiment—the famous Second Cavalry—was not organized until 1855, and while he might well call a corps “fine” which numbered among its officers such men as Albert Sydney Johnston, R. E. Lee, William J. Hardee, Earl Van Dorn, Kirby Smith, Hood, Field, Cosby, Major, Fitz Lee, George H. Thomas, Johnson, Palmer, and Stoneman, he would hardly have spoken of it as “old” several years after—certainly not three years before—its organization.

Besides, there are other parts of the letter—especially the story of the old Puritan Legislator—which are not written at all in General Lee’s style, and which we might conclude, a priori, he did not write.

The Lee family are so entirely persuaded that the letter is spurious that Mrs. Lee made special request that it should not go into the forthcoming “Lee Memorial”—saying that she wanted nothing in that volume which is not “strictly authentic.”18

But the expression, “Duty is the sublimest word in our language,[”] did occur in a letter (at a different date) from General Lee to his son,19 and other sentences of this letter were probably used by him at different times.20

The true origin of the letter, then, seems to be that some ingenious correspondent took a number of General Lee’s letters to his son (found al Arlington), and manufactured this one, which has been so successfully palmed off on the public.

But although he did not write this, General Lee did write letters as noble in sentiment and even more felicitous in expression. Indeed, he was a model letter-writer.

We have had the privilege of looking over some loose sheets found after his death, in General Lee’s army-satchel, along with his parole and other papers—with which he had evidently amused a leisure hour in camp.

There were quotations from the Psalms, and from select authors, with comments of his own, and some fine specimens of his chaste, simple style. On one sheet was written, in his well-known, characteristic chirography, the following, which we deem well worthy of a place in the columns of the University Monthly:

The warmest instincts of every man’s soul declare the glory of the soldier’s death. It is more appropriate to the Christian than to the Greek to sing:

Glorious his fate and envied his lot,
Who for his country fights, and for it dies.

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

And certainly in his own pure life he beautifully exemplified this noble sentiment, and has left an example of devotion to duty which cannot be too frequently held up for the study and imitation of the youth of the country.

(Signed) J.W.J.


Published in the Richmond (Va.) Times, December 19, 1900.
Incorporating Dr. Jones’s Letter to the University Monthly, March, 1872.


“Dr. J. William Jones Makes Out a Good Case for His Side.”—Editor of the Times:

Sir: I see that you have recently reproduced a letter which went the rounds of the papers during the War between the States, and has been published in several books, purporting to be from Col. R. E. Lee at Arlington to his son, Custis, at West Point.

I published in the University Monthly, New York, in March, 1872, the following article, which, I think, shows conclusively that the letter is spurious:

(Here Dr. Jones reproduces, in full, his letter published in
the University Monthly, March, 1872, showing the Duty Letter
to be spurious. See IV., ante, page 8)

This may be a matter of small moment, but I am sure that the Times desires to be entirely accurate, especially in all historical matters. I remember that Mrs. Mary Custis Lee, who did me the kindness to read the MS. of my reminiscences, anecdotes, and letters of R. E. Lee, and gave me very valuable material and practical suggestions concerning it, said in reference to this letter, which I had put in my original MS.:22 It is a very good letter, and we have not thought it worth while to publicly deny its authenticity,23 but General Lee did not write it, and I want nothing to go into your book which is not perfectly authentic.

In the same spirit I take the liberty of sending the Times this communication.


Chapel Hill, N.C, December 12, 1900.


The new evidence in re the Duty Letter, has now been examined, and the writer’s self-appointed task—a labor of love— is ended. To his mind, the direct evidence now adduced, corroborating the circumstantial evidence formerly considered, removes any possible doubt as to the spuriousness of the Duty Letter. It is a forgery to a moral certainty. Probably no literary imposture has ever been exposed by evidence of a more convincing character. Indeed, it may safely be assumed that the imposture—a letter from one living man to another—would never have been attempted save for the fact that the pretended writer and the addressee were remote from the place of publication, and the circumstances were such that they were not expected to see the letter. It was for temporary use in the North, and it was not contemplated that it would cross the hostile lines, and reach the Confederate Capital.

But assuming the proof of forgery complete, the question arises cui bono? In a letter from one who is convinced of the forgery, it is asked: “But ‘is the game worth the candle?’ If the Duty Letter contained any imputation on General Lee’s character, or any sentiment unworthy of him, his vindication would justify any amount of trouble; but such is not the case, and your contention, however fine and conclusive, is rather academic than really important.”

The answer to this is, in the language of Mrs. Lee, in 1864 (or of whoever wrote the Repudiation Letter): “It is a harmless deception, yet the cause of truth needs this refutation.” In this view we know that General Lee concurred. Again, Mrs. Lee said, in 1872, to Dr. Jones: “It is a very good letter * * * but General Lee did not write it.” General Lee himself said: “I do not remember the letter, and I do not think I wrote it.” Is it honoring to General Lee to go on ascribing to him the authorship of a letter which he disclaimed?

Again, is it honoring to General Lee to permit constantly recurring controversy over a letter purporting to be written by him? Ever since his death, at regular intervals, the Duty Letter has appeared in the papers, with high commendation, to be followed inevitably by communications questioning its genuineness. Issue was joined, but, as the facts were not known, there could be no decision. To quote the words used in the former paper: “To the writer it has seemed due to General Lee’s memory to settle, if possible, before death destroyed the testimony of witnesses, the doubt that overhung the Duty Letter, and to prevent the recurrence of disputes as to its authenticity.”

But what has been lost if the Duty Letter must be consigned to the limbo of detected forgeries? In the opinion of the writer, nothing of real value, if we except possibly the Duty Sentence. The glamour which General Lee’s great name has thrown over the Duty Letter has led some to imagine that the Duty Letter casts a glamour over General Lee. But such is not the case. General Lee’s fame would derive no lustre from the Duty Letter if it were genuine. Even the Duty Sentence (“Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language”) does not compare in virile force with Kant’s noble apostrophe: “Duty! thou sublime and mighty word.” And General Lee himself has given us a sentence more inspiring than the Duty Sentence, a sentence which unites Duty and Honor as one and inseparable:

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

As was said in conclusion of the former paper, those words of General Lee come as his benison to all who nobly strive for the right as they see it, in peace or in war, in victory or in defeat. They are worthy to be inscribed on his monument, and to be the world’s epitaph on the Southern Confederacy, and on its heroic defenders.

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