The Forged Letter of General Robert E. Lee
Charles A. Graves


1. The author of this editorial was probably John Mitchel, the Irish
Nationalist, grandfather of John Purroy Mitchel, now Mayor of New York
City. It has been ascribed, however, to the famous John M. Daniel, at that
time proprietor and editor of the Examiner. Whether it is more in the style
of Mitchel or Daniel, there is a difference of opinion among those qualified
to judge. See “Editors of the Past,” a lecture delivered by Judge Robert W.
Hughes, himself an editor of the Examiner, before the Virginia Press Association, June, 1897, in which he says that John Mitchel became one of the
editors of the Examiner in the summer of 1864, before which time Daniel and
Hughes had written the editorials. Judge Hughes adds, “Mr. Mitchel wrote
with his usual brilliancy from that time on to the end of the Examiner, and
did nearly all of the editorial work—Mr. Daniel writing very little, and I but
rarely and briefly. Indeed I was very seldom in Richmond.”

John M. Daniel died, after a long illness, March 29, 1865. As to the “end
of the Examiner,[”] Judge Hughes states: “Richmond was occupied by the
Federal army on Wednesday, the 3rd of April, 1865, on which day the larger
part of the city was burned, and with it the plant of the great newspaper.”

2. This is, no doubt, an exaggeration. The Duty Letter was first
printed, so far as is now known, in the New York Sun, on November 26, 1864.
It is possible that the Sun’s publication was a reprint from some other Northern paper, but the probability is that it was an original publication. See
Report Virginia State Bar Association, 1914, p. 177, note 1.

3. The only Richmond paper which reprinted The Duty Letter, “with a certain awful reverence,” was the Sentinel, on December 15, 1864, in its daily edition, and on December 16, 1864, in its semi-weekly edition. The Richmond Whig had printed the letter on December 2, 1864, but without comment. For the Sentinel’s panegyric, which aroused the ire of the Examiner, see report Virginia State Bar Association, 1914, p. 180, note 5.

It is interesting to note that whatever may be the merits of The Duty Letter, the Sentinel’s estimate of it, rather than that of the Examiner, has for a half century been prevalent in both the North and the South.

4. The Duty Letter was published by the Richmond Whig without credit, but certainly copying from the New York Sun of November 26, 1864. But the Sentinel, though undoubtedly copying from either the Sun or the Whig, gave credit to the Philadelphia Inquirer. This error of the Sentinel explains the Examiner’s fling at the “Philadelphia journalist’s dull forgery.” See report Virginia State Bar Association, 1914, p. 179, note 4.

5. The statement of the Examiner that the forger of The Duty Letter “had never so much a letter of General Lee” is undoubtedly erroneous. The Duty Letter borrows topics from geniune letters of General Lee, and imitates his style. For the manner in which the forger may have obtained private letters of General Lee, see report Virginia State Bar Association, 1914, page 200.

As to “Arlington House,” while General Lee never added “House” to “Arlington,” his wife’s father, G. W. Parke Custis, did; and letters from Mr. Custis may have been found by the forger at Arlington.

6. The Examiner’s editorial repudiating The Duty Letter as a “dull forgery” is, so far as is known, the first attack on its authenticity, preceding The Repudiation Letter in the Sentinel (as to which see under II., post), which was not published until several days later. Its importance consists in the fact that its repudiation of The Duty Letter was declared by Mrs. Mary Custis Lee to have been based on statements made by General Robert E. Lee and General Custis Lee. See under IV., post.

7. In “The Forged Letter of General Robert E. Lee,” report Virginia State Bar Association, 1914, p. 181, it is asked: “But who was the ‘source entitled to know.’ from whom the Sentinel received The Repudiation Letter? Obviously some one 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.”

The writer is now convinced that this most important letter was written by Mrs. Mary Custis Lee. The reasons for this conclusion will be presented later in commenting on the letter of Dr. J. William Jones, published in the University Monthly, March, 1872, which is printed post, under IV., p. 8.

That Mrs. Lee, if the author of The Repudiation Letter, consulted with
General Lee before its publication, “goes without saying.” Mrs. Lee told
Dr. Jones that it was upon the statements of General Lee and General Custis
Lee that The Repudiation Editorial in the Examiner was based. Can it be
doubted that The Repudiation Letter in the Sentinel was on the same high

8. The Duty Letter as here reprinted from the University Monthly, November, 1871, is, so far as the writer is aware, the first publication of the letter in full, after the war. It was published in John Esten Cooke’s “Life of General R. E. Lee” in 1871, but with the first four sentences omitted. The University Monthly does not comment on the letter, nor state from whom it received it. It was this publication which called forth the letter of Dr. J. William Jones which is printed post, under IV., p.8.

The letter, as published in the University Monthly, varies in several minor particulars from the letter as printed in the New York Sun, November 26, 1864. Thus, in the second sentence the Monthly has, “remote region” instead of “distant region.” In the third sentence the Monthly has, “that the men are properly taken care of,” the Sun has it, “that they are properly taken care of.” In the fourth sentence the Monthly reads, “in reply to yours of March 26, 27, and 28th.” The Sun reads, “in reply to your letters of March 26, 27 and 28th.” In the eighth sentence of the Monthly we have, “if no, tell him plainly,” etc., while the Sun reads, “if not,” etc. Again, the name of the old Puritan in the Monthly is spelled correctly “Davenport,” instead of “Devenport,” as the Sun prints it.

9. I am indebted for a verbatim copy of this important letter (italics the same as in the University Monthly), to Mr. Robert E. Kelly, of Jersey City, New Jersey. This is the letter republished by Dr. Jones, in the Richmond (Va.) Times, December 19, 1900. (See post, under V., p. 14.) The University Monthly (two bound volumes) was found by Mr. Kelly in the New York Public Library, after the writer had sought for it in vain elsewhere. The University Monthly published Dr. Jones’s letter without comment.

It is interesting to note that this letter was published in the life-time of Mrs. Lee, who died in the fall of 1873. At the time of the publication of this letter, Mrs. Lee and Dr. Jones both resided in Lexington, and there can be but little doubt that the letter was seen by Mrs. Lee. For some reason, which is not apparent, Dr. Jones signed the letter with his initials—“J.W.J.,” and did not give his address, Lexington, Va.

10. There is no evidence that The Duty Letter was published in the Northern papers “in the early days of the war.” So far as is known the first publication was in the New York Sun, November 26, 1864. And, as printed in the Sun, The Duty Letter, while it purports to have been found “at Arlington House,“ does not purport to have been found by a “Federal soldier,” though this was probably the case. See report Virginia State Bar Association 1914, pages 176, 204.

11. This statement by General Lee was made after an examination of The Duty Letter, and less than nine years from the time (1856) when he joined his regiment in Texas (assuming the letter, if genuine, to have been written at that time, under the “Erroneous Date Theory”). How could General Lee so soon forget the occasion on which he received three letters from his son, written on three successive days? And how could he forget so soon the letter he wrote in reply to that son, lauding to the skies the “old Puritan legislator,” and bidding his son to do his duty “in all things like the old Puritan?” Would not the anecdote of the “old Puritan” so earmark the letter, if genuine, that it would be recalled to General Lee’s memory?

12. Some comment has been made on the fact that, as reported by Mrs. Lee to Dr. Jones, General Lee said that he did not “think” he wrote The Duty Letter, instead of saying, absolutely, that he did not write it. Dr. Jones evidently anticipated this comment, and endeavored to forestall it by declaring that the words of Genera Lee were “a very strong denial for him.” And Professor Joynes says (letter to the writer July 3, 1915), “As to the ‘psychology’ of Genera] Lee’s phrase, ‘I do not think I wrote it,’ there is no psychology in it, except General Lee’s natural modesty, and that, perhaps, he did not regard the question as worthy of more emphatic denial. He was very busy then thinking about more important matters. The phrase seems to me quite natural for General Lee under the circumstances, for he probably gave but little attention to the question.”

Assuming that the word “think” was used by General Lee, and remembering that in speech much depends on emphasis (e.g. “I do not think I wrote it”), the best way, perhaps, to interpret General Lee’s words is to consider in what sense they were taken by Mrs. Lee, and whether General Lee acquiesced in the repudiation of The Duty Letter.

Applying these tests we are told by Mrs. Lee that it was upon the statements of General Lee and Custis Lee that the Examiner repudiated The Duty Letter. General Lee certainly acquiesced in this repudiation. Again, there can be no doubt that General Lee did not repudiate The Repudiation Letter, almost certainly written by Mrs. Lee. And, finally, Mrs. Lee declared, emphatically, to Dr. Jones (see under V., post, page 17): “It is a very good letter * * * but General Lee did not write it (italics mine). Can it be doubted that Mrs. Lee understood General Lee to deny writing the letter?

Since the above was written, I have been informed by Captain W. Gordon McCabe (October 8, 1915), that he has examined, at my request, all the letters of General Lee to Mrs. Lee in December, 1861, but finds in them no allusion to The Duty Letter. Captain McCabe is custodian of the Lee Letters, and proposes, as soon as possible, to publish a volume entitled “The Domestic Letters of General Robert E. Lee.”

13. See letter of General Custis Lee to the writer, October 23, 1910, Report Virginia State Bar Association, 1914, page 183.

14. It may be asked how did the Examiner know these statements of General Lee and General Custis Lee? No doubt, I think, through Mrs. Lee. The authenticity of The Duty Letter had probably been discussed in the Lee family from the time of its first appearance, December 2, 1864, in the Whig. There had been ample time before the editorial in the Examiner, December 17, 1864, to consult General Lee, and arrive at the conclusion that the letter was spurious.

It may be added that there is every reason to suppose that John Mitchel, assuming him to be the writer of the Examiner editorial, was persona grata in Mrs. Lee’s drawing room. His was an interesting personality. He was a man of character and ability, who had suffered much for his zeal as an Irish patriot. He had espoused the cause of the Confederacy; and his three sons all fought on the Confederate side. The eldest was killed at Fort Sumter, the youngest at Gettysburg; while the second lost his right arm in the battles around Richmond. For full information as to John Mitchel’s adventurous career, see Dictionary of National Biography—“John Mitchel.”

15. This is an error. While General Lee never wrote “Arlington House” Mrs. Lee and her father, G. W. Parke Custis, did. Mrs. Lee sometimes wrote “Arlington” and “Arlington House,” successively, in the same paragraph. See her “Memoir of G. W. Parke Custis,” prefixed to his “Recollections of Washington,” page 20, note.

16. It is probable that as to this Dr. Jones misunderstood Mrs. Lee. She tells us, on page 17 of her “Memoir,” referred to above, that her ancestor, John Custis, lived at “Arlington, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.” And on page 52, she says of her father, G. W. Parke Custis, “Mount Vernon continued to be his home until the death of his grandmother, when he commenced the erection of a beautiful mansion at Arlington, an estate of a thousand acres left him by his father, and lying upon the West side of the Potomac, opposite Washington City.” It would seem that the estate of Arlington on the Potomac was named for Arlington on the Eastern Shore of Virginia; and that the “beautiful mansion at Arlington, opposite Washington City,” was called “Arlington House” to distinguish it from the estate. In course of time this was found unnecessary, and both estate and mansion were alike called “Arlington,” without the addition of House.

17. Dr. Jones is in error in saying that at the date of The Duty Letter, April 5, 1852, General Lee was at West Point. See report Virginia State Bar Association, 1914, p. 196, where it is shown that in April, 1852, General Lee’s home was in Baltimore, and that he did not go to West Point until September 1, 1852. See also The Repudiation Letter, II., ante, p. 5.

18. “Forthcoming ‘Lee Memorial’.” This refers to a “Lee Memorial Volume,” which, in 1872, (the year this letter was written) was in course of preparation. See Dr. Jones’s “Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of General Robert E. Lee” (published in 1874), where it is said in the Preface: “A large part of this book was originally prepared for the Lee Memorial Volume, which the Faculty of Washington and Lee University designed publishing, and which I had the honor of assisting in preparing; and Mrs. Lee did me the kindness to read carefully, and very warmly approve my manusscript.” Dr. Jones then states that the publication of the “Lee Memorial Volume,” was abandoned, and, with the consent of the Faculty, he used the material in a book of his own. This book was the “Reminiscences,” etc., referred to above.

19. This is the first time (in 1872) that Dr. Jones asserts, with the emphasis of italics, that the Duty Sentence “did” occur in a letter from General Lee “to his son.” This statement he three times repeats, in 1874 in his “Reminiscences of General R. E. Lee,[”] in 1900 in the republication of the University Monthly Letter in the Richmond Times; (See under V., post, p. 14) and in 1906 in his “Life and Letters of Robert E. Lee.” The only change made in the sentence is that in his books Dr. Jones omits the words in parenthesis “at a different date.”)

In report of Virginia State Bar Association, 1914, p. 209, the writer has expressed his surprise that in neither of his two books does Dr. Jones deem it necessary to cite any authority for his assertion that The Duty Sentence was written by General Lee, nor does he give any information on the subject, beyond the words “in a letter (at a different date) to his son.” The prediction by the writer in report of Virginia State Bar Association, 1914, p. 212, note 36, that the lost Jones Letter, now found, would not give any reasons for Dr Jones’s assertion, is confirmed by the contents of the Jones Letter as printed above.

The conjecture of the writer in report Virginia State Bar Association, 1914, p. 211, that Dr. Jones’s statement was made on the authority of Mrs. Lee, real or supposed, is strengthened by the fact, then conjectured but now known from the Jones letter, that Mrs. Lee caused the omission by Dr. Jones of the Duty Letter from the MS. of his 1874 book. It was surmised from this conjecture that Mrs. Lee consoled Dr. Jones for the loss of the Duty sentence (so far as The Duty letter was concerned), by saying that she thought, or believed that General Lee wrote that sentence “at a different date in a letter to his son.” As to this this writer is convinced that Mrs. Lee was mistaken—if, indeed, she was correctly understood by Dr. Jones.

In report Virginia State Bar Association, 1914, p. 214, it is stated that, if The Duty Letter were genuine, the association of sublimity with duty would not be original with General Lee. To the two quotations there given in proof this statement, I am now able to add a third, having permission to quote from a letter to the writer, May 22, 1915, by Dr. Albert Lefevre, Professor of Philosophy in the Umversity of Virginia:

Your quotations, towards the end of the address, from Lavater and De Quincey, suggested to my mind that Kant more than once connects “duty” with “sublimity.” The best known passage is his apostrophe to duty, which begins: “Duty! thou sublime and mighty word.” Kant’s use of the term “word” interested me in connection with Professor Joynes’s comment that Lee would hardly have used that term.

20. This, so far as I know, is the first suggestion of “The Compilation Theory,” examined and rejected by the writer in report Virginia State Bar Association, 1914, p 198. As showing that this theory is untenable, attention may now be called to three facts:

1. The Examiner Editorial, based on the statements of General Lee and General Custis Lee, pronounces the whole Duty Letter a forgery; and ridicules it in a manner which would be equally offensive to General Lee whether the sentences held up to scorn had been written by him in The Duty Letter, or in any other letter, or letters.

2. The Repudiation letter in the Sentinel, from “a source entitled to know” (doubtless Mrs. Lee), repudiates The Duty letter as a whole, and says: “There is nothing about it that can be recognized as genuine by any
one familiar with his (General Lee’s) style.” How can this be reconciled with
the Compilation Theory?

3. In his letter to the Richmond Times, in 1900, Dr. Jones makes this addition to his letter of 1872, in the University Monthly. (See V., post, p. 14):

“I remember that Mrs. Mary Custis Lee * * * said in reference to this letter (The Duty Letter), which I had put in my original Ms.: It is a very good letter * * * but General Lee did not write it, and I want nothing to go into your book which is not perfectly authentic.” How can this be reconciled with the Compilation Theory? And Mrs. Lee makes no exception of the Duty Sentence. It would seem that Dr. Jones must have misunderstood Mrs. Lee, if it was on her authority that he four times declares that the Duty Sentence “did occur in a letter from General Lee to his son.”

21. This is the lost letter of Dr. Jones to which reference is made in report of Virginia State Bar Association, 1914, p. 209, note 32. It was found by Captain W. Gordon McCabe, who, in a letter to the writer, May 22, 1915, thus describes the fortunate event: “Just after finishing your Address, a curious thing happened. I took down my Long’s [‘]Life of Lee[’] to see exactly how he had quoted the letter; and lo! there on p. 464, was the letter of our friend, Jno. William Jones, to the Richmond Times, which I wrote you I was sure I had seen. I had cut it out of the Times, and slipped it into Long’s book, and had forgot all about it.”

The Jones Letter to the Times, which both Captain McCabe and Captain R. E. Lee remembered seeing, is mainly important for its incorporation, in full, of Dr. Jones’s letter to the University Monthly, in March, 1872, which is printed under IV., ante, p. 8.

The discovery of the Jones letters heightens the mystery of his mere ipse dixit, without any authority or explanation, that The Duty Letter is “unquestionably spurious.” When his first book was published, in 1874, he had already published his letter to The University Monthly, and given indubitable proof that The Duty Letter was spurious. Why did he not give the substance of this letter, when he published his book, just two years later? Again, he publishes the same letter, by incorporation, in his letter to the Times in 1900. Why did he not give the substance of the letter in his second book, published in 1906? He had twice published elsewhere, his reasons for pronouncing The Duty Letter “unquestionably spurious.” Why, in 1906 at least, when he must have been aware that his ipse dixit had not convinced the public that The Duty Letter was spurious, did he not put an end to strife, by disclosing his reasons in his book? Like Falstaff, his attitude seems to be: “If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason on compulsion.“

The only explanation of this mystery that suggests itself (fanciful, perhaps, to the writer, is that Mrs. Lee, while consenting to the use of her name in a fugitive letter to the Monthly, and by inference to the Times, forbade its use in Dr. Jones’s first book: and he respected her wishes when publishing the second, thirty-two years later.

22. This confirms the conjecture made by the writer in report of Virginia State Bar Association, 1914, p. 211: “Now I think it almost certain that this manuscript, when submitted to Mrs. Lee, contained The Duty Letter, and that it was Mrs. Lee who told Dr. Jones that this letter was unquestionably spurious.”

23. “Have not thought it worth while to publicly (italics mine) deny its authenticity.” These words of Mrs. Lee are the open sesame to what took place in the Lee family, when The Duty Letter attracted their attention (See under IV., ante, p. 9), immediately after, no doubt, its publication in the Whig, December 2, 1864.

As the Whig published the letter without credit or comment, and as its future celebrity could not then have been foreseen, it is probable that the Lee family would not have taken the trouble, publicly or otherwise, to deny its authenticity, if it had not been reprinted in the Sentinel, with such eulogistic comment. Naturally, General Lee did not want praise to which he was not entitled; and it was decided in the Family Council, to let the public know that the letter was spurious. But how could this be done? It was “not thought worth while to publicly deny its authenticity;” but information was given John Mitchel, no doubt, on which he wrote the Examiner Editorial, which Mrs. Lee remembered, in 1872, and described correctly as “denying the authenticity of the letter, and criticising, with some severity, its style.”

But this was not deemed sufficient. The laudatory comment had appeared in the Sentinel, and a letter to that paper was decided on. But should the name of the writer be signed to it? It was decided that the editor should be asked to print a Repudiation Letter from a “Source entitled to know,” which would not be a public denial by the Lee family.

But by whom was the letter written? All the evidence points to Mrs. Lee. She had shown ability as a writer in the Memoir of her father, already referred to. (See under II., ante, p. 5.) She was fully cognizant, in 1864, of all that was taking place, and much interested in the exposure of the forgery of The Duty Letter, as is shown by her conversation with Dr. Jones, in 1872. Besides there is language in The Repudiation Letter very similar to her statement to Dr. Jones, in 1872. Thus in The Repudiation Letter, it is said: “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.” In conversation with Dr. Jones, in 1872, Mrs. Lee said: “It is a very good letter * * * but General Lee did not write it. and I want nothing to go into your book which is not perfectly authentic.”