A Lee Miscellany

Note: The following is taken from the October 1925 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 33), pp. 371–82.

Courtesy of Mr. Francis A. MacNutt.



Schloss Ratzoctz, Brixen, Alto Adige, Italy.

Under separate cover, I am sending a photograph of a very interesting portrait, which you may feel inclined to reproduce in the Historical Magazine. It is of the mother of General R. E. Lee, Anne Carter, of Shirley, and to the best of my knowledge, none like it exists in America. You will notice the miniature of General Washington worn on a slender gold chain: on the frame of this miniature is inscribed, “from Washington to his dear Anne”. I bought this portrait in Rome some twenty-five years and more ago, solely because of the miniature, for I did not know whom it represented. As a work of art, portrait of an American lady of that period, it is not without merit; indeed it is above the average. I was much puzzled to define the identity of General Washington’s “dear Anne”, but raked the family connection in vain. A short time later, Miss Mildred Lee recognized the picture hanging in my library at Palazzo Pamphili as a portrait of her grandmother, and told me the miniature had been General Washington’s wedding present. All this was highly interesting and satisfactory. Two years ago, I spent a few days in Lexington as the guest of the University, and I there discovered that there existed no portrait of General Lee’s mother in their collection. On my return here, I had a photograph made, of which I sent one copy to the University, another to my kinsman, Gov. MacCorkle, of Charleston, W.Va., and the third I now send to you. On my death, the original portrait will go to the Washington and Lee University in Lexington.

Francis A. MacNutt.

[We are greatly indebted to Mr. MacNutt for permission to publish this very interesting portrait and to quote his letter. He is a member of the old Rockbridge and Augusta family of the name, to which belonged Alexander McNutt, prominent in Nova Scotia and Governor Alexander G. McNutt, of Mississippi.]

By Major General William Harding Carter.

[It is the purpose of the editors of this Magazine to confine its pages almost entirely to the printing of source material for Virginia history; but occasionally it seems good to deviate from this rule. A paper on General Lee by such a distinguished soldier as General William Harding Carter finds a suitable place in a magazine published in General Lee’s war-time home. General Carter is a descendant of Giles Carter (1634–1700) of Henrico County, and began his military career in 1864, when a boy of thirteen, he was a mounted messenger in the Federal Army. His career since his graduation at West Point is well known.]

Virginia has been especially fortunate in the number of gifted men produced within her borders who have rendered the State and nation services of a high order. The strong families which grew out of the conditions surrounding the Tide Water planters furnished brilliant examples of their school of thought and action but that there was no ban in the old commonwealth upon genius of more modest estate is amply evidenced by the careers of such types as Patrick Henry and General Stonewall Jackson.

War for a principle always finds at the forefront the manly men, the gentlemen, who forsaking the allurements of peace go forth to battle that their view of right shall prevail, and out of every war of magnitude there comes some figure to whom all eyes turn in recognition of superior qualities.

With the hopes and hearts of the Confederacy ever centered upon him, it required a sturdy frame and a life of well guarded habits to enable Robert E. Lee to bear the burden of hardship and command during the four years of blighting civil war. That he bore it to the last without deviation from the standards of character derived from a long line of distinguished ancestors is the verdict of history.

The great value of strong families to any nation makes it peculiarly important that personal characteristics of individuals should be accentuated rather than submerged in the more material story of general success or failure. Memoirs and diaries are usually written without object other than to preserve personal experiences and opinions. They supply the sidelights needful to perfect history and to enable posterity to discern the motives which move men in the lesser as well as in the more important affairs of life. It is to be regretted that such writings seldom become available to historians until the generation to which they pertain has passed.

It does not fall to the lot of a single generation to produce many men of the extraordinary qualities and commanding characteristics of Robert E. Lee. When we view the futile efforts of his contemporaries to properly estimate his life work it makes it all the more important that the fragmentary data found in diaries and the by-ways of literature shall be preserved and made available for the historian who will write when all the fires of sectional hatred and distrust shall have been as completely sunk in oblivion as are those of the tory and patriot families of the Revolution.

Countless thousands have gazed upon the awe-inspiring mausoleum of Napoleon in the Invalides at Paris with a sense of the very presence of tramping, desolating armies. A century ago all Europe was, as now, an armed camp. Its map had been made and re-made at the whim of the heroic figure who then dominated its affairs. But in the end, his martial destiny, in which he had so long relied, directed his course to Waterloo and the oblivion of the lonely isle of St. Helena. Coming down the intervening years we have the diaries and memoirs of Napoleon’s immediate military family, even the views of his valets, and all have been devoured by a voracious and insatiable reading public. Out of it all there has come a solitary figure unrivalled in technical knowledge of the art of war, who had the gift of arousing and holding the enthusiasm of a nation in arms through all the years of his leadership, and in the end has left the world only a synonym—The Man on Horseback.

Another mausoleum of less intrinsic grandeur than that in the Invalides and not so frequented by tourists, marks the resting place of Robert E. Lee, near the village of Lexington in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It is impossible to gaze upon this mausoleum without feeling the impress which rightfully comes from the career of one who has not only received the profound recognition of the civilized world for his ability in the profession of arms, but who left an example of honorable conduct, Christian character and model family life which will abide as a heritage with his people so long as children lisp the story of their forebears’ deeds.

In studying the cold official archives of wars the student gradually becomes possessed with a desire to learn more of the personality of those who have directed the pawns upon the battlefields. Few writers have failed to make estimates of the relative qualifications of the leaders of the Civil War which by its long continuance and wide-spread area of operations gave ample opportunity for development of those in whom the real light of leadership burned. It is remarkable how accurately the experience of the Revolution was repeated as far as the employment of foreign officers was concerned, for during the four years of gruelling campaigning every important battle of the Civil War was commanded by Americans. Out of sixty important battles and campaigns all but five were commanded on both sides by graduates of West Point. This result, the inevitable logic of battle experience, found the leaders of the two armies without doubt as to the superior qualities of the commanders of the opposing sides. The family name of each continues to be borne upon the Army Register and with the prestige which rightfully flows from distinguished service representatives of this and coming generations may be relied upon for more than yeoman service.

The basic foundations of General Robert E. Lee’s character are well set forth in one of his letters to his son, George Washington Custis Lee, when the latter was a cadet at West Point. It has long been one of the traditions that the parent confided his expectations to the son that the latter should stand as well as the father had stood. G. W. C. Lee fulfilled the injunction by graduating at the head of his class, beating his father by one file.

*You must study to be frank with the world; frankness is the child of honesty and courage. Say just what you mean to do on every occasion, and take it for granted you mean to do right. If a friend ask 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 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 anyone. It is not only best as a matter of principle, but is the path to peace and honor. . . . Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language. You cannot do more, you should never do less. Never let me and your mother wear one gray hair for any lack of duty on your part.

Here, by his own hand, are the springs of action which governed his own career and brought young Robert E. Lee at an early period of his life, to the serious and admiring consideration of his superiors and others high in the councils of the nation. In these days of world-wars we may pause and read, perhaps with profit, something of this American soldier.

John Esten Cooke, himself a Virginian of no little merit, says of Robert E. Lee:

He was conceded by all to be a person of the highest moral character; was the descendant of an influential and distinguished family, which had rendered important services to the country in the Revolution; his father had been the friend of Washington, and had achieved the first glories of arms, and the ample estates derived from his wife gave him that worldly prestige which has a direct influence upon the fortunes of an individual. Colonel Lee could thus look forward without the imputation of presumption, to positions of the highest responsibility and honor under the government.

General Ethan Allen Hitchcock, a grandson of Ethan Allen, and one of the most remarkable of the many students and writers West Point has produced, frequently mentions Robert E. Lee in his diary and notes the confidence reposed in him by General Scott during the campaign in Mexico, where Hitchcock served as Inspector General. Here we learn that, “General Scott attributed the fall of Vera Cruz to the skill and activity of Captain Lee,” and then, under date of March 20, 1846, follows this remarkable entry:

Captain R. E. Lee, one of the engineers, and an admirable officer, had a narrow escape with his life yesterday. Returning from a working party with Lieutenant P. T. Beauregard, he turned a point in the path of the bushes, and suddenly came upon one of our soldiers who no doubt mistook him for a Mexican and the soldier challenged “Who comes there?” “Friends!” said Captain Lee. “Officers”, said Beauregard at the same time, but the soldier in trepidition and haste, leveled a pistol at Lee and fired. The ball passed between his left arm and body—the flame singeing his coat, he was so near. The General was very angry, and would not listen to Lee’s intercession in behalf of the man.

The simply recorded story of an excited and surprised sentinel of the outpost, aiming in haste and firing a large caliber pistol ball between the left arm and body fo a presumed foe. A bit of rust, a stiff lock and a hard pull on the trigger probably served to draw the muzzle far enough to the right to miss the heart—and leave Robert E. Lee to command the army of Northern Virginia during four years of titanic war, and in final defeat to give his people and example of Christian fortitude and ideal endeavor unparalleled in all history.

General E. D. Keyes, who kept a record of events during the many years of his service, including those spent in the military family of General Winfield Scott, has left us this estimate of Robert E. Lee:

He passed the four years of his cadetship without a single mark of demerit, and during my long acquaintance with him I never heard him accused of an act of meanness, tyranny or neglect of duty. His nature was genial and sociable, and he would join freely in all the sports and amusement proper to his age. He was exempt from every form and degree of snobbery, which is a detestable quality that appears most often among people whose theories of government presume an absolute equality. To whatever station he was ordered, however secluded or unhealthy it might be, he would go to it with cheerfulness. Every kind of duty seemed a pleasure to him, and he never intrigued for promotion or reward. Nevertheless, no man could stand in his presence and not recognize his capacity and acknowledge his moral force. His orders, conveyed in mild language, were instantly obeyed, and his motives were universally approved. In all the time in which I observed his conduct I was true to my own antecedents. I was a Northern man, and no word dropped from my lips or was shed from my pen that did not testify to my origin and proper allegiance. I will not deny that the presence of Lee, and the multiform graces that clustered around him, oftentimes oppressed me, though I never envied him, and I doubt if he ever excited envy in any man. All his accomplishments and alluring virtues appeared natural to him, and he was free from the anxiety, distrust, and awkwardness that attend a sense of inferiority, unfriendly discipline and censure.

It was General Keyes, then Military Secretary to General Scott, who, on April 18, 1861, ushered Colonel Lee into the presence of his old friend and commander for that fateful interview of which neither participant left the slightest record, but during which the command of the Federal Army was generally believed to have been urged upon Colonel Lee, who had not then tendered his resignation from the army. General Keyes records as to General Scott that, “He had an almost idolatrous fancy for Lee, whose military genius he esteemed above that of any other officer of the army.”

At various times during the progress of the Civil War there appeared insistent rumors of disagreement between the President of the Confederacy and General Lee. In an address to the survivors of the Army of Northern Virginia in Richmond, Jefferson Davis saved future historians all necessity for research as to this by the statement:

Robert E. Lee was my associate and friend in the Military Academy, and we were friends until the hour of his death. We were associates and friends when he was a soldier and I a congressman, and associates and friends when he led the armies of the Confederacy and I held civil office; and therefore I may claim to speak as one who knew him. In the many sad scenes and perilous circumstances through which we passed together, our conferences were frequent and full; yet never was there an occasion on which there was not entire harmony of purpose and accordance as to means. If there was ever a difference of opinion it was dissipated by discussion, and harmony was the result. I repeat, we never disagreed, and I may add that I never saw in him the slightest tendency to self-seeking. It was not his to make a record; it was not his to shift blame to other shoulders; but it was his, with an eye fixed upon the welfare of his country, never faltering, to follow the line of duty to the end. His was the heart that braved every difficulty ; his was the mind that wrought victory out of defeat. I never knew Lee to decline to attempt anything man should dare.

Here he now sleeps in the land he loved so well, and that land is not Virginia only, for they do injustice to Lee who believe he fought only for Virginia. He was ready to go anywhere, on any service, for the good of his country, and his heart was as broad as the fifteen states struggling for the principles that our forefathers fought for in the Revolution of 1776. He sleeps with the thousands who fought under the same flag—and happiest they who first offered up their lives; he sleeps in the soil to him and to them most dear. That flag was furled when there were none to bear it. Around it we are assembled a remnant of the living, to do honor to his memory, and there is an army of skeleton sentinels to keep watch above his grave. This good citizen, this gallant soldier, this great general, this true patriot, had yet a higher praise than this or these—he was a true Christian. The Christianity which ennobled his life gives to us the consolatory belief that he is happy beyond the grave. When the monument we build shall have crumbled into dust, his virtues will still live, a high model for the imitation of generations yet unborn.

When Henry Clay had failed to reach the political goal for which he had so splendidly campaigned, the Clay Clubs delivered to him an address which may be aptly applied to the case of General Lee and his devoted followers:

We will remember you, Henry Clay, while the memory of the glorious or the sense of the good remain in us, with a grateful and admiring affection which shall strengthen with our strength and shall not decay with our decline. We will remember you in all our future trials and reverses as him whose name honored defeat and gave it a glory, which victory could not have brought. We will remember you when patriotic hope rallies again to successful contest with the agencies of corruption and ruin; for we will never know a triumph which you do not share in life, whose glory does not accrue to you in death.

The truthful and recorded history of a nation, perpetuating heroic ideals and lofty purposes will endure when triumphal arches and monuments have crumbled to dust and mingled with the ashes of bygone centuries. General Grant, the great soldier who led the armies of the North to final and complete victory, writing from his bed of mortal illness, has set a standard of thought concerning the civil war to which honorable men of all sections may well subscribe, in entire good faith:

I would not have the anniversaries of our victories celebrated, nor those of our defeats made fast days and spent in humiliation and prayer; but I would like to see truthful history written. Such history will do full credit to the courage, endurance and soldierly ability of the American citizen, no matter what section of the country he hailed from, or in what ranks he fought. The justice of the cause which in the end prevailed will, I doubt not, come to be acknowledged by every citizen of the land in time.



So far as can be ascertained by examination of the printed documents and by inquiry at the leading collections of manuscripts, the subjoined letter of General Robert E. Lee has not previously appeared in print. However, some of the points contained in it will be recognized as having appeared in other utterances of the General’s.

A few years after graduation from West Point, the late Mr. Benjamin H. Wright, of Rome, New York, resigned from the army and devoted himself to the profession of civil engineering. He pursued this calling with success, in various parts of the Union and adjacent countries. One of his most notable achievements was the construction of the first railroad in Cuba. At the time of the Civil War he was too old for military service, but did what he could in a civilian capacity. He kept up a voluminous correspondence then and subsequently, with many of the leaders on both sides. It was one of his idiosyncracies, says his daughter, Miss Henrietta H. Wright, of Rome, to draft a letter, then lay it aside for days, weeks or even months, to “season”, after which he would revise it and dispatch it.

Finding this letter from General Lee among her father’s papers, Miss Wright treasured it carefully. Recently she began to feel that such a document should not remain in private hands, so consulted several friends, concerning its disposal, amongst others, her attorney, Charles A. Miller, Esquire, of Utica, and Samuel H. Beach, president of the Rome Savings Bank. As a result of these discussions Miss Wright decided to present the letter to the Jervis Library of Rome, and while that institution is providing an adequate place for its safekeeping, Mr. Beach has it in the vaults of his bank. At Mr. Miller’s suggestion and with Miss Wright’s entire approval, Mr. Beach kindly permitted the letter to be seen and copied, and suggested that Miss Wright might have a copy of her father’s letter to General Lee. A call upon Miss Wright elicited the fact that she had found an unfinished draft of a letter from her father to the General, which she graciously permitted to be copied.

Rome, N.Y., August 28, 1868.

Dear Sir:

Notwithstanding we are graduates of the same institution, viz., the U.S. Military Academy, I have not the pleasure of a personal acquaintance, and without recollection of even ever having met you. You are better known to me through your recent prominence than I am to you; for since leaving the army in 1823, I have sought no prominence in public life nor did I take any active part in the recent unhappy contest. I was occasionally in Washington during this period, where I met my cotemporaries at the M. Academy, and you were the subject of frequent remarks. While they were free to condemn the course you felt obligated to take, you were never spoken of in terms of vituperation but simply with regret. I can well conceive of the struggle in your own breast and the irresistible ties of kindred. I may remark here also that though I see your name mentioned often in the public prints and heard moreover in my travels and in conversation, yet I have never known this in connection with abusive language, but coupled with evidence of personal respect.

My principal motive in writing to you is to ask you the favor to confirm the impressions I have rec’d [sic] in regard to certain events during the war, if so be that those impressions are correct, otherwise that you will be pleased to say to me that I am in error. Now that the contest is over I can see no impropriety in asking of you this favor.

Here the draft abruptly ends. Apparently Mr. Wright laid it aside until the following January. Whether he simply completed this letter or wrote an entirely different one cannot now be determined. But the points he wished to raise are clear from the answer of General Lee.

Lexington, Va.
18 Jan’y, 1869

Dear Sir:

A reply to your letter of the 4th instant would require more time than I can devote to it, and lead to a description of military affairs from which for reasons that will occur to you, I hope you will excuse me. I will, therefore, only say that the failure of the Confederate Army at Gettysburg was owing to a combination of circumstances, but for which success might have been reasonably expected. It is presumed that Gen’l Burnside had good reasons for his move from Warrenton to Fredericksburg. As far as I was able to judge, the earlier arrival of his pontoons at Aquia Creek would not have materially changed the result. Their appearance would only have produced an earlier concentration of the Confederate Army at Fredericksburg. As regards General McClellan, I have always entertained a high opinion of his capacity and have no reason to think he omitted to do anything that was in his power. It is difficult for me to say what success would have attended the execution of your plan of moving the Federal Army to Aquia Creek after its attack on Fredericksburg, and of threatening Richmond from Fort Monroe, with the available troops in that quarter, and then entering the Rappahannock with the main army. I do not think that the Confederate Army would have retired to Richmond until the movement developed the necessity. After the accomplishment of an event, it is so easy with the aid of our after knowledge, to correct errors that arose from previous want of information that it is difficult to apportion the weight that should be given to conclusions thus reached.

Thanking you for your expressions of kindness and regretting my ability to comply more fully with your wishes, I am, very respectfully, Your obt. servt.

R. E. Lee.

Mr. B. H. Wright
Rome, N.Y.

[Contributed by Dr. Milledge L. Bonham, Jr., Hamilton College.]


* General Carter is not aware that the genuineness of this letter has been strongly attacked by the late W. Gordon McCabe and others. Capt. McCabe wrote “the letter is spurious beyond question.”—(Editor.)