General Lee’s Unwritten “History of the Army of Northern Virginia”
Allen W. Moger

Note: The following is taken from the July 1963 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 71), pp. 341–63.


FEW books have received as much advanced publicity or have been anticipated with more enthusiastic interest than the history of his campaigns in Virginia which General Robert E. Lee projected in the summer of 1865. Publicity was given to the plan in the press of both the United States and England, and dozens of letters came from intimate associates and admiring strangers urging Lee to write the “truth for posterity.” Many thousands if not millions seemed to believe that the moral vindication of the “Lost Cause,” of a country that died aborning, would be realized by this important story from the pen of their beloved leader. For various reasons the book was never written, but the reconstructed story reveals one of the vital threads of hope which helped to sustain Southerners of the “lost generation” after the Civil War.

It is not known exactly how soon after the war General Lee made up his mind to write such a history. Early July found him and part of his family comfortably but temporarily established at “Derwent” in Powhatan County, which had been provided for his use by Mrs. Elizabeth Randolph Preston Cocke.1 In the country among friends and relatives, he could relax from the strain which had been inevitable during the weeks spent in Richmond after his surrender. While he tried to forge the war, he undoubtedly thought much on his lonely rides and vigils and of what the future would say about the valiant fighting and sacrifices of his brave soldiers who had struggled against such overwhelming odds. The first recorded mention of the idea that Lee write a “history” came from Beverley Tucker in a long letter from Montreal, dated July 11, 1865. Tucker, a scion of Virginia, had been a valuable Confederate agent,2 and with many others of his countrymen had taken temporary refuge in Canada. His urgent letter of five long pages was sent by a confidential friend to insure its delivery to Lee and no one else. He wrote:

It is true, you have filled to overflowing, the measure of a proud and enduring fame and a whole people’s gratitude is your proud reward. But I conceive that God has in reserve for you a yet more noble and not less patriotic role. He has given you qualities moral and intellectual to fulfill a higher destiny. Next to the deliverance of a noble people from the thraldom of a wicked foe, and the establishment of the independence of our country, which through no fault of yours or your gallant armies you failed to accomplish, the most grateful and useful duty is to oppose your high character for truth, honor, and true Christian piety, to the thousand mendacious and hirling historians which will spring up in Yankeedom, and give to the world and posterity, a faithful history of the causes of the late terrible conflict, and the manner in which the war was conducted on either side. Do not think I flatter, when I say, with no little opportunity of judging on this, and the other side of the Atlantic, that your slightest utterance, would upon a statement or issue of fact, outweigh folios of yankee asseveration.

He wished Lee to come to Canada to learn the feasibility of going to England where the publishers would give him ample financial aid in the project, which will “secure you a handsome independence. . . . This is no chimera—it is a fact. No work in the 19th century has ever had, or ever will have, such a sale. Every man, woman, & child, who can read, will deny themselves luxuries or even necessaries, if need be, to have Robert E. Lee’s History of the American War.”3

This letter undoubtedly impressed Lee with the importance of a true history of the war and must have been welcome support for a project he was already considering. Sometime during that summer he had an interview with a New York publisher,4 and late in July, before he received the offer of the presidency of Washington College, he was preparing copies of a circular letter to be sent to officers formerly under his command. The bitterness in Tucker’s letter is found in many others which urged Lee to write the “history,” but General Lee at no time expressed such resentful and vindictive feelings. For him the war was over, and the less said to arouse animosity and resentment the better. If he wrote the history, it would not be, he said, “to vindicate myself, or to promote my own reputation. I want that the world shallk now what my poor boys, with their small numbers and scant resources, succeeded in accomplishing.”5 On another occasion he declared, “My only object in writing is that truth should descend to posterity.”6

On July 31 Lee sent the circular letter to some of the officers whose addresses were known to him.

Near Cartersville, Cumberland Co., Va.
31 July, 1865


I am desirous that the bravery and devotion of the army of N. Va. be correctly transmitted to posterity. This is the only tribute that can now be paid to the worth of the noble officers and soldiers, and I am anxious the necessary information for the history of its campaigns, including the operations in the valley and Western Va., from its organization to its final surrender.

I have copies of my reports of the battles, commencing with those around Richmond in ’62, to the end of the Penna campaign; but no report of the campaign in ’64, and of the operations of the winter of 1864–65, to the 1st April ’65, has been written; and the Corps and Division reports for that period which had been sent to Hd. Qrs. before the abandonment of the lines before Petersburg, with all the records, returns, maps, plans, etc., were destroyed the day before the army reached Appomattox C.H. My letter books, public and confidential, were also destroyed; and the regular reports and returns transmitted to the Adjt. Genl. at Richmond, have been burned or lost.

Should you have copies of the reports of the operations of your command within the period specified (from May ’64 to 1st April ’65), or should you be able to renew them, I will be greatly obliged to you to send them to me. Should you be able to procure reports of other commands, returns of the effective strength of the Army at any of the battles from the 1st Manassas to the 1st April ’65, or copies of my official orders, letters etc., you will confer an additional favor by sending them to me. Very respectfully & truly yrs.

R. E. LEE7

Some of the letters varied, but usually the circular was followed by a postscript or personal note explaining what he wished the recipient to send him. What each officer was requested to supply depended on what battles and campaigns that officer had fought in or what position he had held in the army. Since Colonel Walter H. Taylor had for a long time prepared the trimonthly statements of the strength of the army, he thought Taylor could provide information concerning the numbers engaged in the various battles.8 Similar information he requested from Colonel Charles Marshall, for three years his military secretary, then living in Baltimore.9 From Wade Hampton he wished “a connected narrative of the operations of the Cavalry Corps, A.N.V. during the last campaigns.”10 To the circular letter sent General Beauregard he added the following:

I send you the foregoing hoping you may be able to send me an account of your operation in Va: in 1864. Among my lost papers was everything I had relating to your operations in ’61 in Va: Have you any printed copy to spare of your report of Battle of Manassas, or can you direct me where to procure one? I trust your health is good, and though the future now looks dark and gloomy, I pray that your course may be serene and bright and be crowded with happiness and prosperity. Most truly yours. Can you send me copy of my letter to you on being relieved by Gen Johnson in N.C. and your reply?

In general, Lee wished his various officers to send him copies of any reports that they might have or which they might be able to procure for the campaigns after Gettysburg, and he also wished information which they could supply from memory.

Meanwhile, the news of Lee’s plan to write a history of his campaigns gradually reached the public, and it met with enthusiastic approval. Passed around by the officers to whom Lee had written and by many others, the news finally reached the public press;11 and Lee received letters of approval and offers of assistance from all over the country. “The news of your history has been received by all with profound pleasure, as all feel sure a truthful account of your operations will be given,” wrote one man from Richmond.12 “We have heard in Texas that you are preparing a History of the War,” wrote another. “In common with the whole civilized world, we rejoice that there is hope of one record of that terrible conflict of the nations, which shall be characterized by the magnanimity & truth & justice that are the ruling principles of your life.”13 “I believe it is the universal desire that you, who were in some way connected with pretty much all that lightens up the dark clouds that over-hang the immediate past, should favor the world with your version of the matter, because we believe it will be the only true history that will be written of this painful subject,” wrote Jno. R. Winston from North Carolina.14 “I—one among millions . . . would urge this small petition that our fallen country’s history be not left to the narrow minds and lying tongues of Yankee Scribblers—But that you who fought our fight, who knew our sufferings. . . . should cover with laurel wreath the grave of the brilliant and youthful departed,” urged another.15

Others, who may or may not have heard of Lee’s plans for the history, wrote urging him to his task. The aged William F. Wickham of “Hickory Hill,” Hanover County, Virginia, hoped that Lee would “find time to give the world a history of the last five years of our country.”16 Lee was particularly impressed with a letter from the Honorable William B. Reed17 of Chestnut Hill, near Philadelphia:

A Northern man by birth, education, and Association, having few friends & no family connexions at the South—in fact never having been there . . . I and mine have watched closely with what I may describe as affectionate interest.

And it is this interest which prompts my letter. I implore you, not so much for your own sake, as for the sake of your Southern country, and of us in the North who felt with you and for you—not to neglect the history of the war. By military reverses and the fall of the government you served, you have been prevented from making any reports of its closing scenes. But dont let the record fail. The prejudice and dark injustice which now obscures the public mind in this region will break before very long—but if New England is to have control of your history—alas! for truth and for you. It should be done while every thing is fresh.18

Lee wrote gratefully in reply:

I concur with you entirely as to the importance of a true history of the war; and it is my purpose, unless prevented, to write the history of the campaigns in Virginia. With this view, I have been engaged since the cessation of hostilities in endeavoring to procure the necessary official information. All my records, reports, returns, &c, &c, with the Headquarters of the army, were needlessly destroyed by the clerks having them in charge, on the retreat from Petersburg; and such as had been forwarded to the War Dept. at Richmond, were either destroyed in its conflagration, or captured at the south in the attempt to save them. I desire to obtain some vouchers in support of my recollections, or I should otherwise have made some progress in the narrative. I have not even my letter or order books to which to refer.

Lee then referred to the possibility of getting some of his correspondence from the captured records in Washington, and added: “It would give me great pleasure to see you when you visit Virginia, and to thank you in person for your kind sympathy and interest. I should be very happy to welcome you here when ever it suited your convenience.”19

Reed did not come to Lexington, but a year later he wrote: “I hope you are thinking of your own story. That your friends have a right to expect.”20

For several years the public interest in the history remained great. A man in the book and stationery business in Arkansas wrote that “it is a daily thing to be asked if we have Lee’s history.” Another in Kentucky offered to pay cash for a thousand copies of Lee’s book if he were given the agency for its sale in Kentucky.21 In the Lee Archives at Washington and Lee University are no less than twenty-seven applications for the agency to sell the book, and the number would probably be larger had not the prospective publisher, C. B. Richardson of New York, suggested to Lee that all enquiries concerning the publication of the work be sent to him for answer in order to relieve Lee of much labor and annoyance.22 Applications for agencies came from Kingston, Canada, and all sections of the United States except New England. Three men wished to translate Lee’s work into French, German, and Italian. Lee’s reply was that while he desired to write a history of his campaigns, “I have not been able to commence it, and it is so uncertain that I shall be able to accomplish my purpose that I think it unnecessary to make any arrangements for its translation.”23

As the news of Lee’s plans became generally known, he was besieged with letters from publishers. Lee wrote courteous replies to all these letters, but he was careful not to commit himself to any contract which he might not be able to fulfill. The publisher with whom Lee had the most correspondence was C. B. Richardson of the University Publishing Company in New York. The first letter from Richardson which the writer has been able to locate was dated July 28, 1865, three days before Lee sent his circular letter to his officers. This letter, which says, “Perhaps you will remember my remark,” in general seems to be a letter written following an interview, which must have taken place in Richmond or at “Derwent” sometime that summer. In August Lee wrote his brother that Richardson had offered to bear the expense of publishing the work and to pay Lee the “usual price” of ten percent of the retail price of each book sold.24

In his first letter to General Lee, Richardson wrote that he was sending “a set of the Rebellion Record and some other works bearing upon the campaign in Virginia which may be of service to you.” Also a quantity of paper “which has been prepared expressly for your use, having considerable space between the lines in case you should wish to interline, all of which I beg you to accept. I don’t know that a gold pen is to your liking but I take the liberty of sending you one, trusting it may lighten the labor before you and prove faithful to the end.”

Richardson promised to send any other material he could gather and mentioned reports and diaries he would secure or have copied. He hoped to get access to the captured documents in the hands of the government and have them copied for Lee. To facilitate this plan he urged Lee to write directly to General Grant.

Richardson wrote in several letters of his success in locating some generals whose addresses were not known to Lee. Lee accepted his invitation to send copies of the circular letter to Richardson who was to forward them to officers as he was able to learn their addresses.25 Before the end of 1865 the publisher sent Lee nine more letters reporting his progress in locating materials, stating that he was sending various books and reports, and urging Lee to complete the history. On December 11 he wrote:

Have you all the material you desire covering the first two years of the War? I believe you decided to include Bull Run & the other operations in Va. previous to your opening command, in order to make the work complete. . . . I pray you General not to be delayed or shaken from your purpose in the slightest degree. Every day brings me new evidence confirming my statement to you of the great good your work will accomplish by its moderation and candor.

A very distinguished gov’t official told me today, “that he was very glad that Genl Lee was writing & hoped he would let us have everything.”

Allow me to renew the suggestion that you address a private note to Genl Grant respecting your reports. I sincerely believe it will assist in securing what you want.

On four different occasions Richardson urged Lee to write General Grant. Lee undoubtedly thought seriously of the idea, but there is no evidence that he applied and was turned down, as Jones has stated.26 In November 1865 Lee wrote that some of his official correspondence “might be found among the captured records in Washington, and Genl. Grant who possesses magnanimity as well as ability, might cause me to be furnished with copies. I have hesitated to approach him on the subject, as it is one in which he would naturally feel no interest.”27 A letter of July 1868 confirms that he had still not approached Grant.28

General Lee wrote his brother Charles Carter Lee, that Richardson had offered to publish Lee’s projected work and a new edition of his father’s Memoirs with the understanding that Richardson would bear the full expense of publication and that Lee would receive the usual “10% per cent on the retail price of each work.” Richardson explained that the copyright on the Memoirs had expired but that it could be renewed by the addition of new material in the form of a short biography of Lee’s father. The Memoirs he wished to publish at “the same time and in uniform style with the new volume from your own pen. . . . I have no doubt that in this connection it would meet with great success.”29

Lee accepted Richardson’s offer for the publication of the Memoirs, and in December 1865 the publisher suggested that Lee first finish the biography of his father,30 which was to appear as the introduction to the Memoirs. In February 1868 Richardson wrote that he was “glad you have been able to complete the biography of your father so soon. Please send it with the corrected vol. of the Memoirs by express carefully wrapped.”31 It was January 1870 before Lee received copies of the new edition of his father’s work, and a month later Lee received the first dividend statement on the book:32 “Copyright on 2105 copies @ .40 each $842.00.” “The sale will largely increase when your new work appears,” wrote Richardson.33

On November 1865 Colonel Charles Marshall wrote a long letter from Baltimore primarily concerning Lee’s proposed book: “I was glad to hear that you had made no definite contract about publishing your book. I think you can do better than Richardson’s proposal would do for you.” He added that his friends of judgment and experience “agree with me that you can realize very handsomely. I think I could get at least ten thousand subscriptions in this City and State alone.”34 About two weeks earlier Charles Carter Lee wrote from his home in Powhatan County that everybody says that the income to Lee for his book on the war “ought to be at least $100,000.” In this letter his brother referred to his previous letter, now lost, dealing chiefly with the “history” and the price to be received for it. On December 5 C. C. Lee wrote again:

I differ with you entirely as to the most propritious time for your publication. I think the sooner it can be properly prepared & published the better; for other accounts of your campaigns are continually appearing, & false impressions may thus be made which it may be difficult to remove. Besides the public mind is now more alive to the subject both here & in Europe, than it will be a few years hence, & there are ten anxious inquiries after the truth with regard to it now where there will be one then. It is not only desirable that truth shall be known but that it should be extensively known. Who cares now to dispute a big point of our revolutionary history? . . . Depend upon it the sooner you can prepare the work properly and publish it the better. When it is ready for publication you will be better able than at present to ascertain what is a fair price for it.35

Meanwhile, Richardson was continuing to supply Lee with a quantity of material for the history of his campaigns. He sent the volumes of the Rebellion Record as they came from the press, copies of Grant and His Campaigns, William Swinton’s Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac, and the Reports of Generals McClellan, Grant, and Meade, and he promised other material when he could secure it.36 “I have made several attempts,” he wrote, “Without going directly to Gen’l Grant, to obtain copies of your reports in the hands of the Gov’t., but have not succeeded. I am fearful that Secy Stanton has them so tightly under his thumb that while he is in office it will be difficult to secure them. Nevertheless I shall continue trying.”

In March 1866 he wrote: “I have succeeded in securing a copy of one document from those captured by the Gov’t and have a prospect of others. I enclose it, trusting it will be of real service to you. It is the condensed monthly returns. I am glad the officers are sending in their reports.”37

In February 1866 Richardson asked Lee for a list of the books most needed at Washington College, saying he proposed to give the college $1,000 in books during the year. His idea was to contribute to the college a portion of the profits from the sale of Lee’s “own volume, leaving its appropriation to your good judgment.” In March Richardson offered Lee $5,000 to revise two readers for the third and fourth grades for Southern schools. “Should your indifference to your personal interests incline you to reject this offer, then Gen’l I beg leave to appeal to your generosity to do this light work for the benefit of the College.”38

Lee’s notations on the letters indicate that the General had answered practically all of the letters which Richardson had sent him, but these two offers concerning the books and readers caused General Lee to write the publisher the first letter of which he kept a copy in his Letterbook. He thanked Richardson for the thirty-seven volumes of books and three maps which he had sent for Washington College and added:

Whatever your liberality may prompt you to present to the College, I hope it will be irrespective of any profit you may expect to derive from the sale of work I have contemplated publishing; and to which you allude. That is so uncertainin its accomplishment, that it must not be taken into the calculation, nor can I receive such material expressions of your sympathy on that condition.

Lee declined the offer to edit the books, saying: “Good books of the kind you mention, I know are much needed at the South; but they must possess real merit in themselves, and be prepared by intelligent men, who have a knowledge of the wants of education, and known as such; or they will not be acceptable. I have no claim to such distinction.”39

General Lee had accepted Richardson’s cooperation, and the General’s correspondence shows that he planned to let Richardson publish the history if it were ever completed. But there was no definite contract between them relative to the publication of the projected history, and Lee seemed to resent the publisher’s apparent attempt to speed up his writing by offering donations to the College based on profits to be derived from the sale of the work which had not been begun. Richardson wrote a letter of explanation which was not very convincing, adding: “I should not be willing to do anything, however, in this matter, which would embarras you in the least.”40 Richardson continued to send Lee material for his history, but when early in 1870 he sent Lee a prospectus which listed Lee’s work the General replied in a terse letter: “I see stated among the books in preparation by you a ‘History of the Campaigns of the Army of N. Virginia’ by myself. I have neither made nor authorized such an announcement & request that you take it from your prospectus.”41 In Richardson’s absence the secretary of the University Publishing Company wrote that Lee’s request that the announcement be withdrawn would “be complied with . . . at once. There must have been a misunderstanding on Mr. Richardson’s part, for he made a somewhat similar brief announcement in a circular a year or more ago, but I will leave explanation to him upon his return.”42

For more than a year other publishers persisted in attempts to secure the right to publish Lee’s work. On August 17, 1865, Joseph L. Topham, of Cincinnati, wrote as “the representative of the largest book-publishing house in America” urging Lee to write a history of the war. “That such a contribution to Literature would be hailed by the world as a favor to the present and coming generations there can be no doubt.” Apparently not having heard of Lee’s plans to write an account of his campaigns, he offered the General $50,000 for a history of 600 or 800 pages and agreed to take the risk of the sale “or make other arrangements with you as to compensation for the labor of preparing the manuscript for such a book.”43 Lee replied that he was attempting to collect materials for a history of his campaigns in Virginia, but that “Its completion is so uncertain, and dependent upon so many contingencies that I think it useless to speak of arrangements for its publication at present.”44 A month later Topham urged the importance of publishing the work soon. He said that Horace Greeley’s book was as partial toward the North as Pollard’s was toward the South. Hence, “we want a view of the matters from your own pen and as life is fleeting if it is to be done, General, were it not best to do it quickly. . . . As War Books are now the rage, the work will be widely circulated and more largely read if published at once.” Twice in October Topham urged Lee to permit him to come to Lexington for an interview. He wrote: “Your favor informing me of your promise to give Richardson of New York an opportunity to publish your proposed History is received. . . . We are willing to double anything . . . Richardson can pay you, as we have facilities for selling five times the number of copies he can.” In reply Lee expressed unwillingness that Topham “should unnecessarily undertake a long wearisome journey” because “I cannot depart from what I have already stated to you, on the subject of the publication of the proposed history.”45

In the fall of 1865 Scranton and Burr, agents for the American Publishing Company of Hartford, Connecticut, asked for an interview concerning the publication of the history about which they had read in the public journals.46 Lee’s reply illustrates his difficulty in answering publishers:

Gentlemen: I have received your letter of the 13th inst., and fear I was not sufficiently explicit in my former communication. I cannot now undertake the work you propose, nor can I enter into an engagement to do what I may not be able to accomplish. I have not read the histories of the late war to which you refer, but think it natural that they should be of the character you describe. It will be sometime before the truth can be known, and I do not think that period has yet arrived. I am unwilling that you should unnecessarily undertake a wearisome journey; but if, after what I have said, you should still desire an interview with me, it will give me pleasure to see you at this place.47

S. S. Scranton subsequently visited Lee at Lexington, and in March 1866 he wrote referring to the interview and wishing to know “how far you have progressed in its preparation and whether you are now prepared to negotiate for its publication. . . . We are prepared to make an offer for the work far exceeding in amount what we have heretofore thought of.” Lee answered this letter, but a year later Scranton wrote again to know if Lee’s “work might, by this time, be in such a state of forwardness as to enable you to give terms to a publisher.” He said that he talked to Lee in Lexington over a year ago, and “I understood you to say you had no particular preference for publisher.”48 In reply Lee again thanked the company for their interest in the history he contemplated writing and added: “I think it best to defer its publication; and my views in reference there to, are now the same as when I wrote to you in March last. I therefore can not make you an offer on the subject, and am not prepared to receive one from you.”49

In the fall of 1865 Lee had letters from four more companies which wished to publish his work, and four new requests came in 1866.50 The writers usually stated that they had heard or had read in the public journals that Lee was preparing a history of his campaigns and gave their advantages as publishers. Reference was sometimes made to the high profits that would come from such a book, but none of these companies made cash offers. The letter from one company, E. J. Hale & Son, of New York, formerly of Fayetteville, North Carolina, was forwarded with a strong letter of endorsement and recommendation from Governor Zebulon B. Vance, of North Carolina. Hale’s letter stated that they had formerly published the Fayetteville Observer, that their printing office and bookstore had been burned by Sherman, and that the “denial of mail facilities has obliged us to relinquish the hope of re-establishing our business in Fayetteville, and drives us here, to recommence the struggle of life & repair our wasted fortunes.” They wished to know whether it is true “as has been stated (& denied), that you are engaged in writing a history of the operations of the army of Northern Virginia? And if so, whether you have contracted with any person for its publication.” The letter continued: “We urge, as our reasons for preferring this request, that we are natives of the South, & the only-Southern men . . . engaged in the book business in New York; that we staked nearly our all upon the cause of the Confederacy & lost it.”51

Lee must have been unusually impressed by this letter, but he felt compelled to write on the back of it: “17 Oct. Ansd If the history be written engagements entered into will prevent acceptance of his proposal.” This statement must mean that Lee felt sufficiently obligated to Richardson, who was continuing to supply him with materials, not to have some other company publish the book in the event that he was finally able to complete it. On the back of the letter from publisher William B. Evans in December 1866, Lee noted that the offer was declined. So at least by the fall of that year, he was declining new offers. On other letters he indicated that they were answered but does not indicate what he said.

In the meantime Lee was receiving advice about the publication of his work in England. In the summer of 1865 Beverley Tucker had urged him to go to England and there write and publish a history of his campaigns. Later Lee learned that the chief difficulty that a foreigner must meet in publishing a book in England was securing the protection of copyright. In December 1865 Sampson Low and Company wrote General Lee that under a recent decision “if you are able to sojourn in Canada (say for ten days or a fortnight at Montreal) during the legal publication of your book we could give you copyright terms the same as if you were our countryman.”52 Six months later John R. Thompson wrote from London urging a simultaneous and authorized publication in England to keep the work from being pirated and to insure Lee’s getting the profits from an English edition. “No volume,” he wrote, “would be more eagerly and largely purchased by Englishmen of all classes.”53

General Lee was interested in the possibilities of an English edition. In the spring of 1866 he agreed to a suggestion of his Richmond friend G. A. Myers that the latter write their mutual friend Francis Lawley in England to inquire about the publication of the book in that country. In June Myers sent General Lee Lawley’s letter on the subject. Lawley had talked to John Blackwood, “the eminent Publisher of Edinburgh & of Paternoster Row,” who suggested that Lee have Richardson publish the work in America and “that he should simultaneously publish the same memoirs in England, edited by an Englishman.” The English editor would make a few slight changes “without tampering with the sense or facts,” and this use of an English editor would insure protection of the copyright and enable Lee to get the profits of an English edition.54

Concerning publication in England, Richardson had written in February that he had had two applications from London publishers for the advance sheets from which to reprint for that market. “As the English law does not allow a copyright to foreigners, unless they are residents of that country, your only resource is to sell the advance sheets.” He asked Lee to let him know if he would leave that matter to him, and if so, “I will make the most favorable arrangements possible for you.” In reply Lee must have asked Richardson concerning the English law which had been mentioned by Sampson Low and Company, for in his letter of March 13 Richardson told Lee that residence in British dominions in order to secure a copyright would be to Lee’s pecuniary interest. He added that “that would be my advice if you can spare the time. . . . I shall be very happy to secure comfortable quarters for you in any part of Canada you may suggest.”55

Blackwood thought that the sale of the advance sheets for publication in England would bring Lee very little money. So the alternatives from a financial point of view apparently were either to comply with the residence requirement or provide for simultaneous publication with an English editor. It was to his credit that Lee showed an interest in any possible financial returns that might come from the sale of an English edition rather than to have it pirated as it would be if adequate arrangements were not made. While Lee’s chief motive for planning his history was to make the truth known to posterity, he was fully aware of the importance of any financial returns from his labors. In August 1865 he wrote that his brother C. C. Lee was to receive any profits from the publication of their father’s Memoirs, and added: “I am fully alive to the propriety of making both works if possible a source of profit. For I have to labour for my living, & I am ashamed to do nothing that will give me an honest support.”56

European interest in General Lee’s history was still alive in December 1867 when Major John Scott, of Baltimore, wrote Lee that on a recent trip of several months in Europe, during which he had had contact with leading publishing houses of London and Paris, he “heard frequent enquiries made for the history of the late war which it is the belief in Europe you are writing.” Scott also offered suggestions as to how to publish the work in Europe on the best possible terms.57

Shortly after General Lee began his duties in Lexington as president of Washington College, replies to his circular letter of July 31 began to come in, and for many months the collection of materials added greatly to an already overburdened correspondence. Lee’s plan to write a history of his campaigns was received with much enthusiasm by the officers to whom he had written. Wade Hampton wrote: “It is no slight compensation to the Southern people for the disappointment of their dearest hopes, to know, as they do, that your account of the War will be received wherever it is read with implicit reliance on its truthfulness & that it will constitute our history.”58 All promised cooperation in sending him official reports and any information which they might be able to provide. But all of the officers were busily engaged in the private business of making a living in new fields of endeavor, a fact which limited the amount of time they could give to the preparation of material even for Lee.59 Letters from William Mahone, J. B. Gordon, and James Longstreet were little more than cordial promises for the future.60

However, a considerable number of officers gave the fullest cooperation. General Wade Hampton at first reported all of his papers had been stolen or burned along with his house by Sherman’s troops, but later he wrote that “Upon examination I find that nearly all of my Va. records are safe,” along with many other important papers. He offered to send Lee all of his papers and reports to use as he wished. In July 1867 he reported that he had completed, in 125 pages of foolscap, the “Report you asked for up to the time I left Va. in Jan. 65,” and “It shall be sent to you as soon as it can be copied.” He asked General Lee’s opinion of the propriety of publishing his own report, saying that Lee could more easily use it in print than in manuscript.61

Lee particularly desired information concerning his “effective strength at the principal battles,” which he urged many officers to supply. “It will be difficult to get the world to understand the odds against which we fought, and the destruction, or loss of all returns of the army, embarasses me very much,” he wrote.62 General Early was one of several who sent his ideas of the effective strength, and he supplied Lee with “copies of all the letters, orders and dispatches received from you which I was able to save from the wreck.”63 Early also sent Lee copies of letters he had sent to the press concerning various battles, and he prepared an account of his own campaigns for General Lee,64 concerning which Lee wrote: “I have read it with interest. . . . Your account corresponds generally with my recollection, though I cannot pretend to express an opinion as to the accuracy of your statements, without giving the subject more investigation than I now have time to devote. I have no objection to the publication of the narrative of your operations before leaving the army of N. Va. I would recommend however that while giving facts which you think necessary for your own vindication, that you omit all epithets or remarks calculated to incite bitterness or animosity between different sections of the Country.”65

Thomas White, the clerk in the adjutant-general’s office who had prepared the army field returns throughout the war, sent Lee his estimates of the effective strength of the Army of Northern Virginia at the time of the various battles from 1861 to April 1865.66 Colonel Charles Marshall and Colonel Walter H. Taylor sent Lee similar estimates based on their memory. White’s figures in some cases seemed larger than Marshall and Taylor thought they should be, a difference which Marshall attributed in part to White’s failure to allow for desertions, especially during the ten days previous to the retreat from Petersburg.67 Lee’s memory of the effective strength also did not correspond to the recollections of either Marshall or White. “When I get yours,” he wrote Taylor, “I shall have to make a just average.”68 Marshall suggested that he thought General Beauregard could supply Lee with accurate information, and Lee had already written Beauregard in New Orleans.

Beauregard reported that his papers had been lost, but he was able to recover some of them, and in November 1865 he sent General Lee a large quantity of material which had been copied by Miss Blanche Bernard. In December Lee acknowledged that he had “received, by the hands of Captain Hitchens, your letter of 25th ult., and the copies of your public letters, telegrams, and reports, mentioned in the accompanying list. I am very much obliged to you for them. and hope you may soon be able to send me the remainder of such as I requested in my former letter.”69 The “accompanying list” to which Lee referred is fifteen pages long and is in the Lee Archives of Washington and Lee University, but the numerous letters, reports, and telegrams cannot be found. On the fifteen pages from Beauregard are numerous notations in pencil pointing out inconsistencies between some of the items mentioned and “Marshall’s copy.” In addition there is a five-page summary described as a “Brief of Letters & Reports sent Gen. Lee by Gen. Beauregard in Nov. 1865—for comparison with List.” The brief, which is not in Lee’s autograph, is dated March 31, 1877, which probably means that someone else worked over the material after Lee’s death. There is no significant evidence that Lee did much with the Beauregard material.

The quantity of material received from Hampton, Early, Beauregard, Marshall, Taylor, White, and Richardson, must have been very large, and other officers and interested friends sent or offered to send more.70 General Isaac R. Trimble offered to send copies of his reports and “topographical sketches of all battle fields” where he was a participant. He urged Lee to use many battlefield maps to clarify his narrative, and he offered a significant word of caution: “Dont hurry your work, prepare it carefully & then reflect on it, & correct it, by comparison with the views of other officers—that no mistakes may be made, and no counter-statements substantiated if made by others. No matter how late your Memoirs come out, they will be welcome and stand as the authentic History of the War, in a military sense.”71

Undoubtedly the quantity of the material which Lee received was more significant than the quality, and he must have been discouraged by the problem of harmonizing discrepancies and discovering the truth. Not having the official returns which were among the captured documents in Washington,72 he was embarrassed by the lack of authentic information on which he could rely. And he was perhaps as unwilling to trust his own memory any more than that of his officers. He was not helped by the “Copy of the returns of the Army” sent by C. B. Richardson which the latter described as a document captured by the Federal government.73 On the back of these eleven pages, now in the Lee Archives, Lee wrote: “Returns of Confederate armies—Consolidated by Northern officials. Note There seems [sic] to be errors in the effective force of the Army of N. Va.” In May 1866 he was pleased at the possibility of Colonel Taylor’s securing copies of Lee’s correspondence with President Davis, but six months later he wrote: “I fear that Mr. Burton Harrison cannot fulfill his promise of giving me copies of the letters you mentioned, as he says nothing about them.”74

After 1866 Lee had little correspondence concerning his history. He continued to encourage those who offered significant material, but his enthusiasm seemed to wane as he became more and more doubtful of his strength and ability to carry through his plan. On June 6, 1870, he wrote his cousin Cassius F. Lee, Jr., the last available letter which referred to his history:

The reputation of individuals is of minor importance to the opinion which posterity may form of the motives which governed the South in their late struggle for the maintenance of the principles of the Constitution. I hope, therefore, a true history will be written and justice be done them. A history of the military events of the period would also be desirable. I have had it in view to write one on the campaigns in Virginia in which I was more particularly engaged. I have already collected some materials for the work, but lack so much that I wish to obtain that I have not commenced the narrative. I am very much obliged to you for the offer of the materials which you have collected. I think it probable that I have all the official reports, and I would not like to resort to any other source for a statement of facts.75

One wonders what Lee meant by reference to his lack of materials and that he probably had “all the official reports.” The letter shows no enthusiasm for his own project, perhaps because Lee was a sick man in 1870. Obviously he had not abandoned his plan, and there is no record that he ever did. But four months later he died without having “commenced the narrative.”

Why did General Lee fail to write this history which had consumed so much of his interest and time, which had been so strongly urged upon him by dozens of his friends and admirers, and to which the whole South looked as a sort of vindication of their cause? The answer cannot be found in any available letters from Lee’s pen.

The best and most plausible explanation is that his complete absorption in his duties as president of Washington College left little time or strength for the writing of a history.76 It must be remembered that Lee projected his history and wrote his officers before he was given the opportunity as head of an educational institution to influence and guide the youth of the country in whom he saw its chief hope. To his new duties he gave himself wholeheartedly and devotedly. “My time is fully occupied, and I cannot undertake to do more,” he wrote. “No one can have more at heart the welfare of the young men of the country than I have. It is the hope of doing something for the benefit of those at the South that led me to take my present office. My only object is to endeavor to make them see their true interest, to teach them to labor diligently for their improvement, and to prepare them for the great work of life.”77 “So greatly have these [educational] interests been disturbed at the South, and so much does its future condition depend upon the rising generation, that I consider the proper education of its youth one of the most important objects now to be attained, and one from which the greatest benefits may be expected.”78 “It is particularly incumbent on those charged with the instruction of the young to set them an example of submission to authority.”79

Lee must have wondered when he accepted the college presidency whether he would have time to complete the history in the preparation of which he had asked the help of his officers. For nearly two years he gave much attention to the collection of material, believing that he owed it to his men to chronicle their deeds. But as the college grew and he became more and more occupied by his work and devoted to his boys and their interests, it became easy as well as necessary to postpone the serious recollection of the campaigns, the memory of which was most painful to him. This is the more easily understood when one remembers that Lee wrote by hand most of his own letters as college president, especially during the first two years. Then there were the hundreds of letters which came from those seeking aid and encouragement.80 “It is as much as I can do to answer applications of our distressed soldiers and bereaved parents,” he wrote Colonel Taylor.81

Also there is evidence that the feeling grew on Lee that it would be impossible to write an impartial history so soon after the war. He had urged his generals to write the history of their campaigns,82 but the vindictiveness in the narratives prepared by some, such as Early and Hampton, distressed him. His own officers, even with the best intentions, disagreed as to basic facts, and current writers, such as Robert L. Dabney, Greeley, Pollard, and McCabe were partial according to their points of view.83 “At present the public mind is not prepared to receive the truth,”84 he wrote General Early in 1866, and in 1868 he said that “the time is not come for impartial history, if the truth were told just now, it would not be credited.”85

When W. H. Watterson suggested that the library of Washington College be designated and advertised as a depository for Southern historical records, Lee answered late in 1869: “I agree with you as to the importance of a truthful record of the events of the late war, and of the collection of authentic & verified facts, to await the impartial hand of the future historian.86 A plausible opinion was expressed by Professor Joynes shortly after Lee’s death: “He felt, we would fain believe, that for him the past, at least, was secure, and that other hands would surely vindicate his fame and that of his beloved army; while for himself he found a more congenial task, and a more absorbing motive, in laboring for the living present and for the future, on behalf of the sons and orphans of those who, in the army, had so often followed him to battle and victory.”87

The condition of Lee’s health must also be considered along with the pressure of work in explaining his failure to write his history. He had been by no means a well man since the severe illness in the early spring of 1863. After the war he suffered from rheumatism, sciatica, and bad colds, until in the winter of 1869–1870 his health was so bad that his doctors urged him to take a trip through the South.88 In view of his infirmities the wonder is how Lee gave so much of himself to his college and to his correspondence. To have written a history under such circumstances would have made him almost a superman.

During the heaviest part of his college duties, Lee had written an account of his father’s life which covered sixty-nine pages. A careful reading of those pages would cause one to agree with Dr. Freeman that “from no point of view can it be accounted an effective piece of writing.”89 Also after quoting a Lee letter which is doubtful in meaning, Gamaliel Bradford raises several possible interpretations and concludes: “This letter, like many others, goes far to reconcile me to the loss of the memoirs that Lee did not write. I feel sure that with the best intentions in the world he would have left untold a great deal that we desire to know.“90

Both of these comments are objectively valid. Lee was not an accomplished writer, and the narrative of his father lacks vitality and skill. But justice can be done the man only by considering the burdens on his heart and the circumstances under which he worked. To write a narrative one must have leisure and uninterrupted periods for its composition, and Lee had neither of these. Perhaps it was lack of experience as well as great interest and a feeling of obligation that caused him to project the history of his campaigns. Also one wonders if he would have attempted it at all if he had received the offer from Washington College before he had written to his officers for aid.

Most of Lee’s letters are clear and straightforward, and some of them are eloquent and heart-stirring. Compared to those he received, even from prominent men, they were usually models of tolerance and good will as well as of composition. His letters written in lighter moments and on intimate subjects, such as those to his wife and children, are humorous and enjoyable. Letters dealing with subjects on which he felt deeply, such as the duty of work and reconciliation, are invariably tactful and convincing. One can well imagine that his poorer letters were written when he was not well or when his heart was burdened by the tale of woe which constantly came from his distressed countrymen. How could the record have been better under the circumstances?

Perhaps it is well for posterity that Lee did not write the history of his campaigns. Certainly it would have contained no intentional misstatement of fact, but perhaps it would have been defective in organization and disappointing in the information it contained. Some would have insisted on accepting every statement and every line as complete truth. Colonel Taylor, the author of two books on General Lee, wrote in 1877: “It is very much to be regretted that the general did not prepare, over his own signature, a statement of the effective strength of his army at the most important epochs in its history. Such a statement would have been accepted without question by the world.”91 Why? Even Lee’s memory would not have been infallible, and his estimates would have been in conflict with those of his former officers. Undoubtedly a compelling reason which caused Lee to hesitate to write his narrative was his realization that it would have been impossible for him or any human being to fulfill the expectations of his friends in writing a truthful history such as they confidently expected from him.

General A. L. Long later wrote that Lee “relinguished the work with less reluctance because he felt that its truths and indispensable facts must expose certain persons to severe censure.”92 This could well have been true because Lee had always been reluctant to censure his officers except for compelling reasons, but there is no evidence in any of Lee’s available writings to support Long’s statement. Censure as well as history Lee left to what he hoped would be “the impartial hand of the future historian,” who undoubtedly has made secure both Lee’s record and that of his army.