From the 29 October 1904 issue of The New York Times.

GEN. ROBERT E. LEE.


Recollections of Him, with Many of His Letters,
by His Son, Capt. Lee.*
Written for THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW by
PROF. WILLIAM E. DODD.

NO CHARACTER brought forth by our terrible civil war has shown quite so many lovable traits as that of Robert E. Lee. Thre is scarce an American citizen of our day who does not in some way admire that familiar figure in the annals of the past century. Lincoln alone appeals to the South to-day as a great and good Northern man in a somewhat similar sense to that in which Lee appeals to the North as worthy of their admiration. While Americans have not been able even after these forty years of reflection on the issues of our civil strife to prove themselves as generous and forgiving as were the greater Romans who fought with Julius Caesar in the civil wars of 48 to 45 B.C., yet in recent years, as the great figures of our momentous struggle pass forever from the ken of the living, we see the beginnings of a genuine appreciation and understanding between the descendants of both parties. Not a little has been contributed to this beneficent end by the published writings of the best of those who bore the brunt of the fight. Foremost in this class of literature is the “Reminiscences of Gen. John B. Gordon,” a book which found a sale last year almost equal to that of a popular novel. Mr. Charles Francis Adams, one of the best and truest of the men who led Massachusetts in the war for National unity, has also contributed much of recent years to the literature of good feeling and reunion. And now we have a volume of the private correspondence of the greatest of Confederate chieftains, and if there be one note in this work which recurs more often than any other and always with the true ring it is this of reunion, of friendly co-operation between our erstwhile warring sections in the upbuilding of the whole country, and in the proper training of the younger generation.

Born to the best there was in ancient Virginia, trained in a family of stanch nationalists, educated in the service of the Union, and united in marriage to a granddaughter of Mrs. Washington, it was no easy thing for Col. Lee to give up the cause of the Union in 1861 and espouse that of Virginia. But the way had been preparing long years before. A violent campaign in favor of States’ rights had been conducted by a group of prominent Virginians as early as 1816. In 1820 the Missouri Compromise aroused the animosity of a majority of the people as they had not been since the days of the Alien and Sedition laws; in 1844 the leaders of political thought in Virginia forced upon the Democratic Party, and thus upon the country, the Texas question, which in turn brought the fierce struggles of 1850 and 1854. By this time the great majority of all parties in the Old Dominion had become convinced that the rights of the South were constantly jeopardized in the Union; and when in 1859 John Brown, representing, as he did, the bulk of the abolitionists of the North, invaded Virginia and attempted to raise a servile war in the South, it was not difficult to convince even the most conservativce that the claims of the States’ rights men were reasonable. In 1859 Lee was called upon to suppress the John Brown raiders. The work was well and speedily done, though Lee does not, so far as these letters inform us, so much as express his opinion of the outbreak unless we may find it in his respectful designation of John Brown as “Captain Brown.”

Though a short breathing spell was permitted him, which he spent as head of the Department of Texas in the old army, he seems to have felt the on-coming crisis, and when he was recalled to Washington by Gen. Scott in April of 1861 it was mainly to determine for himself and the country whether he would “go with his State” or fight for the Union. There was not another man whose decision was, even then, regarded as equally important. President Lincoln, through F. P. Blair, offered Lee the command of the army which was already assembling around Washington. Lee quietly, but firmly, declined to lead an army of invasion. In a letter to Gen. Scott accompanying his resignation of April 20, 1861, he said: “It would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted the best years of my life and all the ability I possessed.” And to his sister he wrote at the same time the following significant lines: “The whole South is in a state of revolution, into which Virginia, after a long struggle, has been drawn; and though I recognize no necessity for this state of things, and would have forborne and pleaded to the end for redress of grievances real or supposed, yet in my own person I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my own State. With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.” From April 22 on, Lee was prominent in Richmond as a counselor of the Governor and head of the State troops already gathering. It was not with very high hopes that this able and chivalrous man entered the Confederate service. Nowhere in this collection of letters is there a word from Gen. Lee to indicate that he expected the South to win—only a faint ray of hope occasionally dawned upon him when there was promise of European assistance; but it was only a faint ray, for he did not expect foreign intervention.

While a strong anti-secession party was represented in the Virginia Convention of 1861, it would be an error to assume that this conservative party was anti-States’ rights. It was expediency and not principle that dominated the councils of the men who opposed Breckinridge and Lane, who fought bitterly the programme of the secessionists. So completely alienated from the North had the Virginians become that from 1844 to 1860 freedom of speech on subjects pertaining to slavery was quite abridged, and for the reason that the whole North was regarded as a bitter enemy to agree with whom was highly disloyal. It was this that caused all thought of the abolition of slavery by the masters themselves to be given up—and that, too, when the State Legislature of 1832 had failed by only a vote or two to pass a bill of gradual emancipation! All parties had thus come to an agreement as to the solidarity of the State. It was this general acquiescence which made it easy for the secessionists to win when once they could point to another instance of encroachment on the rights of the State—the instance came in Lincoln’s call for troops. Lee was thus a States’ rights man despite the fact thta many of his relatives were nationalists and all his antecedents were on the Union side. Lee was as far from Jefferson Davis before the war began as the East is from the West; the one recognized slavery as an evil, and was already at the outbreak of the war emancipating the slaves he had inherited; the other declared slavery a positive good for which he would make no apology and which he hoped to see spread rapidly over the West and Northwest. Yet they both became the most intimate co-workers in the cause which rested on slavery as its very foundation stone!

It is quite clearly shown in these recollections and letters that Lee and Davis were in the completest accord after the struggle began, and it is a mistake, which not a few make, to suppose that the greatest General of the war was an opponent of the Confederate President. Lee nowhere countenances the efforts of not a few Southerners to make Davis the scapegoat of the Confederacy; he never even criticises the President’s policy, and on one occasion when a person of standing tried to discredit Davis in his presence, Lee said: “If my opinion is worth anything, you can always say that few people could have done better than Mr. Davis. I know of none that could have done so well.” And again when Davis was under indictment for treason, he said: “It is a terrible thing to have this prosecution hanging over him. * * * But I hope a kind Providence will shield him.” In addition to this Lee said in a letter to Mrs. Davis during the same year, 1866:

I have felt most keenly the sufferings and imprisonment of your husband, and have earnestly consulted with friends as to any possible mode of affording him relief and consolation. He enjoys the sympathy and respect of all good men, and if, as you state, his trial is now near, the exhibition of the whole truth in his case will, I trust, prove his defense and justification. With sincere prayers for his health and speedy restoration to libery, and earnest supplications to God that He may take you and yours under His guidance and protection, I am &c.,

R. E. Lee.

One of the strongest traits of Gen. Lee’s character was his reliance on god as the supreme arbiter in all the affairs of men, and in this Lee is not different from other great leaders of the Confederacy. Davis constantly called on his people to repair to their churches and thank God for victory or implore His favor in their sacred cause. Oftentimes all the churces of the larger Southern cities were crowded to their utmost capacity at week-day prayer services. So that Lee’s constant reliance on and supplication to the Divine Power was but typical of the great mass of the more intelligent Southern people. After the first battle of Manassas he said: “The battle will be repeated there in greater force. I hope God will again smile on us and strengthen our hearts and arms.” And when he was in the midst of the struggle for West Virginia he wrote out of the fullness of his heart: “I enjoyed the mountains as I rode along. The views are magnificent—the valleys so beautiful, the scenery so peaceful. What a glorious world Almighty God has given us! How thankless and ungrateful we are, and how we labor to mar His gifts!”

On the mooted questions of the war these letters throw but little light. Though in reference to the loss of West Virginia, their author says that there was much inexperience and some lack of co-operation, though he does not say whose inexperience and whose lack of co-operation it was. And as to the battle of Gettysburg he fully sustains the contention of Gen. Gordon as presented in his reminiscences of last year, namely, that Gen. Ewell’s failure to hold the advanced position which he took on the first day was the beginning of the fatal end. His exact words are: “If Jackson has been at Gettysburg he would have held the heights which Ewell took on the first day. Ewell was a fine officer,” he goes on to add, “but he would never take the responsibility of exceeding his orders, and having been ordered to Gettysburg, he would not go further and hold the heights beyond the town.” (Pages 415–16.)

But the most interesting and the most important service Lee did the country, (if one grants the contention that the aim of the Confederacy was essentially wrong), and to which some reference has already been made, was the casting of the weight of his influence against the proposed policy of continuing hostilities after the guerrilla fashion in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. When reproached by an officer of high rank with the question: What will the world think of us for surrendering? Lee said: “That is not the question; the question is, Is it right to surrender this army? If it is right, then I will take all the responsibility.” (Page 152.) And from this time on the advice of the Southern Commander in Chief was: “All should join in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of the war and to restore the blessings of peace. They should remain, if possible, in the country; promote harmony and good feeling, qualify themselves to vote and elect to the State and General Legislatures wise and patriotic men, who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country and the healing of all dissensions. I have invariably recommended this course since the cessation of hostilities, and have endeavoreed to practice it myself.” (Page 163.) Who will deny that this was as heroic as any fact of his great campaigns?

The larger portion of the volume in hand deals with Robert E. Lee as a private citizen, disfranchised, to be sure, but a most useful citizen, nevertheless—the head of one of the best Southern colleges into whose halls the young men of all the Southern States were crowding from year to year to profit by his presence and wise counsels.

Perhaps the only subject of criticism with Lee in these later years of his life was the method of reconstruction adopted by Congress. He was outspoken in his approval of President Johnson’s plan, and he hoped for great results from the meeting of the National Union Convention in Philadelphia in 1866, in which Mr. Henry J. Raymond was such a conspicuous figure. It was incomprehensible to Lee how any one could pursue a vindictive policy. During these later years he did what would have made any other Southern leader exceedingly unpopular; he discouraged much of the programme of the Confederate Veterans’ meetings. His attitude was: the war is over, let the dead past take care of itself. Not that the history of the war was such as to require silence; but the state of politics and the needs of the country demanded it. But Lee was not to be spared to see the change which he hoped for. His constitution was gradually giving way. Every means was resortted to to prolong his life, but without avail. He died on Oct. 12, 1870.

Capt. Lee has given us a valuable collection of his father’s letters—letters, too, which, with few exceptions, have not hitherto seen the light. The author has kept his own personality in the background, leaving the subject to unfold itself as naturally and simply as possible. This is wise, for unquestionably the greatest interest attaches to these letters; yet we should be glad to know the man whse father was Robert E. Lee and who fought under his eye from the early part of the war to Appomattox.

It is an important contribution to the literature of the civil war that we have in these Recollections and Letters a contribution which, one is led to hope, may be followed by another from the same author; one, too, which every student of those sad times must take into account. Besides, there is a tone of lofty patriotism, of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty pervading these letters which lends importance to the book and makes it worthy of the careful attention of every American citizen.

WILLIAM E. DODD.
Randolph Macon College, Virginia.

[Notes]

* RECOLLECTIONS AND LETTERS OF GEN. ROBERT E. LEE. By his Son, Capt. Robert E. Lee, 8vo. Pp. xiv.–461. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co.