Washington and Lee University

“Secession is Nothing but Revolution”
A Letter of R. E. Lee to His Son “Rooney”
William M. E. Rachal

Note: The following is taken from the January 1961 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 69), pp. 2–6.

A Letter of R. E. Lee to His Son “Rooney”

A LETTER of Robert Edward Lee (1807–1870), written to his son William Henry Fitzhugh (“Rooney”) Lee (1837–1891) a hundred years ago this month, has recently come into the custody of the Virginia Historical Society. Lee, a colonel in the United States Army, wrote from a remote post in Texas, but his interests were focused in Virginia, where three matters claimed his attention: the christening of his first grandchild and namesake, the settlement of the large estate of his father-in-law, and the impending secession of his native state.

Lee was apprehensive, but the next five years brought greater tragedy than he anticipated. Both the infant grandson and his mother, Charlotte Wickham (“Chass”) Lee, died while Rooney Lee was a prisoner of war. During his captivity Rooney's home, White House, in New Kent County, was burned, but he still had the farm when the Civil War ended. His brother, Robert E. Lee, Jr., likewise had his farm, Romancoke, in neighboring King William, but other parts of the estate left by their grandfather, George Washington Parke Custis, had been ravaged or lost entirely. Lastly, Lee, who foresaw “no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union,” had returned to his native Virginia to share the miseries of his people.

The Reverend J. William Jones, who had access to the Lee family papers soon after the General's death, published portions of the letter in his Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (New York, 1874), pp. 136–137, and later reprinted them in his Life and Letters of Robert Edward Lee, Soldier and Man (New York and Washington, 1906), pp. 120–122. These extracts have been quoted often, but even the indefatigable Douglas Soutball Freeman never saw the original letter. Unfortunately Jones omitted some of the most interesting parts of the letter and made some errors in handling the portions he printed. The whole letter is here made public for the first time.

Fort Mason, San Antonio P.O.
Son 29 Jany 1861

My dear Son

I have recd your letter of the 4th Inst: giving me the pleasing account of your quiet & happy Xmas, the presence of Rob, the visit of Mr Dame1 & the christening of your boy. So he is called after his Grd Papa the dear little fellow. I would wish him a better name & hope he may be a wiser & more useful man than his namesake. Such as it is however I gladly place it in his keeping, & feel that he must be very little like his father if it is not elevated & ennobled by his bearing & course in life. You must teach him then to love his Grand Papa, to bear with his failings & avoid his errors, to be to you as you have been to me, & he may then enjoy the love & confidence of his father which I feel for you, greater than which no son has ever possessed. May God guard & protect him through life!

But what is the matter with my precious Chass? I fear her house is not warmer [sic] enough for her, in this cold & snowy weather. She must be very careful not to take cold but to go out every day. Tell her I want to see her very much & love her more & more. Robt has written me of his visit & how much he enjoyed it. He liked the house & farm & everything, but did not mention whether he went to Roman Coke. He says he feels like studying hard for six months now.2

I am glad you have settled up so promptly all the accounts of the Estate. When you have made them out in proper form I wish you would send them to Custis that he may place them in the hands of the Commissioner for settlement. I wish you would send me an abstract of them, & you ought also to keep a record of them yourself in a proper book, that you could at any time refer to any receipt & expenditure, in each year. You will not only then be able to detect the repetition of an account, but to compare the yearly receipts & expenditures. I will send to Custis the statement of the cash of the Bank of Virginia of the amount deposited to my credit, four thousand & sixty four 22/100 dollars, which with the $1000 remitted him, makes Five thousand & sixty four 22/100 dollars ($5064.22) to be Credited to the Estate. I wish you also to collect the hire of the women in Richmond, & the men hired by Mr Winston & deposit that in the same way, that I may cause that to be credited to the Estate with the amount recd for the hire of those near Arlington. I am at a loss how to invest the surplus funds. As I wrote you I had intended to purchase Virga State bonds. As far as I can now judge I have strong apprehensions that Virga will secede as it is fashionably termed. In which case she will have largely to increase her debt now large, which will depreciate her bonds very much, & possibly render them valueless. I have therefore determined to send Custis a check for the money, with instructions to hold it until he can see clearer, & to consult Mr Dangerfield,3 Richard Smith & others whether he shall purchase. The last quotations I saw of the Virga bonds was 76. They will go down to 50 if she commences revolution. It would not therefore be prudent to purchase now. Should you be able to aid Custis my dear Son, write to him. If it seems advisable I will direct him to invest all the surplus funds of the Estate after settling the accounts for 1860. Do you know whether Mr. Winston ever returned to him some accounts of 1859 which had been put in the hands of the Commr but wanted some correction. In his last letter Custis did not mention them. In a previous one he said the accounts were still open in the hands of the Commissioner awaiting their return.

I hope next year the expenses of the farm will be less in as much as many things purchased this year will not have to be renewed. The profits therefore may be greater. There will be a poor chance of selling Smiths Isd this coming spring, & it will have to be deferred. Agitate the subject in your thoughts however, that advantage may be taken of the times.

You were right in not investing the money in your hands. If I had been there I should have been at a loss & waited for the storm to pass. I want much to put it in Custis power to invest if thought advisable. The people about Washington have opportunity of judging of events, & Mr D., Smith &c &c are very shrewed [sic]. Should Virga not secede, or should the political troubles be adjusted, Virga stock will rise & I think be as safe as anything I know of. Write to Custis at any rate your opinions & news, Mr Marbury, Cashr of Bank in Alexa can very easily purchase, if determined on. They were all well at Arlington at the last accounts. You I hope get earlier intelligence than I do. They are naturally anxious about the future as every citizen of the country must be.

The South in my opinion has been aggrieved by the acts of the North as you say. I feel the aggression, & am willing to take every proper step for redress. It is the principle I contend for, not individual or private benefit. As an American citizen I take great pride in my country, her prosperity & institutions & would defend any State if her rights were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, & I am willing to sacrifice every thing but honour for its preservation. I hope therefore that all Constitutional means will be exhausted, before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labour, wisdom & forbearance in its formation & surrounded it with so many guards & securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the confederacy at will. It was intended for pepetual [sic] union, so expressed in the preamble,4 & for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution or the consent of all the people in convention assembled. It is idle to talk of secession. Anarchy would have been established & not a government, by Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison & the other patriots of the Revolution. In 1808 when the New England States resisted Mr Jeffersons Imbargo law & the Hartford Convention assembled secession was termed treason by Virga statesmen. What can it be now? Still a union that can only be maintained by swords & bayonets, & in which strife & civil war are to take the place of brotherly love & kindness, has no charm for me. I shall mourn for my country, & for the welfare & progress of mankind. If the Union is dissolved & the government disrupted, I shall return to my native State & share the miseries of my people & save in her defence will draw my sword on none. Give much love to Charlotte to my dear little son & believe me always your devoted father

R E Lee

P.S. As usual I have been obliged to write mid many interruptions.