Washington and Lee University

Review of Douglas Southall Freeman's Lee's Dispatches
Eben Swift

Note: The following is taken from the January 1916 issue of The American Historical Review (volume 21), pp. 357–59

Lee's Dispatches: Unpublished Letters of General Robert E. Lee, C.S.A., to Jefferson Davis and the War Department of the Confederate States of America, 1862–1865. From the Private Collection of Wymberley Jones de Renne. Edited with an Introduction by DOUGLAS SOUTHALL FREEMAN. (New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons. 1915. Pp. lxiii, 400.)

AFTER every source of information had been ransacked and after every person who had anything to tell had published a book, it is quite a matter of note and surprise to discover more than two hundred unpublished despatches from Lee to Davis, which had been lost for many years and the existence of which had been forgotten.

The peculiar interest of such a collection arises from the almost complete absence of anything in the way of criticism or comment by Lee upon the conduct of his campaigns and the causes of failure where full success was not attained. His plans were so mature and so brilliantly conceived that it is generally hard to understand any lack of success, and the greatest curiosity has always been felt to know his own judgment upon the course of events. Those who have lived long enough to write their memoirs have started many controversies, and those who did not live long have had many friends to defend them. Thus it has been said that Longstreet did not obey, that Jackson was slow, that A. P. Hill was reckless, that Stuart “went on a wild goose chase”, that Ewell and Early missed the point in many things, and so on. About it all the evidence of Lee would be conclusive. His intimate correspondence with Davis, however, just as his official reports, and his letters to his family, maintain a complete silence so far as complaint or blame is concerned, and we may perhaps at least infer that nothing further will be discovered. We are finally forced ot the conclusion that Lee really believed that he was served by true leaders and brave troops who did their level best every time. The discovery adds more lustre to the fame of Lee. He certainly had a contempt for the manufacturers of strategy whose wisdom is born after the event. He well knew the limitations of his army, made by himself and carried through more campaigns in shorter time than any other army in history, but which could not help lacking some of the smoothness of a perfect machine. Therefore he was tolerant and his range of vision was greater than we thought.

Notwithstanding this silence, which we cannot wholly regret, the despatches amply repay us by additional light thrown upon the campaigns themselves. In a number of cases the plans of Lee and his clear perception of events stand out more clearly than ever before. The campaign from the Rapidan to the James is particularly rich in material. It shows the regret with which Lee made his several retreats to the rear instead of fighting “step by step”. It shows that the claim by Grant's biographers that Lee was out-generalled in the crossing of the James by Grant was not justified. Quite a remarkable estimate of the value of cavalry in the campaign for Richmond and Petersburg is given.

Considering that Davis and Lee had been schoolmates for three years at West Point and close friends for many years before they were placed in the official relation of President and subordinate, we should look for some absence of formality in the intimate correspondence of the two. But such was not the case. Lee follows scrupulously the formula of official courtesy. Davis is always “Mr. President” and “Excellency”, and Lee is always his “obedient servant”. Although the letters and despatches are often hurriedly written and sometimes show carelessness in spelling, capitalization, and punctuation, Lee maintains a guarded attitude in speaking of his subordinates, seldom making suggestions about matters outside of his immediate province as an army commander. All this again throws light upon the humility of Lee.

The book is admirable edited. A series of notes connect and explain the despatches in such a way that it is not at all necessary to refer to other works for a full understanding. It is true that the editor on several occasions goes beyond the evidence he presents when he speaks of “blunders and worse of subordinates”, “culpable” lieutenants, “others' errors”, etc.—all matters upon which Lee, the master, was silent. Of the same class are the expressions “blots upon the military fame of Grant”, “infamous”, “house-burning expedition”, “atrocities”—words which have a strangely familiar sound to-day.