Robert E. Lee's Lonely Struggle
In its Disunion series on April 19, 2011, the New York Times recently highlighted important work being done in the manuscript collections of the Virginia Historical Society. ("The General in His Study") The newspaper received more responses to this article than nearly any other contribution to the series. In the article, noted Lee scholar Elizabeth B. Pryor described the context in which R. E. Lee made his fateful decision in April 1861 to resign from the U.S. Army. She based her exploration into this topic on a letter in the VHS collections written by the general's daughter, Mary Custis Lee, which reveals new insight into Lee's actions during that tumultuous month. Pryor's transcription of the letter appears below. In September, subscribers to the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography will be able to read Pryor's full essay on the topic, which develops at length the story outlined in the NYT article.
Image captions: Top: Mary Custis Lee (Virginia Historical Society, 1940.20.112.A-B); bottom: Robert E. Lee, c. 1850–51 (Virginia Historical Society, 0000.318)
Editorial note: Following is the text of Mary Custis Lee's letter with its original spelling and punctuation. Because she wrote two versions of the last pages—both incomplete and overlapping slightly in content—the text indicates where the second version begins.
Mary Custis Lee to "Dear Colonel" [Charles Marshall]
Call number: Mss1 L41544 a2721–2732
After copying the enclosed letters for you, I thought I would write down someof the circumstances as I remember them, of the exciting time, which you might make use of, if you saw fit to do so. I have nothing but my memory to trust to, & no striking events to relate, & moreover, find that in attempting to recall things that have so long laid dormant in my mind, there is so much confusion of thought, that writing, in this way, on the spur of the moment, I must confine myself to the few facts that I can be certain of. They may merely help to throw additional light on the character which you are attempting to portray. As well as I can recollect, it was on Sunday, the 14th of April 1861, that, coming out of the old 'Christ Church No. Alexandria' we were greeted with the intelligence, of the fall of 'Sumpter.' The excitement & confusion were intense & every one flocked aroundPapa, following him in a crowd of ladies as well as gentlemen to the door of my Aunt's, Mrs. Fitzhugh , where we habitually stopped after church—He was perfectly calm, though evidently much moved & I remember his saying 'poor General Anderson! He was a determined man, & I know held out to the last.' On Thursday, the 18th, He drove over to Washington, not returning till late in the evening. That was his final interview with Gen. Scott; Cameron, Secretary of War, & Seward, both being present &, as I understand afterwards, every inducement being held out to persuade him to accept command of the Federal Army. I remember him saying to me subsequently, 'I told Mr. Seward that if he could give me the whole four millions of slaves into my own hands tomorrow, they would not weigh one moment in the balance against the Union. That I was not contending for the perpetuation of slavery'—or words to that effect. When he returned after dark, evidently worn & harassed, I told him that we had had a visit that was from a cousin of ours, just from 'Richmond' & though he had left the (
day be fore) morning of the passage of the ordinance of Secession—he was convinced that it would pass very soon, & had been extremely anxious to see him (Papa). He several times said 'I wish I could have seen him,' & plied me with many more questions than I could answer as to exactly what he had said; adding, 'I presume the poor old State will go out. I d'ont think she need do so, yet at least, but so many are trying to push her out that she will have to go I suppose.' The next day was the eventful 19th of April, but being in the country, six or seven miles from our P.O., we were in blissful ignorance of the storm that was breaking over 'Baltimore,' & the remittings of which were being carried by the telegraph through the length & breadth of the land. On Saturday morning however, directly after breakfast, a carriage stopped under the trees at some distance from the house, & two prominent gentlemen of Alexandria, (one of them was Mr. Henry Daingerfield, I have forgotten the other) were shown into Papa'soffice. In a few moments he came out & handed me the 'Baltimore Sun,' from which, in the midst of our excitement you can well imagine, I read aloud an account of the riot in 'Baltimore' & the killing of Mr. Davis, who was a personal acquaintance of my own. Not long afterwards Papa called us into his private room, where, his visitors having gone, unseen by the rest of the family, we found him seated at his table, with papers before him. He read to us, from the identical rough draft from which I have copied the same letter for you, saying, when he had finished 'This is a copy of the letter which I have sent to Gen. Scott. I wrote it early this morning when I first came down & dispatched 'Perry' over to 'Washington' with it before breakfast;' adding 'I mention this to show you that I was not at all influenced by the exciting news from 'Baltimore.' None of us could speak for several moments, & he presently said, 'I suppose you all think I have done very wrong, but it had come to this, & after my last interview with Gen. Scott I felt that I ought to wait no longer.' I finally found voice to say 'Indeed, Papa, I d'ont think you have done wrong at all;' but as you probably know we were traditionally, my mother especially, a conservative, or 'Union' family, I, myself, being the nearest approach to 'Secesh,' & living in the country, out of the way of the exciting influences that were agitating the rest of the South, & under the shadow, as it were, of the Capitol dome at 'Washington' we had scarcely kept progress with the spirit of the times. We had severalvisitors from 'Washington' inthe course of the day, none of whom Papa saw, if I recollect aright, & to none of them did we mention the step he had taken. That same afternoon, a cousin (poor OrtonWilliams) who was on Gen Scott's staff, & a great favorite of his, rode over, & first mentioned the subject to which had been engrossing our thoughts all day, adding that 'now that 'Cousin Robert' had resigned every one seemed to be doing so.' He also told us how heavily the blow had fallen upon the 'poor old General,' as he called him, how very unwell, & lying upon a sofa, he had refused to see every one, & mourned as for the loss of a son. To some one, Gen. Cullum, I think, who rather lightly alluded to the fact, he said, with great emotion, 'd'ont mention Robert Lee's name to me again, I cannot bear it;' & Papa, that same day, said to me in response to a question I had asked about Gen. Scott—'Yes, he is going to hold on to the Union,—but I believe it will kill him; I don't think he can live through it all.' He himself lived to see that, in this instance, at least, his judgment was in fault, that Gen. Scott's vanity proved to be a great recuperative power. The next day, Sunday the 21st, we drove in to 'Alexandria' to church & found that really quiet little town in another great state of fermentation. [Begin second draft] The Secession of Va. was known now, & Papa was followed by the crowd, & buttonholed in the street, as if their faith was pinned on him alone. A rumour had prevailed there that he had been arrested as soon as he resigned, & great was the emotion expressed at seeing him safe & well. This rumour had reached my brother, (Gen. W.H.F. Lee) down at the 'White House' & in the indignation & impulse of the moment, he had made prisoners of the crew or crews, of two Northern lumber trading schooners in the Pamunkey River. I am sure that while in 'Alexandria,' arrangements were made [to] telegraph to my brother to release the men immediately, but as we drove home, Papa said quietly, 'You see how unfortunate it is to yield to excitement, let me beg of you all, whatever happens, & there are probably very trying times before you, when I may not be with you to advise you, that you will listen to your reason, not to your impulses. Try & keep cool in all circumstances.' That evening after dark two gentlemen rode out from 'Alexandria' & brought him a message, perhaps a letter, from a gentleman ( ) who had come up from 'Richmond' that day to see him, reaching 'Alexandria' after we had left town. The purport of the message was that the [document ends]