Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee
by Captain Robert E. Lee, His Son
The Winter of 1863-4
The Lee family in Richmond--The General's letters to them from Camps
Rappahannock and Rapidan--Death of Mrs. Fitzhugh Lee--Preparations to
meet General Grant--The Wilderness--Spottsylvania Court House--Death
of General Stuart--General Lee's illness
My mother had quite recently rented a house on Clay Street in Richmond
which, though small, gave her a roof of her own, and it also enabled
her at times to entertain some of her many friends. Of this new home,
and of a visit of a soldier's wife to him, the General thus writes:
"Camp Rappahannock, November 1, 1863.
"I received yesterday, dear Mary, your letter of the 29th, and am
very glad to learn that you find your new abode so comfortable and
so well arranged. The only fault I find in it is that it is not large
enough for you all, and that Charlotte, whom I fear requires much
attention, is by herself. Where is 'Life' to go, too, for I suppose
she is a very big personage? But you have never told me where it is
situated, or how I am to direct to you. Perhaps that may be the cause
of delay in my letters. I am sorry you find such difficulty in
procuring yarn for socks, etc. I fear my daughters have not taken to
the spinning-wheel and loom, as I have recommended. I shall not be
able to recommend them to the brave soldiers for wives. I had a visit
from a soldier's wife to-day, who was on a visit with her husband.
She was from Abbeville district, S. C. Said she had not seen her
husband for more than two years, and, as he had written to her for
clothes, she herself thought she would bring them on. It was the first
time she had travelled by railroad, but she got along very well by
herself. She brought an entire suit of her own manufacture for her
husband. She spun the yarn and made the clothes herself. She clad
her three young children in the same way, and had on a beautiful pair
of gloves she had made for herself. Her children she had left with
her sister. She said she had been here a week and must return
to-morrow, and thought she could not go back without seeing me. Her
husband accompanied her to my tent, in his nice gray suit. She was
very pleasing in her address and modest in her manner, and was clad
in a nice, new alpaca. I am certain she could not have made that.
Ask Misses Agnes and Sally Warwick what they think of that. They need
not ask me for permission to get married until they can do likewise.
She, in fact, was an admirable woman. Said she was willing to give
up everything she had in the world to attain our independence, and
the only complaint she made of the conduct of our enemies was their
arming our servants against us. Her greatest difficulty was to procure
shoes. She made them for herself and children of cloth with leather
soles. She sat with me about ten minutes and took her leave--another
mark of sense--and made no request for herself or husband. I wrote
you about my wants in my former letter. My rheumatism I hope is a
little better, but I have had to-day, and indeed always have, much
pain. I trust it will pass away.... I have just had a visit from
my nephews, Fitz, John, and Henry [General "Fitz" Lee, and his two
brothers, Major John Mason Lee and Captain Henry Carter Lee]. The
former is now on a little expedition. The latter accompanies him.
As soon as I was left alone, I committed them in a fervent prayer to
the care and guidance of our Heavenly Father.... I pray you may be
made whole and happy.
"Truly and devotedly yours,
"R. E. Lee."
Another letter from the same camp is interesting:
"Camp Rappahannock, November 5, 1863.
"I received last night, dear Mary, your letter of the 2d.... I am
glad to hear that Charlotte is better. I hope that she will get strong
and well, poor child. The visit of her 'grandpa' will cheer her up.
I trust, and I know, he gave her plenty of good advice. Tell Mrs.
Atkinson that her son Nelson is a very good scout and a good soldier.
I wish I had some way of promoting him. I received the bucket of butter
she was so kind as to send me, but have had no opportunity of returning
the vessel, which I hope to be able to do. I am sorry Smith does not
like your house. I have told you my only objection to it, and wish
it were large enough to hold Charlotte. It must have reminded you of
old times to have your brother Carter and Uncle Williams [Mr. Charles
Carter Lee, the General's brother; Mr. Williams Carter, the General's
uncle] to see you. I think my rheumatism is better to-day. I have
been through a great deal with comparatively little suffering. I have
been wanting to review the cavalry for some time, and appointed to-day
with fear and trembling. I had not been on horseback for five days
previously and feared I should not get through. The governor was
here and told me Mrs. Letcher had seen you recently. I saw all my
nephews looking very handsome, and Rob too. The latter says he has
written to you three times since he crossed the river. Tell "Chas."
I think F's old regiment, the 9th, made the best appearance in review.
"While on the ground, a man rode up to me and said he was just from
Alexandria and had been requested to give me a box, which he handed
me, but did not know who sent it. It contained a handsome pair of gilt
spurs. Good-night. May a kind heavenly Father guard you all.
"Truly and affectionately,
"R. E. Lee."
When our cavalry was reviewed the preceding summer, it happened that
we engaged the next day, June 9th, the enemy's entire force of that
arm, in the famous battle of Brandy Station. Since then there had
been a sort of superstition amongst us that if we wanted a fight all
that was necessary was to have a review. We were now on the same ground
we had occupied in June, and the enemy was in force just across the
river. As it happened, the fighting did take place, though the cavalry
was not alone engaged. Not the day after the review, but on November
Meade advanced and crossed the Rappahannock, while our army fell
back and took up our position on the line of the Rapidan.
Before the two armies settled down into winter quarters, General Meade
tried once more to get at us, and on the 26th of November, with ten
days' rations and in light marching order, he crossed the Rapidan
and attempted to turn our right. But he was unable to do anything,
being met at every point by the Army of Northern Virginia, heavily
entrenched and anxious for an attack. Long says:
"Meade declared that the position could not be carried without the loss
of thirty thousand men. This contingency was too terrible to be
entertained--yet the rations of the men were nearly exhausted, and
nothing remained but retreat. This was safely accomplished on the
night of December 1st...."
Lee was more surprised at the retreat of Meade than he had been at his
advance, and his men, who had been in high spirits at the prospect
of obliterating the memory of Gettysburg, were sadly disappointed
at the loss of the opportunity. To my mother, General Lee wrote on
December 4th, from "Camp Rapidan":
"...You will probably have seen that
General Meade has retired to his
old position on the Rappahannock, without giving us battle. I had
expected from his movements, and all that I had heard, that it was
his intention to do so, and after the first day, when I thought it
necessary to skirmish pretty sharply with him, on both flanks, to
ascertain his views, I waited, patiently, his attack. On Tuesday,
however, I thought he had changed his mind, and that night made
preparations to move around his left next morning and attack him. But
when day dawned he was nowhere to be seen. He had commenced to withdraw
at dark Tuesday evening. We pursued to the Rapidan, but he was over.
Owing to the nature of the ground, it was to our advantage to receive
rather than to make the attack. I am greatly disappointed at his
getting off with so little damage, but we do not know what is best
for us. I believe a kind God has ordered all things for our good...."
About this time the people of the City of Richmond, to show their
esteem for my father, desired to present him with a home. General
Lee, on hearing of it, thus wrote to the President of the Council:
"...I assure you, sir, that no want of appreciation of the honour
conferred upon me by this resolution--or insensibility to the kind
feelings which prompted it--induces me to ask, as I most respectfully
do, that no further proceedings be taken with reference to the subject.
The house is not necessary for the use of my family, and my own duties
will prevent my residence in Richmond. I should therefore be compelled
to decline the generous offer, and I trust that whatever means the
City Council may have to spare for this purpose may be devoted to
the relief of the families of our soldiers in the field, who are more
in want of assistance, and more deserving it, than myself...."
My brother was still in prison, and his detention gave my father great
concern. In a letter to my mother, written November 21st, he says:
"...I see by the papers that our son has been sent to
Any place would be better than
Fort Monroe, with Butler in command.
His long confinement is very grievous to me, yet it may all turn out
for the best...."
To his daughter-in-law my father was devoutedly attached. His love
for her was like that for his own children, and when her husband was
captured and thrown, wounded, into prison, his great tenderness for
her was shown on all occasions. Her death about this time, though
expected, was a great blow to him. When news came to Gen. W. H. F. Lee,
Fortress Monroe, that his wife Charlotte was dying in Richmond,
he made application to General Butler, commanding that post, that he
be allowed to go to her for 48 hours, his brother Custis Lee, of equal
rank with himself, having formally volunteered in writing to take his
place, as a hostage, was curtly and peremptorily refused.
In his letter to my mother, of December 27th, my father says:
"...Custis's despatch which I received last night demolished all the
hopes, in which I had been indulging during the day, of dear Charlotte's
recovery. It has pleased God to take from us one exceedingly dear
to us, and we must be resigned to His holy will. She, I trust, will
enjoy peace and happiness forever, while we must patiently struggle
on under all the ills that may be in store for us. What a glorious
thought it is that she has joined her little cherubs and our angel
Annie [his second daughter] in Heaven. Thus is link by link the strong
chain broken that binds us to the earth, and our passage soothed to
another world. Oh, that we may be at last united in that heaven of
rest, where trouble and sorrow never enter, to join in an everlasting
chorus of praise and glory to our Lord and Saviour! I grieve for our
lost darling as a father only can grieve for a daughter, and my sorrow
is heightened by the thought of the anguish her death will cause our
dear son and the poignancy it will give to the bars of his prison.
May God in His mercy enable him to bear the blow He has so suddenly
dealt, and sanctify it to his everlasting happiness!"
After Meade's last move, the weather becoming wintry, the troops fixed
up for themselves winter quarters, and the cavalry and artillery were
sent back along the line of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, where
forage could be more easily obtained for their horses. On January 24,
1864, the General writes to my mother:
"...I have had to disperse the cavalry as much as possible, to obtain
forage for their horses, and it is that which causes trouble.
Provisions for the men, too, are very scarce, and, with very light diet
and light clothing, I fear they suffer, but still they are cheerful
and uncomplaining. I received a report from one division the other
day in which it stated that over four hundred men were barefooted and
over a thousand without blankets."
Lee was the idol of his men. Colonel Charles Marshall, who was his
A. D. C. and military secretary, illustrates this well in the following
"While the Army was on the Rapidan, in the winter of 1863-4, it became
necessary, as was often the case, to put the men on very short rations.
Their duty was hard, not only on the outposts during the winter, but
in the construction of roads, to facilitate communication between
the different parts of the army. One day General Lee received a letter
from a private soldier, whose name I do not now remember, informing
him of the work that he had to do, and stating that his rations were
not sufficient to enable him to undergo the fatigue. He said, however,
that if it was absolutely necessary to put him on such short allowance,
he would make the best of it, but that he and his comrades wanted to
know if General Lee was aware that his men were getting so little to
eat, because if he was aware of it he was sure there must be some
necessity for it. General Lee did not reply directly to the letter,
but issued a general order in which he informed the soldiers of his
efforts in their behalf, and that their privation was beyond his means
of present relief, but assured them that he was making every effort
to procure sufficient supplies. After that there was not a murmur
in the army, and the hungry men went cheerfully to their hard work."
When I returned to the army in the summer, I reported to my old brigade,
which was gallantly commanded by John R. Chambliss, colonel of the
13th Virginia Cavalry, the senior officer of the brigade. Later, I
had been assigned to duty with General Fitz Lee and was with him at
this time. My mother was anxious that I should be with my father,
thinking, I have no doubt, that my continued presence would be a comfort
to him. She must have written him to that effect, for in a letter to
her, dated February, 1864, he says:
"...In reference to Rob, his company would be a great pleasure and
comfort to me, and he would be extremely useful in various ways, but
I am opposed to officers surrounding themselves with their sons and
relatives. It is wrong in principle, and in that case selections would
be made from private and social relations, rather than for the public
good. There is the same objection to his going with Fitz Lee. I
should prefer Rob's being in the line, in an independent position,
where he could rise by his own merit and not through the recommendation
of his relatives. I expect him soon, when I can better see what he
himself thinks. The young men have no fondness for the society of
the old general. He is too heavy and sombre for them...."
If anything was said to me on this occasion by my father, I do not
remember it. I rather think that something prevented the interview,
for I cannot believe that it could have entirely escaped my memory.
At any rate, I remained with General Fitz Lee until my brother's return
from prison in April of that year. Fitz Lee's brigade camped near
Charlottesville, on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, in January, in
order that forage could be more readily obtained. The officers, to
amuse themselves and to return in part the courtesies and kindnesses
of the ladies of the town, gave a ball. It was a grand affair for
those times. Committees were appointed and printed invitations issued.
As a member of the invitation committee, I sent one to the general
commanding the army. Here is his opinion of it, in a letter to me:
"...I inclose a letter for you, which has been sent to my care. I
hope you are well and all around you are so. Tell Fitz I grieve over
the hardships and sufferings of his men, in their late expedition. I
should have preferred his waiting for more favourable weather. He
accomplished much under the circumstances, but would have done more
in better weather. I am afraid he was anxious to get back to the ball.
This is a bad time for such things. We have too grave subjects on
hand to engage in such trivial amusements. I would rather his officers
should entertain themselves in fattening their horses, healing their
men, and recruiting their regiments. There are too many Lees on the
committee. I like all to be present at the battles, but can excuse
them at balls. But the saying is, 'Children will be children.' I
think he had better move his camp farther from Charlottesville, and
perhaps he will get more work and less play. He and I are too old for
such assemblies. I want him to write me how his men are, his horses,
and what I can do to full up the ranks...."
In this winter and spring of 1864, every exertion possible was made
by my father to increase the strength of his army and to improve its
efficiency. He knew full well that the enemy was getting together
an enormous force, and that his vast resources would be put forth to
crush us in the spring. His letters at this time to President Davis
and the Secretary of War show how well he understood the difficulties
of his position.
"In none of them," General Long says, "does he show a symptom of despair
or breathe a thought of giving up the contest. To the last, he remained
full of resources, energetic and defiant, and ready to bear upon his
shoulders the whole burden of the conduct of the war."
In a letter to President Davis, written March, 1864, he says:
"Mr. President: Since my former letter on the subject, the indications
that operations in Virginia will be vigorously prosecuted by the enemy
are stronger than they then were. General Grant has returned from
the army in the West. He is, at present, with the
Army of the Potomac,
which is being organised and recruited.... Every train brings recruits
and it is stated that every available regiment at the North is added
Their plans are not sufficiently developed to discover them, but I
think we can assume that, if General Grant is to direct operations
on this frontier, he will concentrate a large force on one or more
lines, and prudence dictates that we should make such preparations
as are in our power...."
On April 6th he again writes to the President:
"...All the information I receive tends to show that the great effort
of the enemy in this campaign will be made in Virginia....
Reinforcements are certainly daily arriving to the Army of the
Potomac.... The tone of the Northern papers, as well as the impression
prevailing in their armies, go to show that Grant with a large force
is to move against Richmond.... The movements and reports of the
enemy may be intended to mislead us, and should therefore be carefully
observed. But all the information that reaches me goes to strengthen
the belief that General Grant is preparing to move against Richmond."
The question of feeding his army was ever before him. To see his men
hungry and cold, and his horses ill fed, was a great pain to him. To
Mr. Davis he thus writes on this subject:
"Headquarters, April 12, 1864.
"Mr. President: My anxiety on the subject of provisions for the army
is so great that I cannot refrain from expressing it to Your Excellency.
I cannot see how we can operate with our present supplies. Any
derangement in their arrival or disaster to the railroad would render
it impossible for me to keep the army together, and might force a
retreat to North Carolina. Thee is nothing to be had in this section
for men or animals. We have rations for the troops to-day and
to-morrow. I hope a new supply arrived last night, but I have not yet
had a report. Every exertion should be made to supply the depots at
Richmond and at other points. All pleasure travel should cease, and
everything be devoted to necessary wants.
"I am, with great respect, your obedient servant,
"R. E. Lee, General."
In a letter written to our cousin, Margaret Stuart, of whom he was
very fond, dated March 29th, he says:
"...The indications at present are that we shall have a hard struggle.
General Grant is with the Army of the Potomac. All the officer's
wives, sick, etc., have been sent to Washington. No ingress into or
egress from the lines is now permitted and no papers are allowed to
come out--they claim to be assembling a large force...."
Again, April 28th, he writes to this same young cousin:
"...I dislike to send letters within reach of the enemy, as they might
serve, if captured, to bring distress on others. But you must sometimes
cast your thoughts on the Army of Northern Virginia, and never forget
it in your prayers. It is preparing for a great struggle, but I pray
and trust that the great God, mighty to deliver, will spread over it
His almighty arms, and drive its enemies before it...."
One perceives from these letters how clearly my father foresaw the
storm that was so soon to burst upon him. He used every means within
his power to increase and strengthen his army to meet it, and he
continually urged the authorities at Richmond to make preparations
in the way of supplies of ammunition, rations, and clothing.
I shall not attempt to describe any part of this campaign except in a
very general way. It has been well written up by both sides, and what
was done by the Army of Northern Virginia we all know. I saw my father
only once or twice, to speak to him, during the thirty odd days from
the Wilderness to Petersburg, but, in common with all his soldiers,
I felt that he was ever near, that he could be entirely trusted with
the care of us, that he would not fail us, that it would all end well.
The feeling of trust that we had in him was simply sublime. When I
say "we," I mean the men of my age and standing, officers and privates
alike. Older heads may have begun to see the "beginning of the end"
when they saw that slaughter and defeat did not deter our enemy, but
made him the more determined in his "hammering" process; but it never
occurred to me, and to thousands and thousands like me, that there
was any occasion for uneasiness. We firmly believed that "Marse
Robert," as his soldiers lovingly called him, would bring us out of
this trouble all right.
When Grant reached Spottsylvania Court House, he sent all of his
Sheridan, to break our communications. They were met
at Yellow Tavern, six miles from Richmond, by General Stuart, with
three brigades of Confederate cavalry, and were attacked so fiercely
that they were held there nearly all day, giving time for the troops
around Richmond to concentrate for the defense of the city.
In this fight General Stuart fell mortally wounded, and he died the
next day in Richmond. The death of our noted cavalry leader was a
great blow to our cause--a loss second only to that of Jackson.
Captain W. Gordon McCabe writes me:
"I was sitting on my horse very near to General Lee, who was talking
to my colonel, William Johnson Pegram, when a courier galloped up
with the despatch announcing that Stuart had been mortally wounded
and was dying. General Lee was evidently greatly affected, and said
slowly, as he folded up the despatch, 'General Stuart has been mortally
wounded: a most valuable and able officer.' Then, after a moment,
he added in a voice of deep feeling 'HE NEVER BROUGHT ME A PIECE OF
FALSE INFORMATION'--turned and looked away. What praise dearer to a
soldier's heart could fall from the lips of the commanding general
touching his Chief of Cavalry! These simple words of Lee constitute,
I think, the fittest inscription for the monument that is soon to be
erected to the memory of the great cavalry leader of the 'Army of
In a letter from my father to my mother, dated Spottsylvania Court
House, May 16th, he says:
"...As I write I am expecting the sound of the guns every moment. I
grieve over the loss of our gallant officers and men, and miss their
aid and sympathy. A more zealous, ardent, brave, and devoted soldier
than Stuart the Confederacy cannot have. Praise be to God for having
sustained us so far. I have thought of you very often in these eventful
days. God bless and preserve you."
General Lee, in his order announcing the death of Stuart, thus speaks
"...Among the gallant soldiers who have fallen in this war, General
Stuart was second to none in valour, in zeal, and in unflinching
devotion to his country. His achievements form a conspicuous part of
the history of this army, with which his name and services will be
forever associated. To military capacity of a high order and to the
noble virtues of the soldier he added the brighter graces of a pure
life, guided and sustained by the Christian's faith and hope. The
mysterious hand of an all-wise God has removed him from the scene of
his usefulness and fame. His grateful countrymen will mourn his loss
and cherish his memory. To his comrades in arms he has left the proud
recollections of his deeds and the inspiring influence of his example."
Speaking of the operations around Spottsylvania Court House, Swinton,
the historian of the Army of the Potomac, says:
"Before the lines of Spottsylvania, the Army of the Potomac had for
twelve days and nights engaged in a fierce wrestle in which it had
done all that valour may do to carry a position by nature and art
impregnable. In this contest, unparalleled in its continuous fury,
and swelling to the proportions of a campaign, language is inadequate
to convey an impression of the labours, fatigues, and sufferings of the
troops, who fought by day, only to march by night, from point to point
of the long line, and renew the fight on the morrow. Above forty
thousand men had already fallen in the bloody encounters of the
Wilderness and Spottsylvania, and the exhausted army began to lose
its spirits. It was with joy, therefore, that it at length turned
its back upon the lines of Spottsylvania."
General Long, in his "Memoirs of General Lee," speaking of our army
at this time, says:
"In no previous operations did the Army of Northern Virginia display
higher soldierly qualities. Regardless of numbers, every breach was
filled, and, with unparalleled stubbornness, its lines were maintained.
The soldiers of that army not only gratified their countrymen, but by
their gallantry and vigour won the admiration of their enemies.
Whenever the men in blue appeared they were met by those in gray, and
muzzle to muzzle and point to point they measured their foeman's
When we learned that General Lee was ill--confined for a day or two
to his tent, at the time he was confronting General Grant on the North
Anna--this terrible thought forced itself upon us: Suppose disease
should disable him, even for a time, or, worse, should take him forever
from the front of his men! It could not be! It was too awful to
consider! And we banished any such possibility from our minds. When
we saw him out again, on the lines, riding Traveller as usual, it was
as if some great crushing weight had been suddenly lifted from our
hearts. Colonel Walter H. Taylor, his adjutant-general, says:
"The indisposition of General Lee...was more serious than was generally
supposed. Those near him were very apprehensive lest he should be
compelled to give up."
General Early also writes of this circumstance:
"One of his three corps commanders [Longstreet] had been disabled by
wounds at the Wilderness, and another was too unwell to command his
corps [A. P. Hill], while he (General Lee) was suffering from a most
annoying and weakening disease. In fact, nothing but his own determined
will enabled him to keep the field at all; and it was then rendered
more manifest than ever that he was the head and front, the very life
and soul of the army."