19 Jan 2020

Robert E. Lee’s Birthday

Today is the 213th birthday of Robert E. Lee, General-in-Chief of the Armies of the Confederate States, and one of the greatest American military commanders ever to pull on boots. This photograph, taken in late February-early March 1864 by Julian Vannerson, is among my favorites. Lee is shown in the Confederate colonel’s coat he habitually wore and the photograph certainly supports the diarist Mary Chesnut’s description of the General as “cold, quiet and grand.”

When this photo was taken, Gettysburg was eight months in the past. Lee knows that the gigantic US Army of the Potomac is coming south again. He is consumed with anxiety because a third of his army is detached, away in east Tennessee; his own greatly outnumbered army’s horses, and soldiers, are tired and ill-fed; and the Confederate States is reaching the end of its resources. Winter is ending, the enemy will be moving very soon. . .

In 1864, Lee would do his finest work, stymying Grant in the “Overland Campaign” (The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Yellow Tavern, Cold Harbor and other battles) — Lee keeping Grant out of Richmond despite frequently being outnumbered by almost two to one. The Southern war for independence was lost by that November. . .but not because of events in Virginia.

Volumes have been written on Lee the general, and as many on Lee the man. But I think the General speaks best for himself, and that his own writing shows the true measure of the man. Here is his letter to his sister Anne Marshall (a passionate Unionist and thus not on Lee’s side), written in April 1861, just after his resignation from the US Army:

    Arlington, Virginia
    April 20, 1861

    My Dear Sister,
    I am grieved at my inability to see you. I have been waiting for a more convenient season, which has brought to many before me deep and lasting regret. Now we are in a state of war which will yield to nothing. 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 native 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. I have, therefore, resigned my commission in the Army, and save in the defense of my native State (with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed) I hope I may never be called upon to draw my sword.

    I know you will blame me, but you must think as kindly as you can, and believe that I have endeavored to do what I thought right. To show you the feeling and struggle it has cost me, I send you a copy of my letter of resignation. I have no time for more. May God guard and protect you and yours and shower upon you everlasting blessings, is the prayer of

    Your devoted brother,

    R.E. Lee

    (From “The Wartime Papers of Robert E. Lee” (Clifford Dowdey, Louis H. Manarin, eds., Da Capo, 1987) pp. 9-10.

HT: Hale Cullom.

2 Feedbacks on "Robert E. Lee’s Birthday"


At that point in time he should have sued for peace or surrendered. It would have saved a lot of lives on both sides and could possibly have resulted in a better deal for the South. IF he had done that THEN he would have been among the greatest generals of all times. He did not do that and that was a terrible mistake…


I long ago, “carefully”, suggested to a daughter of the Old Dominion that Lee might have used his considerable talents to get into politics to try and avoid the war entirely. Maybe he might have done that. I felt lucky to survive that conversation. Yankees have to be careful when they mention “Mars Rob’t”. But, in truth, Lee was a gentleman and a general and not a politician. Still, he ordered his overwhelmed army to go home and be citizens of the new world instead of ordering a twilight war that would have cultivated the hate even further. He might have made things better but he certainly could have made things a lot worse. We seem to have a similar potential now since so many look across the divide and see only an enemy that must be destroyed.


Please Leave a Comment!

Please note: Comments may be moderated. It may take a while for them to show on the page.

Entries (RSS)
Comments (RSS)
Feed Shark