LT: Robert E. Lee Introduction

   

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Editor’s Note: Many Confederate records from 1864 were lost during Lee’s retreat from Richmond and Petersburg.  As a result, many useful primary sources from the Confederate side have been lost.  What might be less well known is that not all of Robert E. Lee’s known writings from the time of the Petersburg Campaign were put into the Official Records.  In 1915, some of Lee’s previously unpublished letters and dispatches to Jefferson Davis and the War Department were published in Lee’s Dispatches: Unpublished Letters of General Robert E. Lee, C.S.A., to Jefferson Davis and the War Department of the Confederate States of America, 1862-65. These letters and dispatches came from the private collection of Wymberley Jones De Renne of Wormsloe, Georgia.   Many of these letters and telegrams contain insight into the Siege of Petersburg, and will appear here 150 years to the day after they were written by Lee.  The numbering system used in the book will also be utilized here, but some numbers may be missing because the corresponding letter or dispatch does not pertain directly to the Siege of Petersburg.

[SOPO Editor’s Note: This is an introduction to the letters, telegrams, and dispatches of Robert E. Lee which will be posted 150 years to the day after Lee penned them, starting on June 9.  The editor of Lee’s Dispatches: Unpublished Letters of General Robert E. Lee, C.S.A., to Jefferson Davis and the War Department of the Confederate States of America, 1862-65, Douglas Southall Freeman, chose items which were not published in the Official Records but which he felt would be of some use for students of the Civil War.  What follows below is an excerpted portion of his Introduction to the book which includes his reasoning when he chose items as well as how he believed the items added to what had already been published in the Official Records.]

INTRODUCTION

The passage of years and the death of his comrades-in-arms have increased rather than diminished the fame of General Robert E. Lee as a military commander. Detractors and panegyrists alike are dead. The careless overstatements of partisans have given place to the cool analysis of impartial investigators; rigid comparisons of his strategy and tactics with those of other great captains have assured him a place higher than if somewhat different from that assigned him by his contemporaries.

The publication and study of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies have unquestionably been the chief reasons for this more general recognition of Lee’s military genius. Prior to the appearance of the Records, his fame rested on the unreliable testimony of such foreign critics as the Comte de Paris and upon the more friendly, though scarcely more accurate statements of lieutenants who wrote largely from memory and inevitably fell into errors more or less serious. But with the completion of the Records, Lee’s campaigns have been scrutinized in the calm light of indisputable evidence. Documents unknown have been located, reports and correspondence that his early biographers scarcely thought to exist have been given to the world.

And while it cannot be said that the Records have ever been exhausted or even adequately handled by any critic of Lee’s military actions, they have at least fixed his fame and have given to recent critiques—Alexander’s for instance—a perspective and a precision lacking in earlier works.

It is a pleasure for a Southern student to be able to make this statement of the worth of the Records in establishing the lasting reputation of one who is, in every sense, the popular idol of many million Southerners. It is an equal pleasure to attest the high standard of accuracy set by this monumental publication. The Records have, of course, been condemned by many writers as the embodiment of everything unscholarly and unscientific in historical documents and they undoubtedly suffer from a rigid arrangement that separates, sometimes by volumes, related papers of interest and importance. The Records suffer also from an index which is the despair of beginners. But with all these faults, and others that might be named, the Records are surprisingly accurate and surpassingly complete. A comparison of the reprints of General Lee’s reports in the Records with the letter-book copies from which the printed text was prepared, shows good judgment in selection and the most painstaking care in transcription. Where letters of importance were omitted, their content was misleading or obscure; where errors are made, they are generally to be attributed to originals that are often lacking in clearness. Further comparison of the Records with the letter-book of President Jefferson Davis and with miscellaneous papers of the Southern Historical Society confirm the editor’s belief in the general accuracy of the Records.

This much has been said in behalf of this great store-house of war history not only because it is praise well merited but because the contents and the omissions of the Records explain the reasons for the publication of this volume of correspondence. In the nature of things, the compilers of the Records could not hope to collect all documents relating to the most active military officer of the Confederate army. There are many breaks and omissions in the published correspondence of General Lee,— some of them consequential, some of them trifling.(1) In the case of a less renowned officer, or one whose campaigns were not so critically studied in the military schools of the world, the omission of a few hundred telegrams or letters would not be important. But in the case of General Lee, whose every written line was a lesson in war, the world wants all the correspondence of himself and of his secretaries.

It is for this reason, among others, that this collection of General Lee’s unpublished correspondence with President Jefferson Davis and with the War Department of the Confederate States is presented to the public. Some of the letters broaden our view of Lee’s strategy and throw significant light on disputed movements; the whole, in the editor’s judgment, deserves publication as it complements, fills out and, at the same time, epitomizes the many dispatches and reports scattered through the bulky volumes of the Records.

To our present information of General Lee’s plans and campaigns these dispatches make new additions in the following respects1:

6. The movement of Grant’s army across the James River, June 14, 1864, is here presented in a manner much more creditable to both the Confederate and the Northern commanders than in current versions and known documents. To the editor this movement has always seemed one of the most misunderstood as well as one of the most important in the history of the war in Virginia. Studying every movement of the enemy and accustomed by long campaigning to expect the use of large bodies of troops where he was least able to resist them, General Lee must have realized for days before it occurred that the crossing of the James and the investment of Richmond from the south were at least as probable as the continuance of such frontal assaults from the north and northeast as those at Cold Harbor. Lee must, indeed, have regarded the adoption of such a course as more than probable and for several reasons. Richmond was more strongly fortified on the north than on the south side of the James; the country above the river was more broken and included that stretch of the Chickahominy which had been a deathtrap to McClellan in 1862; communications via the James were much easier and much less liable to interruption than the lines from Fredericksburg or from West Point; Grant’s superior force made it expedient that he draw out Lee’s army on a long line such as was offered on the south side of the James rather than to permit his antagonist to continue those inner line tactics which cost the lives of so many thousand Federals from the Rapidan to Cold Harbor. The communications which might be cut from the south were vital to the Confederates. All of this, though here argued a priori, must have been so obvious in 1864 that it is scarcely creditable to General Lee’s known ability to deny that it was taken into account by him. The letters now made public settle the question beyond doubt and show that while Lee was not certain when Grant would cross the James and could not, in consequence, strip the northern defences until he was sure his opponent had moved, he fully expected what happened. The credit due General Grant for the brilliancy with which he executed this move is not lessened by the fact that it was foreseen. Rather it would seem that Grant deserves more praise for his ability to throw his advance corps across the river and to pause only on the outskirts of Petersburg, when it is understood that General Lee, anticipating such a course, could not hazard his own position in the face of Federal cavalry or move troops in time to check it. Viewed in this light, then, the new dispatches of June 14-16 may be said to exculpate General Lee from blame for inactivity while increasing the reputation of General Grant for a brilliant transfer of base.

7. These dispatches present the situation in the winter of 1864 and in the spring of 1865 much more lucidly than do the scattered reports and the brief correspondence in the Official Records. They show, in particular, how Lee’s whole plan of holding Richmond was dependent upon troops that were not sent him and on supplies which were frequently cut off. Again and again during the dark winter of 1864-65, he pleaded with the Confederate authorities in Richmond to improve the transportation, even the circuitous route via the Piedmont and Richmond and Danville railroads, in order that he might keep his men from starvation. More than once he turned from watching his aggressive opponent to explain how soap was needed for the army, how the Piedmont Railroad might be put in proper condition, how the conscription service might be improved and how detailed men might be brought back to the ranks. One cannot read these dispatches without feeling regret that a genius so great should have been forced to devote itself to matters of administration which should be the first care of the bureau heads. Step by step, in these dispatches, the conditions that made the evacuation of the Richmond line a necessity are candidly explained by General Lee. The whole forms a most interesting chapter.

Not to mention other items of almost equal interest, it is hoped that this correspondence, by its conciseness and common tenor, will give the student a new and inspiring view of General Lee as a great commander. Certain conclusions will, we believe, be forced upon the reader who studies the dispatches which General Lee day by day forwarded the head of the Confederate government. Through them runs the same spirit, the same courage, the same consideration for the sensibilities of others. Whether telling of the first victory won or of the last line abandoned, they show the fixed mind and the intrepid fidelity of one whom neither adversity nor success could shake.2

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Douglas Southall Freeman’s Notes:

(1)    In this connection the casual reader must be cautioned against one classification in the Official Records with which every student has been forced to contend—the arbitrary distinction between “reports” and “correspondence.” One may search in vain through the correspondence for a desired letter—only to find it placed with the reports. On the other hand, many minor reports are treated as correspondence and are placed in different volumes from hundreds of similar dispatches.

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Source/Notes:

  1. SOPO Editor’s Note: Items 1-5 were excised from this excerpt because they do not directly pertain to the Siege of Petersburg.
  2. Freeman, Douglas Southall (ed.). 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 1862-65. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915, pp. iii-vi, viii-xi

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