LT: January 19, 1865 Robert E. Lee

   

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in Lee Robert E.

No. 181.

HD-QRS: Army N. Va: 19 Jany ’65.

Mr President

I rec[eive]d tonight your letter of the 18h Inst: stating that it had been reported to you that I had changed my opinion in regard to the extension of my duties, while retaining command of the army of N. Va— I do not know how such a report originated, nor am I aware of having said anything to have authorized it. I do not think that while charged with my present command embracing Virginia & N[orth]. C[arolina]. & the immediate controul of this army I could direct the operations of the armies in the S. Atlantic States. If I had the ability I would not have the time. The arrangement of the details of this army extended as it is, providing for its necessities & directing its operations engrosses all my time & still I am unable to accomplish what I desire & see to be necessary. I could not therefore propose to undertake more. I am greatly gratified by the expression of your confidence in offering me the extensive command proposed in your letter, but I must state that with the addition of the immediate command of this army I do not think I could accomplish any good. I am willing to undertake any service to which you think proper to assign me, but I do not wish you to be misled as to the extent of my capacity.(1)

I am with great respect

Your obt servt
R. E. Lee
Genl.

His Excy Jefferson Davis
Pres: C[onfederate]. States—1,2

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Douglas Southall Freeman’s Notes:

(1) The “extension of my duties” to which General Lee refers was the position of commander of all the armies of the Con federacy to which President Davis proposed to appoint him. The exact date of the proposal and the events leading to it are somewhat in doubt. On January 17, 1865, the General Assembly of Virginia unanimously passed a secret resolution stating their belief that Lee’s appointment “to the command of all the armies of the Confederate States would promote their efficiency and operate powerfully to reanimate the spirit of the armies, as well as of the people of the several States, and to inspire increased confidence in the final success of our cause” (O. R., 46, 2, 1084). The President must, however, have talked with General Lee on the subject before the date of the above resolution, because in the letter Lee here acknowledges, the President speaks of the plan as though it were well understood. He writes: “It has been reported to me that you have changed your opinion in regard to the extension of your command while retaining command of the Army of Northern Virginia. I therefore renew to you the proposal that you should exercise command over the South Atlantic States, together with Virginia and North Carolina, and now offer the larger sphere of all the forces east of the Mississippi River; or, if you think it practicable, that you should resume your former position of commander of all the armies of the Confederate States, with the addition of the immediate command of the Army of Northern Virginia” (O. R., loc. cit., 1091). General Lee, it might be well to remark, had occupied in 1862 the extralegal position held by General Bragg during the summer of 1864, “commander of the Confederate armies,”—a position largely advisory in character and subordinate to the President. In reply to the resolution of the General Assembly, Mr. Davis wrote a very warm encomium on Lee (ibid., 109192). On January 23, 1865, the Confederate Congress passed an act for the appointment by the President of “an officer, who shall be known and designated as General-in-Chief, who shall be ranking officer of the Army, and as such shall have command of the military forces of the Confederate States.” To this office President Davis appointed General Lee, February 6, 1865 (O. R., loc. cit., 1205). Lee accepted and took command on February 9. In reply to a dispatch which has not been found, Davis wrote on February 10 a letter to General Lee which is most creditable to the President. He said: “… I have not failed to appreciate the burden already imposed on you as too heavy to enable an ordinary man to bear an additional weight. Your patriotic devotion I knew would prompt you to accept anything which was possible, if it promised to be beneficial to the country. The honor designed to be bestowed has been so fully won that the fact of conferring it can add nothing to your fame. . . . ” (Ibid., 1127). During the brief remainder of the war, General Lee acted in an advisory capacity over the operations in the far South, to which numerous references will be found in this correspondence. He was careful, however, as has already been pointed out, not to restrict the movements of competent officers who were familiar with conditions unknown to him. He always allowed the commanders in the South the widest discretion and in reality discharged with authority the duties he had informally assumed during the campaign of 1864 at the President’s request. Though his appointment to this post came too late to accomplish good, it had a salutary effect upon the spirit of the South.

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Source/Notes:

  1. 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 are simply never going to be available.  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.
  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. 322-325

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