8 Aug 1863
Your letters of 28 July & 2 Aug have been recd., & I have waited for a leisure hour to reply, but I fear that will never come. I am extremely obliged to you for your attention given to the wants of this Army * the efforts made to supply them. Our absentees are returning, & I hope the earnest & beautiful appeal made to the country in your proclamation, may stir up the virtue of the whole people & that they may see their duty & perform it. Nothing is wanted but that their fortitude should equal their bravery to ensure the success of our cause.
We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies & to prevent our falling into greater disasters. Our people have only to be true & united, to bear manfully the misfortunes incident to war & all will come right in the end. I know how prone we are to censure, & how ready to blame others for the nonfulfillment of our expectations. This is unbecoming in a generous people & I grieve to see its expression.
The general remedy for the want to success in a military commander is his removal. This is natural & in many instances proper. For no matter what may be the ability of the officer if he loses the confidence of his troops, disaster must sooner or later ensue. I have been prompted by these reflections more than once since my return from Penna. to propose to your Excy [Excellency] the propriety of selecting another commander for this army. I have seen & heard of expression of discontent in the public journals at the result of the expedition. I do not know how far this feeling extends in the army. My brother officers have been too kind to report it, & so far the troops have been too generous to exhibit it. It is fair however to suppose that it does exist, & success is so necessary to us that nothing should be risked to secure it. I therefore in all sincerity request your Excy to take measures to supply my place. I do this with the more earnestness because no one is more aware than myself of my inability for the duties of my position. I cannot even accomplish what I myself desire. How can I fulfill the expectations of others? In addition, I sensibly feel the growing failure of my bodily strength. I have not yet recovered from the attack I experienced the past spring. I am becoming more and more incapable of exertion, & am thus prevented from making the personal examinations & giving the personal supervision to the operations in the field which I feel to be necessary. I am so dull that in making use of the eyes of others I am frequently misled. Every thing therefore points to the advantages to be derived from a new commander, & I the more anxiously urge the matter upon your Excy from my belief that a younger & abler man than myself can readily be attained.
I know that he will have as gallant & brave an army as ever existed to second his efforts, & it would be the happiest day of my life to see at its head a worthy leader; one that would accomplish more than I could perform & all that I have wished. I hope your Excy will attribute my request to the true reason. The desire to serve my country & to do all in my power to ensure the success of her righteous cause.
I have no complaints to make of any one but myself. I have recd. nothing but kindness from those above me & the most considerate attention from my comrades & companions in arms. To your Excy I am specially indebted for the uniform kindness & consideration. You have done every thing in your power to aid me in the work committed to my charge, without omitting anything to promote the general welfare. I pray that your efforts may at length be crowned with success & that you may long live to enjoy the thanks of a grateful people –
With sentiments of great esteem I am very respectfully & truly yours
On July 13-14, 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac, returning to the Virginia shore after the defeat at Gettysburg. This marked the final invasion Robert E. Lee would lead into the north. He seemed to regard the invasion of the North and battles in Union territory of prime importance and a war goal, and with failure to secure a decisive victory at either Antietam (1862) or Gettysburg (1863), Lee offered to give up command.
This letter to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, reveals much of Lee’s character and his unwillingness to stand in the way of possible success if someone else took command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Listening to the public tone exhibited in the newspapers and keen enough to suspect a possible hidden measure of disappointment from his troops, Lee offered to resign, giving Davis a way to relieve him of command without awkwardness.
Ultimately, Davis would decide to keep Lee in command, though in the autumn of 1863, he shuffled James Longstreet’s corps to the western theater for a few months. To Davis and the Confederate government, Lee still seemed like their best option in the east.
The Battle of Gettysburg heavily overshadows other Civil War fights, dominating the bookshelves, memory, and pop-culture in a powerful way. One of the seemingly endless debates about Gettysburg is finding a scapegoat for the Confederate loss. There are plenty of available candidates, and Lee had his choice of victims, including Stuart, Ewell, or Longstreet.
However, Lee chose not to shift blame. Instead of creating a scapegoat, he accepted responsibility for the defeat and offered to take the consequences. He admitted his health may have prevented him from taking an active battlefield role and caused him to rely more heavily on others. Rather than blaming the “messenger,” Lee kept the leadership position, acknowledging that he should have further investigated.
Lee’s attitude in this letter stands in contrast to the conclusions of early “memory makers” and historians. After Lee’s death in 1870, other former Confederates went on a campaign to idolize his memory, enhancing the idea of noble warrior and seeming to suggest that Lee did no wrong. That his defeats were caused by subordinates. James Longstreet – commander of the First Corps at Gettysburg – got assigned particular blame through the new smear/marble campaign.
The reputation others created for Lee would not have been to his liking, according to his writing this letter and other documents. Throughout his life and Civil War campaigns, Lee readily admitted mistakes and avoided the blame game.
Modern historians and enthusiasts would do well to remember and examine Lee’s post-Gettysburg letters and consider how his perspective of the army and himself aligns with the stories created about him after his death.