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Just as its subject, General Robert E. Lee, was no ordinary man, The Recollections and Letters is no ordinary book. In the South, Robert E. Lee’s legend is unrivaled. Generations have revered him to the point of outright deification. In defeat, the formal Confederate general became the South, or at least the personification of an image that the South desperately wanted to project onto itself. Lee’s name became synonymous with chivalry, humility, dignity, and all that was right within the human spirit. Southern counties and towns were named in his honor, as were schools, bridges, buildings, parks, and even many children. His birthday became a holiday in the states of the old Confederacy. Lee’s larger-than-life persona eventually grew to such an extent that he became not just a Southern icon, but an American icon as well—an American hero. This was a remarkable evolution for a man who in 1861 took up arms against the nation of his birth and subsequently led an army to a devastating end. Lee’s transformation from defeated general to American hero was due in part to Robert E. Lee, Jr.’s, dedication to his father’s memory. In 1904, the younger Lee produced The Recollections and Letters, a book made up primarily of the general’s personal correspondence, much of which was written to his wife and children. The book provided touching insights into the general’s family life, allowing already admiring readers to connect with him on a more human level. In historical perspective, the work offers personal insights into Lee that should not be ignored by anyone interested in the man, the South, the Civil War, or American history. Without Recollections and Letters, any study of Robert E. Lee is incomplete.
Lee’s life and military career have been well chronicled. The son of Revolutionary hero Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, the future Confederate general was born in Stratford, Virginia, in 1807. He was educated at the United States Military Academy in West Point where in 1829 he graduated second in his class. As an army officer, Lee distinguished himself during the Mexican War and was wounded during the storming of Chapultepec in 1847. He later served as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy and commanded the combined force of soldiers and marines that captured John Brown at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln offered Lee field command of all Federal forces but the Virginian declined, choosing instead to leave the Union with his home state. Though he realized the inherent dangers of secession, he said that he could never take part in an invasion of the South. Lee served as a military advisor to Confederate president Jefferson Davis and led the Army of Northern Virginia. He orchestrated a number of stunning victories during the conflict, but his 1863 defeat at Gettysburg marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. In February 1865, Lee was finally given command of all Confederate forces, but the move came far too late. Overwhelmed, he surrendered two months later to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse and the Civil War ended. After the war and in poor health, Lee accepted a position as president of Washington College (later Washington and Lee University), and under his leadership the institution prospered. In 1870, the former general succumbed to heart disease that had plagued him since the war years, and he was entombed in Lexington, Virginia. The entire South mourned his passing.
Lee united two of the great American families of the Revolutionary era in 1831 when he married Mary Custis, the daughter of Washington Parke Custis and granddaughter of Martha Washington. The union produced seven children, three sons and four daughters. Robert E. Lee, Jr., known as “Rob” to his family, was the general’s youngest son. He was born in 1843, and later wrote “[t]he first vivid recollection I have of my father is his arrival at Arlington, after his return from the Mexican War.” Though he seemed to give little thought to a military career before the Civil War, Rob left the University of Virginia in 1862 and joined the “Rockbridge Artillery” as a private. He was later appointed to the rank of captain and served as an aid to his brother Custis. Rob survived the war and afterward returned to Virginia and entered private business. Like his siblings, he revered his father, and was determined to preserve his father’s memory for future generations. With this in mind, the publication of his father’s correspondence was as much a celebration of the general’s life and legend as it was an attempt to preserve the historical record.
While the publication of Recollections and Letters was a tribute by a son to his father, it was also part of a larger phenomenon that was beginning to peak by the turn of the twentieth century. Although Lee died just a few years after the Civil War ended, many other Confederate veterans did not, and as they recovered from their ordeal the seeds of Southern mythology regarding their collective military service began to take root. Defeated militarily, the South in the decades following 1865 struggled to vindicate the ideals and decisions that had led it into a conflict that cost so many men their lives. From the ashes of war and the turbulence of the Reconstruction period, a cultural identity took shape grounded in ideas and attitudes referred to collectively as the Lost Cause. Celebrations of the Lost Cause took many forms: annual civil and religious services honoring the Confederate dead, veterans’ reunions, the deification of Confederate military leaders, the erection of Confederate monuments, and the emergence of groups such as the United Confederate Veterans, United Sons of Confederate Veterans, and United Daughters of the Confederacy. Politicians on the stump used the language of the Lost Cause—language denoting moral superiority based on abstract notions of honor and chivalry—to garner votes, and ministers espoused Lost Cause virtues from the pulpit. Textbooks “educated” generations of white Southern school children on the nature of the war as a noble struggle of principle, lost only in the face of superior Northern resources. For a century after the war, the Lost Cause salved the psychological wounds of defeat and gave cultural authority to Confederate symbols, most prominently the “stars and bars” rebel flag. As they entered the twentieth century, the states of the old Confederacy did their best to maintain this cultural identity by accenting the New South with many of the cosmetic trappings of an idealized Old South. The Confederate memoir also became fashionable during the period. Some major figures produced books, but across the South common soldiers were also encouraged to put pen to paper and record their recollections. More than a generation removed from the bloody consequences of actual fighting, many of these first-hand accounts were more romantic in nature, emphasizing Confederate valor and minimizing those aspects of war that might be less attractive. By the time the generation of Southern males that had fought the war began passing from the scene, their exploits as Confederate soldiers had already entered the realm of legend. In the South every veteran, regardless of rank, became a larger-than-life hero and every battle—large or small, won or lost—drew comparisons with the great battles of history.
In this atmosphere there was no greater hero than Robert E. Lee, and the publication of his letters helped propagate his legend. Recollections and Letters concentrated more on Lee’s character than on his military career. Only about one-third of the book featured correspondence from the general’s years in the service of the Confederacy, and this was undoubtedly by design. Lee’s military career alone was a story of defeat, but by concentrating on his character, the story changed to one of perseverance and triumph over adversity. Not only did this help make Lee more popular than ever, it mirrored what many white Southerners wanted to believe about their region. In short, Lee’s story became the South’s story in the minds of many Southerners. Just as Lee’s character prevailed after a terrible defeat, the South would persevere in kind.
The letters and other correspondence in the book were arranged chronologically, and commentary by Rob Lee placed the material in context. The younger Lee’s affection for his father was evident through his words, and through the themes of the letters chosen for inclusion in the book. Indeed, he titled one of the book’s chapters “An Ideal Father.” Many of the elder Lee’s letters were written to his wife and children, highlighting a devotion to family at an emotional level not previously associated with the stately general. Lee wrote letters of encouragement to his family, expressed concern over his sons who were serving in the Confederate army, and lamented the death of his daughter during the war years. However, devotion to family was only one of the themes of the work. While Lee’s image as a commanding general is a familiar one, much of Recollections and Letters dealt with Lee as a private citizen. Devotion to duty was a constant theme in the letters, particularly after Lee assumed the presidency of Washington College. Lee turned down more lucrative offers and shunned politics to dedicate all of his energies to the school. He refused to profit from his status and seemed acutely aware that many ex-Confederates across the defeated South looked to him as an example of how they should behave. Lee’s letters also emphasized the personal attention that he paid to the students under his care, particularly in the chapter of the book that Rob Lee titled “An Advisor to Young Men.”
The myth of Robert E. Lee as we recognize it today was certainly enhanced with the original publication of Recollections and Letters. The book was well received by the American public and by the national press. The New York Times told its readers that Lee’s true character was unknown before the book’s publication, and that in the work Lee’s modesty, courage, humility, and “grandeur of soul” were recorded “so beautifully that scorners were subdued to contrition.” Other widely read publications expressed similar sentiments, as if a holy grail had been discovered, a blueprint for both the Southern and the American conscience. Soon other writers began emphasizing Lee’s character as well as his military acumen, heaping praise upon the general until actual memory intertwined with myth. The result was an ideal that no human being could ever live up to. Lee’s faults were erased from public memory and he was transformed into a man of perfect character, placed upon a pedestal as the epitome of grace and dignity.
Lee moved from Southern icon to national icon in part due to his conduct after the war. From his post at Washington College he advocated reconciliation between the North and the South, serving as a role model for all former Confederates struggling to find their place in a reconstructed United States. He urged the South to accept defeat, counseled moderation and, in so doing, helped facilitate sectional reunion. For this Lee was revered in a way that many other Confederate generals, and certainly most Confederate politicians, were not. Unlike men such as James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart or Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, who achieved cultural sainthood in the South after death on the battlefield, Lee became a true national figure. His postwar prestige, both national and international, was unlike that of any other figure from the Civil War. “The people of Virginia and of the entire South,” Rob Lee remembered, “were continually giving evidence of their intense love for General Lee. From all nations, even from the Northern states, came to him marks of admiration and respect.” While the younger Lee composed these words a century ago, the sentiment that they reflected remains today in the hearts and minds of many Americans. Lee is, oddly enough, a quintessential American hero to many despite the fact that he took up arms against the United States, an act that we now consider one of the definitions of treason. But Robert E. Lee remains a rebel rather than a traitor, a man to be admired in defeat rather than pitied. A century later, Rob Lee’s affection for his father is still apparent in the pages of Recollections and Letters. More important, the book brings the general back to life today just as it did the day it was first published. Robert E. Lee’s words still resonate, and he continues to demand attention as a larger-than-life figure in American history.
Ben Wynne is a member of the history faculty at Florida State University. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Mississippi, and he writes frequently on the Civil War era as well as on the history of his native Mississippi.