previous next

Correction of errors in statement of Governor Anderson, and letter of General Echols.

Letter from President Davis.

[We need not say that our pages are always open to the distinguished chieftain, and pure patriot, who guided the fortunes of the [560] Confederacy. But he is especially welcome when his facile pen narratives matters of which he, above all others, is best qualified to speak.]

Beauvoir, Miss., 22d November, 1883.
Rev. J. William Jones, D D., Secretary Southern Historical Society:
Dear Sir,—I regretted to see several important errors published in the October No. of the Southern Historical Society Papers, especially because I have regarded them as to be the depository of authentic facts in regard to the ‘Confederate States of America.’ Sympathizing with the evident purpose of the writers to do honor to the memory of our great Captain, Robert E. Lee, I submit that his fame requires no adventitious aid. His character grand, beautiful in its simplicity, complete in its consistency, needs no ornamentation, and least of all, fictitious elevation at the expense of others.

A note appended to page 447 contains the following sentence.

‘Remember, too, that the Confederate high places were all notoriously filled or engaged (Sidney Johnston for first command, &c.’) Remember, also, Lee's ‘Virginia soil conditions’ of acceptance. His is a wondrous record of consistent purity!—Governor Anderson.

This is a wondrous bundle of errors.

General Lee did not leave the United States Army to enter that of the Confederacy. He conscientiously believed that his allegiance was due primarily to Virginia, and through her, so long as she remained in the Union, that he owed allegiance to the United States; therefore, when Virginia withdrew from the Union and war was waged against her because of the exercise of that sovereign right, the alternative presented to Lee, was to fight against, or in defence of, his mother State. Any one who knew him could have foretold what his choice would be. Temptatious arguments offered to such a man to prove traitor to his country in the hour of her direst need, could only have been heard for complaisance sake.

When he came and offered his services to Virginia, he was at once appointed Commander in Chief of her army, for Virginia had not then united with the Confederate States. Subsequent to that event Virginia voluntarily became one of the Confederate States, as she had in 1788 become one of the United States. Then the Army of Virginia was transferred and became a part of the army of the Confederate [561] States. General Lee was nominated and confirmed to the highest grade then existing in the Confederate army, and to the highest rank of the officers who were transferred by Virginia, as was due to the position he held in that army. The relative rank of officers who left the Army of the United States and joined that of the Confederacy was fixed by the law of March 14th, 1861; beyond this the Executive had authority to select General officers, with the limitation that, after the army was organized, the selection must be made from the officers thereof. Brigadier-General Twiggs was the highest in rank of the officers who left the United States army to serve the Confederacy, and under our law must have had the highest rank if he had been willing to enter for the general service; he declined to do so, and was commissioned in the provisional army. So much for the fictitious engagement with ‘Sidney Johnston for first command.’

But, yet further, it may be stated that when Lee left the United States army and took service with Virginia, and when he was commissioned in the Confederate service, Brevet-Brigadier-General Sidney Johnston was commanding the United States forces in California, and we had no information of an intention on his part to join the Confederacy. It is cruelly unjust, as it is utterly untrue, that Johnston came to the Confederacy under an engagement about his position in our army, and it is within my personal knowledge that he did not know, until after he arrived at Richmond, that our law secured his relative rank if he left the United States army to join that of the Confederacy.

A fair knowledge and appreciation of the character of Lee, would have excluded the supposition that he would have counted among obstacles, the expectation that he would be ranked in the new service by the Colonel of their former regiment, an officer of eminent ability and distinguished service. I have stated elsewhere, and more fully than it is convenient to do now, how little regardful about their rank either of these great and good men were. They offered their swords and their lives to the defence of their country's cause, without counting the cost or claiming a reward. I do not know what is meant by ‘Lee's Virginia soil conditions.’ So far as I know, he made no conditions on entering the Confederate army, and the proof that he did not consider himself on local duty, is found in his service in South Carolina and Georgia.

To those officers who were reared in the army, and had followed [562] the flag of the United States in Indian and in foreign wars, to whom, on sea and land, it revived the memories of home, whose friends and associates from boyhood were chiefly in the army, it was a severe trial to sever their professional ties and turn their backs upon a flag dear to them as the memory of early love; but so many of the Southern officers of the army and navy made that sacrifice, that the exceptions are not sufficiently numerous to shield them from the contempt which belongs to desertion.

On pages 451-454 is a letter from General John Echols, of whom it will be unneccessary, to those who know him, to say that he is so incapable of misstatement that error must be unintentional; yet he has committed a grave mistake, which does injustice to General Lee and to myself, and is quite out of keeping with the law and the usage of the Confederate States. I extract as follows: ‘In the winter of 1863-1864, if my memory serves me, when General Lee's headquarters were near Orange Courthouse, Virginia, I was directed by President Davis to go to the General and to urge upon him to recommend his distinguished son, General Custis Lee, to an important command, for which President Davis thought him admirably fitted, but to which he could not assign him without the recommendation of his father, who was in chief command of the army. I went to him and spent several hours in his tent at night talking over the importance of the command to which it was desired that General Custis Lee should be assigned, and delivered to him messages which had been sent by President Davis upon the subject, * * * but I could make no impression upon the General, and the only answer which I could get from him, and which he reiterated at different times in the conversation, when I would urge the President's wishes, was, “General Custis Lee is my son, and whilst I think very well of his abilities, yet, in my opinion, he has not been sufficiently tried in the field, and because he is my son and because of his want of sufficient experience in the field, I cannot and I will not recommend him for the place. You may return and say to the President that I recognize the importance of the position to which he refers, and that I am willing to send to that command any other officer here with my army whom he may designate, however valuable that officer is, or may be, to me in my present position.” ’ Modesty and courtesy were characteristics of Lee, and self-assertion, even to the extent it was just, was no part of his usual conduct; but he is here presented in a guise never worn by him in his frequent correspondence and conversation during the four [563] years of the war. He was not ‘in chief command of the army’ at the time specified. Soon after he took command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he insisted upon being relieved of the general command to which I had previously assigned him, and his repeated request in that regard was granted. I very frequently consulted him about other matters than those of the army under his command, and did so on several occasions about affairs in West Virginia. On one occasion, I think it must have been about the time to which General Echols alludes, some gentlemen in Western Virginia requested me to appoint Custis Lee to the command of that department. He was then, and had for some time been, the senior officer of my staff, and my observation of him, both in the office and at various times in the field, had well satisfied me of his ability. The case was one in which his unwillingness to interfere with other officers had no just application. I sent for him and offered him the command, stating the circumstances of the case; he left me without any expression of his wishes on the subject, but soon after one of my aids told me that when he went to the room occupied by them he mentioned the offer I had made to him, and expressed his unwillingness to take the position in such decided terms that I could not consistently force it upon him. It must have been after this that General Echols saw General Lee, and thinking, no doubt, like myself, that Custis Lee was very well suited to the command, he may naturally have enforced his opinion by a reference to my own, but General Robert Lee knew too well what was due to me and to himself to have claimed any power to control me in the matter. He was as little likely to assume what did not belong to him as I was to surrender my constitutional function. I frequently consulted General Lee about officers to be employed elsewhere than under his command, and in connection with the subject of West Virginia I have received a copy of a letter written to me by General Lee from his headquarters at Orange Courthouse, 27th of January, 1864. He writes: ‘I have not been unmindful of your request expressed in your letter of the 16th inst., desiring my opinion in reference to the reorganization of the troops in West Virginia.’ After making favorable mention of a number of officers, he proceeds: ‘I do not know to what duty General Buckner is assigned, but of the officers that have been serving in that department I think General Ransom is the most prominent.’ At a later date, when General Ransom's health rendered it necessary to relieve him, I sent the following telegram to General Lee: [564]

Richmond, August 9, 1864.
General R. E. Lee, Dunn's Hill, Va.
Who shall relieve General Ransom in the Valley? Can General F. Lee, or would it be better to send a Senior Brigadier?

To which General Lee answered as follows:

Dunn's Hill, Va., August 9th, 1864.

His Excellency, Jeff'n Davis.
Dispatch of to-day received.1 * * * Some commander should relieve Ransom. I think it best to send Fitz. Lee's Senior Brigadier. Will do so if you approve.

To which I replied:

August 10th, 1864.
General R. E. Lee, near Petersburg, Va..
I accept your conclusion. General G. W. C. Lee not physically equal to the duty. Send the Senior Brigadier of Fitz. Lee's division.

I will close this long letter, as I began, with the expression of my deep interest in the Southern Historical Papers, and with an earnest protest against allowing the statuesque character of Lee to be impaired by ascribing to him what is inconsistent with its symmetry.

I am, very respectfully,

1 These stars of omission are in the copy I have, and there is nothing except my answer to indicate what was thus omitted.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: