UVa Library Press Releases 1998 - 1999
Lee letter donated to U.Va.
LIBRARY CONTAINS EXTENSIVE COMMENTS ABOUT THE CIVIL WAR AND CONFEDERACY
Contact: Michael Plunkett, director of Special Collections at (804) 924-3998 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
October 26, 1998 - Gen. Robert E. Lee, normally a reserved man, shows a different side of himself in a detailed and apparently unpublished Civil War letter recently donated to the University of Virginia Library.
Writing at length to his older brother, Charles Carter Lee, on March 24, 1863, the Confederate army commander touches on a variety of topics ranging from events of the war to family news, and cites a psalm about duty as the foundation for supporting the Confederacy's cause.
Gary W. Gallagher, professor of Civil War history at U.Va., said the letter is significant as "an example of Lee's frame of mind vis-a-vis the prospects for Confederate victory in the spring of 1863." The letter was donated to the U.Va. library by a Denver alumnus of the University and his wife.
Lee had just returned to his camp near Fredericksburg, after a week spent in Richmond conferring with Confederate President Jefferson Davis and other officials of the government. In the letter he speculates to Charles Lee about the possible movements of the Union Army of the Potomac under Gen. Joseph Hooker (whom Lee was to defeat two months later at the battle of Chancellorsville), and comments on the battle of Kelly's Ford that been fought just a week earlier.
"I do not know how I can replace the gallant Pelham," Lee writes, referring to the death at Kelly's Ford of John Pelham, the dashing commander of horse artillery in "Jeb" Stuart's cavalry unit. Lee added, "So young So true So brave. Though stricken down in the dawn of manhood, his is the glory of duty done!"
Lee also writes his brother that Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of both men, had handled his brigade very well in the fighting at Kelly's Ford, forcing the Union cavalry "to retire at night," and that his brigade had "behaved admirably, [&] though greatly outnumbered Stuck to the enemy with a tenacity that Could not be shaken off." Fitzhugh Lee would later serve as governor of Virginia.
Lee cites Psalm 60 as an argument for doing duty to the cause of the Confederacy. "Through God we shall do great acts [the Bible uses the word 'valiantly.']; & it is He that shall tread down our enemies." Gallagher said that this comment in the letter "underscores Lee's consistent call for the Confederate people to subordinate all other things to the pursuit of the war."
After sending his love to family members, Lee concludes by asking Charles to "take them all out in the fields & raise us quantities of Corn. We are in great need, both man and beast. Set all the farmers to work. If they do not do better I shall have to Call for aid upon our glorious women." The letter is signed, "Your Affect[tiona]te brother RE Lee."
The letter has apparently not been published or widely known to scholars, according to University Archivist Edmund Berkeley Jr.
The letter was donated to the University of Virginia Library by Dr. and Mrs. William Nelson of Denver. It had been given originally to Dr. Nelson's grandfather, Hugh Nelson Sr., who was a soldier in the brigade of Gen. Fitzhugh Lee and who received the letter as a gift after the war. Hugh Nelson Sr., who was active in Confederate veterans affairs in Charlottesville after the war, carried the news of Lee's surrender to President Jefferson Davis.