Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

 Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

The papers of which the following are copies were found in GeneralRobert E. Lee's desk in the President's office at Washington and LeeUniversity. On the envelope in which they were inclosed was thefollowing indorsement in General Lee's handwriting:

"London, July 31, 1866.

"Herbert C. Sanders asks permission to publish his conversation withme. August 22d--Refused."

"3 Bolton Gardens, South Kensington, London, July 31, 1866.

"My Dear General Lee: Presuming on the acquaintance with you which Ihad the honour and pleasure of making last November at Lexington, whiletravelling in Virginia, I venture now to write to you under thesecircumstances. You may remember that, at the time I presented toyou my letter of introduction, I told you that two other Englishmen,friends of mine, who had come with me to America, were then making atour through Georgia, the Carolinas, and some other Southern States.One of them, Mr. Kennaway, was so much interested with all he saw, andthe people at home have appreciated his letters descriptive of it sowell, that he is intending to publish a short account of his visit.Not having, however, had an introduction to yourself, he is anxiousto avail himself of the somewhat full accounts I wrote home at thetime, descriptive of my most interesting interview with you, and, withthis view, he has asked me to put into the shape of a letter all thosemore prominent points which occur to me as gathered from my lettersand my recollection, and which are likely to interest and instructthe English public. I have, after some hesitation, acceded to therequest--a hesitation caused mainly by the fact that at the time Isaw you I neither prepared my notes with a view to publication nordid I inform you that there was any chance of what you told me beingrepeated. I may add that I never until a month or two ago had theslightest thought of publishing anything, and, in fact, have constantlyresisted the many applications by my friends that I should let myletters see the light. My object in now writing to you is to knowwhether you have any objection to my giving my friend the inclosedshort account of our interview, as it would, I am convinced, addgreatly to the interest of the narrative. If you have no objectionto this, perhaps you would kindly correct any statements put intoyour mouth which are not quite accurate, or expunge anything whichmight prejudice you with the public either of the North or the South,if unluckily anything of this nature should have crept in. My letters,were written a day or two after the conversation, but you had so muchof interest and new to tell me that I do not feel sure that I may nothave confused names of battles, etc., in some instances. It will benecessary for me to deliver my part of the performance early inSeptember to the publishers, and, therefore, I should feel much obligedby your sending me an answer at your earliest convenience. There willbe a mail due here about the first of that month, leaving the UnitedStates on Wednesday, the 22d, and I shall, therefore, wait till itsarrival before sending my letter to Mr. Kennaway; but should I nothear from you then I shall consider you have no objections to makeor alterations to suggest, and act accordingly. If you have any newfacts which you think it desirable should be known by the public, itwill give me much pleasure to be the medium of their communication.

"I am sure I need scarcely tell you with what keen interest I haveread all the accounts from your continent of the proceedings in Congressand elsewhere in connection with the reconstruction of the South. Ido sincerely trust it may be eventually effected in a way satisfactoryto the South, and I most deeply deplore the steps taken by the Radicalside of the House to set the two (North and South) by the ears again.President Johnson's policy seems to me to be that which, if pursued,would be most likely to contribute to the consolidation of thecountry; but I am both surprised and pained to find how little powerthe Executive has against so strong a faction as the Radicals, who,while they claim to represent the North, do, in fact, but misrepresentthe country. I am sure you will believe that I say with sinceritythat I always take great interest in anything I hears said or thatI read of yourself, and I am happy to say that, even with all therancour of the Northern Radicals against the South, it is little theyfind of ill to say of you.

"Hoping you will not think I am doing wrong in the course I proposeto take, and that your answer may be satisfactory, I remain, my dearGeneral Lee,

"Yours very sincerely, Herbert C. Saunders.

"General Robert E. Lee."

"Lexington, Virginia, August 22, 1866.

"Mr. Herbert C. Saunders,

"3 Bolton Gardens, South Kensington, London, England.

"My Dear Mr. Saunders: I received to-day your letter of the 31st ult.What I stated to you in conversation, during the visit which you didme the honour to pay me in November last, was entirely for your owninformation, and was in no way intended for publication. My onlyobject was to gratify the interest which you apparently evinced on theseveral topics which were introduced, and to point to facts which youmight investigate, if you so desired, in your own way. I have anobjection to the publication of my private conversations, which arenever intended but for those to whom they are addressed. I cannot,therefore, without an entire disregard of the rule which I have followedin other cases, and in violation of my own sense of propriety, assentto what you propose. I hope, therefore, you will excuse me. Whatyou may think proper to publish I hope will be the result of yourown observations and convictions, and not on my authority. In thehasty perusal which I have been obliged to give the manuscript inclosedto me, I perceive many inaccuracies, resulting as much, from myimperfect narrative as from misapprehension on your part. Thoughfully appreciating your kind wish to correct certain erroneousstatements as regards myself, I prefer remaining silent to doinganything that might excite angry discussion at this time, when strongefforts are being made by conservative men, North and South, to sustainPresident Johnson in his policy, which, I think, offers the only meansof healing the lamentable divisions of the country, and which theresult of the late convention at Philadelphia gives great promise ofdoing. Thanking you for the opportunity afforded me of expressingmy opinion before executing your purpose, I am, etc.,

"R. E. Lee."

The following is Mr. Saunders' account of the interview:

"On only one subject would he take at any length about his own conduct,and that was with reference to the treatment of the Federal prisonerswho had fallen into his hands. He seemed to feel deeply the backhandedstigma cast upon him by his having been included by name in the firstindictment framed against Wirz, though he was afterward omitted fromthe new charges. He explained to me the circumstances under whichhe had arranged with McClellan for the exchange of prisoners; how hehad, after the battles of Manassas, Fredericksburg, and (I think)Chancellorsville, sent all the wounded over to the enemy on theengagement of their generals to parole them. He also told me that onseveral occasions his commissary generals had come to him after abattle and represented that he had not rations enough both for prisonersand the army when the former had to be sent several days' march totheir place of confinement, and he had always given orders that thewants of the prisoners should be first attended to, as from theirposition they could not save themselves from starvation by foragingor otherwise, as the army could when in straits for provisions. TheGeneral also explained how every effort had always been made by theConfederates to do away with the necessity of retaining prisoners byoffering every facility for exchange, till at last, when all exchangewas refused, they found themselves with 30,000 prisoners for whomthey were quite unable to do as much as they wished in the way of food.He stated, furthermore, that many of their hardships arose from thenecessity of constantly changing the prisons to prevent recapture.With the management of the prisons he assured me he had no more todo than I had, and did not even know that Wirz was in charge ofAndersonville prison (at least, I think he asserted this) till afterthe war was over. I could quite sympathise with him in his feelingof pain under which his generous nature evidently suffered that theauthorities at Washington should have included him and others similarlycircumstanced in this charge of cruelty at the time that letters writtenby himself (General Lee), taken in Richmond when captured, complainingthat the troops in his army had actually been for days together onseveral occasions without an ounce of meat, were in possession ofthe military authorities.

"When discussing the state of feeling in England with regard to thewar, he assured me that it had all along given him the greatestpleasure to feel that the Southern cause had the sympathies of so manyin the 'old country,' to which he looked as a second home; but, inanswer to my questions, he replied that he had never expected us togive them material aid, and added that he thought all governments wereright in studying only the interests of their own people and in notgoing to war for an 'idea' when they had no distinct cause of quarrel.

"On the subject of slavery, he assured me that he had always been infavour of the emancipation of the negroes, and that in Virginia thefeeling had been strongly inclining in the same direction, till theill-judged enthusiasm (accounting to rancour) of the abolitionists inthe North had turned the southern tide of feeling in the otherdirection. In Virginia, about thirty years ago, an ordinance for theemancipation of the slaves had been rejected by only a small majority,and every one fully expected at the next convention it would have beencarried, but for the above cause. He went on to say that there wasscarcely a Virginian new who was not glad that the subject had beendefinitely settled, though nearly all regretted that they had not beenwise enough to do it themselves the first year of the war. Allusionwas made by him to a conversation he had with a distinguished contrymanof mine. He had been visiting a large slave plantation (Shirley) onthe James River. The Englishman had told him that the workingpopulation were better cared for there than in any country he had evervisited, but that he must never expect an approval of the institutionof slavery by England, or aid from her in any cause in which thatquestion was involved. Taking these facts and the well-known antipathyof the mass of the English to the institution in consideration, hesaid he had never expected help from England. The people 'at the South'(as the expression is), in the main, though scarcely unanimously,seem to hold much the same language as General Lee with reference toour neutrality, and to be much less bitter than Northerners generally--who, I must confess, in my own opinion, have much less cause to complainof our interpretation of the laws of neutrality than the South. I maymention here, by way of parenthesis, that I was, on two separateoccasions (one in Washington and once in Lexington), told that therewere many people in the country who wished that General Washingtonhad never lived and that they were still subjects of Queen Victoria;but I should certainly say as a rule the Americans are much too wellsatisfied with themselves for this feeling to be at all common. GeneralLee, in the course of this to me most interesting evening's seance,gave me many details of the war too long to put on paper, but, withreference to the small result of their numerous victories, accountedfor it in this way: the force which the Confederates brought to bearwas so often inferior in numbers to that of the Yankees that the morethey followed up the victory against one portion of the enemy's linethe more did they lay themselves open to being surrounded by theremainder of the enemy. He likened the operation to a man breastinga wave of the sea, who, as rapidly as he clears a way before him, isenveloped by the very water he has displaced. He spoke of the finalsurrender as inevitable owing to the superiority in numbers of theenemy. His own army had, during the last few weeks, suffered materiallyfrom defection in its ranks, and, discouraged by failures and worn outby hardships, had at the time of the surrender only 7,892 men underarms, and this little army was almost surrounded by one of 100,000.They might, the General said with an air piteous to behold, have cuttheir way out as they had done before, but, looking upon the struggleas hopeless, I was not surprised to hear him say that he thought itcruel to prolong it. In two other battles he named (Sharpsburg andChancellorsville, I think he said), the Confederates were to theFederals in point of numbers as 35,000 to 120,000 and 45,000 to155,000 respectively, so that the mere disparity of numbers was notsufficient to convince him of the necessity of surrender; but feelingthat his own army was persuaded of the ultimate hopelessness of thecontest as evidenced by their defection, he took the course ofsurrendering his army in lieu of reserving it for utter annihilation.

"Turning to the political bearing of the important question at issue,the great Southern general gave me, at some length, his feelings withregard to the abstract right of secession. This right, he told me,was held as a constitutional maxim at the South. As to its exerciseat the time on the part of the South, he was distinctly opposed, andit was not until Lincoln issued a proclamation for 75,000 men to invadethe South, which was deemed clearly unconstitutional, that Virginiawithdrew from the United States.

"We discussed a variety of other topics, and, at eleven o'clock whenI rose to go, he begged me to stay on, as he found the nights full long.His son, General Custis Lee, who had distinguished himself much duringthe war, but whom I had not the good fortune of meeting, is the onlyone of his family at present with him at Lexington, where he occupiesthe position of a professor in the Military Institute of Virginia.This college had 250 cadets in it when the war broke out, General'Stonewall' Jackson being one of the professors. At one moment in thewar, when the Federal were advancing steadily up the Shenandoah Valley,these youths (from 16 to 22 years of age) were marched to join theConfederate Army, and did good service. In one battle at Newmarket,of which I shall have occasion to speak later in my letters, theydistinguished themselves in a conspicuous way under the leadership ofColonel Shipp, who is still their commandant. By a brilliant charge,they contributed, in a great measure, to turn the tide of affairs,losing nine of their number killed and more than forty wounded. GeneralHunter, on a subsequent occasion, when occupying Lexington with a bodyof Federal troops, quartered his men in the Military Institute forseveral days, and, on leaving, had the building--a very handsome andextensive one--fired in numerous places, completely destroying all butthe external walls, which now stand. The professors' houses stood indetached positions, and these, too, with the house of Mr. Letcher, aformer governor of the State, he also burnt to the ground. TheWashington college, the presidency of which General Lee now holds, theyalso ransacked, destroying everything it contained, and were preparingit for the flames, to which they were with difficulty restrained fromdevoting it by earnest representations of its strictly educationalnature."