Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

 Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

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As an officer in the cavalry on the staff, I had more frequentopportunities of seeing my father than as a private in the artillery.In the course of duty, I was sometimes sent to him to report thecondition of affairs at the front, or on the flank of the army, andI also, occasionally, paid him a visit. At these times, he wouldtake me into his tent, talk to me about my mother and sisters, aboutmy horse and myself, or the people and the country where my commandhappened to be stationed. I think my presence was very grateful tohim, and he seemed to brighten up when I came. I remember, he alwaystook it as a matter of course that I must be hungry (and I was forthree years), so he invariably made his mess-steward, Bryan, give mesomething to eat, if I did not have time to wait for the regular meal.His headquarters at this time, just before the battle of Fredericksburgand after, were at a point on the road between Fredericksburg andHamilton's Crossing, selected on account of its accessibility.Notwithstanding there was near-by a good house vacant, he lived in histents. His quarters were very unpretentious, consisting of three orfour "wall-tents" and several more common ones. They were pitched onthe edge of an old pine field, near a grove of forest trees from whichhe drew his supply of fire-wood, while the pines helped to shelterhis tents and horses from the cold winds. Though from the outsidethey were rather dismal, especially through the dreary winter time,within they were cheerful, and the surroundings as neat and comfortableas possible under the circumstances.

On November 24, 1862, in a letter to his daughter Mary, he writes:

"...General Burnside's whole army is apparently opposite Fredericksburgand stretches from the Rappahannock to the Potomac. What his intentionsare he has not yet disclosed. I am sorry he is in position to oppressour friends and citizens of the Northern Neck. He threatens to bombardFredericksburg, and the noble spirit displayed by its citizens,particularly the women and children, has elicited my highest admiration.They have been abandoning their homes, night and day, during all thisinclement weather, cheerfully and uncomplainingly, with only suchassistance as our wagons and ambulances could afford, women, girls,children, trudging through the mud and bivouacking in the open fields."

How the battle of Fredericksburg was fought and won all the world hasheard, and I shall not attempt to describe it. On December 11th, theday Burnside commenced his attack, General Lee wrote to my mother:

"...The enemy, after bombarding the town of Fredericksburg, settingfire to many houses and knocking down nearly all those along the river,crossed over a large force about dark, and now occupies the town. Wehold the hills commanding it, and hope we shall be able to damage himyet. His position and heavy guns command the town entirely."

On December 16th, in another letter to my mother, he tells of therecrossing of the Federals:

"I had supposed they were just preparing for battle, and was savingour men for the conflict. Their hosts crown the hill and plain beyondthe river, and their numbers to me are unknown. Still I felt theconfidence we could stand the shock, and was anxious for the blow thatis to fall on some point, and was prepared to meet it here. Yesterdayevening I had my suspicions that they might return during the night,but could not believe they would relinquish their hopes after all theirboasting and preparation, and when I say that the latter is equal tothe former you will have some idea of the magnitude. This morning theywere all safe on the north side of the Rappahannock. They went as theycame--in the night. They suffered heavily as far as the battle went,but it did not go far enough to satisfy me. Our loss was comparativelyslight, and I think will not exceed two thousand. The contest willhave now to be renewed, but on what field I cannot say."

I did not see my father at any time during the fighting. some daysafter it was all over, I saw him, as calm and composed as if nothingunusual had happened, and he never referred to his great victory, exceptto deplore the loss of his brave officers and soldiers or the sufferingsof the sick and wounded. He repeatedly referred to the hardships sobravely endured by the inhabitants of Fredericksburg, who had beenobliged to flee from the town, the women and children, the old and thefeeble, whose sufferings cut him to the heart. On Christmas Day hewrites to his youngest daughter, Mildred, who was at school in NorthCarolina:

"...I cannot tell you how I long to see you when a little quiet occurs.My thoughts revert to you, your sisters, and your mother; my heartaches for our reunion. Your brothers I see occasionally. This morningFitzhugh rode by with his young aide-de-camp (Rob) at the head ofhis brigade, on his way up the Rappahannock. You must study hard,gain knowledge, and learn your duty to God and your neighbour: thatis the great object of life. I have no news, confined constantly tocamp, and my thoughts occupied with its necessities and duties. I am,however, happy in the knowledge that General Burnside and army willnot eat their promised Christmas dinner in Richmond to-day."

On the next day he writes as follows to his daughter Agnes, who waswith her mother in Richmond:

"Camp Fredericksburg, December 26, 1862.

"My Precious Little Agnes: I have not heard of you for a long time.I wish you were with me, for always solitary, I am sometimes weary,and long for the reunion of my family once again. But I will notspeak of myself, but of you.... I have seen the ladies in this vicinityonly when flying from the enemy, and it caused me acute grief towitness their exposure and suffering. But a more noble spirit wasnever displayed anywhere. The faces of old and young were wreathedwith smiles, and glowed with happiness at their sacrifices for the goodof their country. Many have lost EVERYTHING. What the fire and shellsof the enemy spared, their pillagers destroyed. But God will shelterthem, I know. So much heroism will not be unregarded. I can onlyhold oral communication with your sister [His daughter Mary, in KingGeorge county, within the lines of the enemy], and have forbidden thescouts to bring any writing, and have taken some back that I hadgiven them for her. If caught, it would compromise them. They onlyconvey messages. I learn in that way she is well.

"Your devoted father,

"R. E. Lee."

I give another letter he wrote on Christmas Day, besides the onequoted above, to his daughter, Mildred. It was written to his wife,and is interesting as giving an insight into his private feelingsand views regarding this great victory:

"...I will commence this holy day by writing to you. My heart is filledwith gratitude to Almighty God for His unspeakable mercies with whichHe has blessed us in this day, for those He has granted us from thebeginning of life, and particularly for those He has vouchsafed usduring the past year. What should have become of us without Hiscrowning help and protection? Oh, if our people would only recogniseit and cease from vain self-boasting and adulation, how strong wouldbe my belief in final success and happiness to our country! But whata cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends,and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world;to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbours, andto devastate the fair face of this beautiful world! I pray that, onthis day when only peace and good-will are preached to mankind, betterthoughts may fill the hearts of our enemies and turn them to peace.Our army was never in such good health and condition since I have beenattached to it. I believe they share with me my disappointment thatthe enemy did not renew the combat on the 13th. I was holding backall day and husbanding our strength and ammunition for the greatstruggle, for which I thought I was preparing. Had I divined that wasto have been his only effort, he would have had more of it. My heartbleeds at the death of every one of our gallant men."