By Colin Woodward
Robert E. Lee left behind thousands of letters, military orders, and other documents. Their value to history and the study of the Civil War are unquestionable. But was Lee any good as a writer?
Yes and no. Lee had many virtues. His grammar and spelling were good. He was clear, concise, and direct. He provided detail and could be funny and even ribald. And perhaps most important for a man of his stature, he had good penmanship, which will go far in endearing you to later historians.
Yet, Lee was no Mark Twain or Sam Watkins, and he was not known for good “tag lines.” Sherman had his famous phrase war is “all hell” (which he said in 1879). Lincoln appealed to the “better angels of our nature.” Grant proposed to “fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”
Perhaps Lee’s best known “wartime” phrase is “it is well war is so terrible, we should grow too fond of it.” Lee supposedly uttered these words to James Longstreet amid the slaughter at the battle of Fredericksburg. Lee’s famous musings were included in a book written after the war.
Whether or not this is exactly what Lee said, the notion that “war is so terrible” reflected his feelings at the time. A letter Lee wrote on Christmas Day 1862 shows him at his most interesting as a writer. “What a cruel thing is war,” Lee told his wife, Mary. “To separate & separate & destroy families & friends & mar the purest joys & happiness God has granted us in this world. To fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our nieghbours [sic] & to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world. I pray that on this day when ‘peace & good will’ are preached to all mankind, that better thoughts will fill the hearts of our enemies & turn them to peace.”
At the same time, Lee was shocked by the Union shelling of Fredericksburg, and he wanted payback. “Had I devined that was to have been his only effort,” he wrote of the Union army, “he would have had more of it.” At Christmas, Lee might have had a wish to see peace restored. But he was not prepared to shed many tears for the northern regiments that fell on 1862 December 13. In any case, the Christmas letter is an interesting one, placing Lee’s horror at bloodshed alongside an even more intense desire to crush his enemy.
In examining the original letters he left behind, one is struck by Robert E. Lee’s good handwriting. Should you crave immortality, a good first step is to write letters people can actually read. For a person to understand the past, he must read it, and it is fairly easy to read R. E. Lee’s handwriting. As far as the Lee family goes, the general’s penmanship was better than most. His letters are much easier to read than those of his father Light Horse Harry Lee, which may explain why one can find few transcribed versions of Light Horse Harry’s letters.
In the age before standardized spelling and usage, however, Lee’s writing had eccentricities. He would put apostrophes below rather an above the word (for example, father,s rather than father’s). The general liked to capitalize the letters “c” and “s” even when not beginning a sentence with these letters or when applying them to a proper noun. He often did the same with “k” and “a.” At times, one cannot tell whether or not he intended to capitalize certain letters. Lee was not exceptional in this regard. William T. Sherman, for example, capitalized irregularly. And while Lee was a religious man who made numerous references to works of providence in his letters, he did not always capitalize “god.”
What have other scholars thought of the general’s writings? Edmund Wilson’s book Patriotic Gore is a classic of Civil War scholarship. In it (all 816 pages of it) Wilson examines Civil War authors from William T. Sherman and George Washington Cable to Mary Chesnut and Dick Taylor. Wilson also explores the writings of Robert E. Lee.
Wilson doesn’t think much of Lee’s literary abilities. “As a letter-writer,” Wilson concludes, “Lee is monotonous. Though occasionally playful with his children, when he is talking of their love affairs or the family pets, his tone is extremely sober, and these letters have in common with his military dispatches that they are occupied mainly with practical arrangements, about which he issues the most precise instructions.” Is Wilson’s characterization of Lee’s letters as being “monotonous” accurate?
Again, yes and no. Perhaps the most tedious letters of Lee’s I have read were those he penned while in the hot, desolate wastes of Texas, shortly before the war. In Lee’s defense, he was bored, and his tedium made for mediocre letters.
Once the war broke out, Lee’s letters got more interesting. Even so, if one were to create a word cloud of Robert E. Lee’s wartime letters, it is likely the word “socks” would have a prominent place, especially later in the war. Lee’s letters often gave much space to mundane matters such a clothing and dress. The Army of Northern Virginia was often short of supplies, and Lee wanted to make sure his own troops were cared for as well as himself. He always appreciated gifts from home, whether food or socks. But, Lee’s concern with such matters does not always make for riveting reading. In a March 1864 letter, for example, Lee mentions socks six times.
Elizabeth Brown Pryor’ 2007 book Reading the Man is more generous than Wilson’s Patriotic Gore. In a book in which Lee’s personal letters are central to her argument, Pryor describes the general’s missives as “witty, bourgeois, self-justifying, scientific, lusty, disappointed.”
Reading the Man is not a full-scale biography or military history, but rather provides snapshots of R. E. Lee’s life and career through his letters. In Pryor’s introduction, she expresses shock at the fact that Lee’s letters have not been collected (with the exception of his Wartime Letters, published more than fifty years ago). Lee’s letters, Pryor says, “wonderfully illuminate his personality,” are “candid,” and reveal Lee as a “flirt,” a man “handicapped by passivity and indecision,” a person who was a “racial supremacist” and “humorless sermonizer,” a “merry companion” who was also a “natural leader,” “sentimental lover of children and animals,” an “indifferent engineer,” and an “aggressive warrior.”
Lee, the Flirt
Wilson is correct that Lee could be playful. An as Pryor and others have noted, the general was a well known flirt, who liked to tease younger women and capable of off-color humor. Lee could also prove dry and self-deprecating. In one 1862 letter, this is how he described himself to Charlotte Wickham Lee, the wife of his son Fitzhugh:
My coat is of gray, of the regulation style and pattern, and my pants of dark blue, as is also prescribed, partly hid by my long boots. I have the same handsome hat which surmounts my gray head (the latter is not prescribed in the regulations) and shields my ugly face, which is masked by a white beard as stiff and wiry as the teeth of a card. In fact, an uglier person you have never seen, and so unattractive is it to our enemies that they shoot at it whenever visible to them, but though age with its snow has whitened my head, and its frosts have stiffened my limbs, my heart, you well know, is not as frozen to you, and summer returns when I see you.
The general sounds as if he is writing to a lover rather than his daughter-in-law.
As a writer, Lee had limitations. He was not introspective and never kept a diary regularly. He never wrote a memoir, though the reasons for that are complicated. After the war, Lee was too busy running Washington College to write his reminiscences. He also shunned commenting on the war because of the political implications involved. Had Lee written a memoir, it would have been widely read and enjoyed and have proven of great value to students of the war. But it is unlikely it would have told us much we don’t already know. And it would probably not have been as praised today as Grant’s memoirs or Company Aytch.
Even so, Lee was a clearer and more cogent writer than his brother Charles Carter Lee (the self-appointed family writer and poet). General Lee had far more to say than his brother Sidney Smith Lee, who left behind little in the war of letters, or much else (in the letters that do survive, Smith’s handwriting is a murky scrawl). Lee’s wife Mary often wrote interesting letters, but her handwriting is not easy to decipher. Nor is that of Lee’s daughter Annie, who died during the war. Robert E. Lee, Jr.’s letters make for fairly easy reading. So do Agnes’s. William Henry Fitzhugh Lee? Not so much so.
On the whole, people read Robert E. Lee’s letters because he was the commander of the South’s greatest army during our nation’s bloodiest war, not because he was an exceptional writer. For that, we might want to consult Melville’s war poems. Even so, General Lee’s letters are easy to read and contain humor, pathos, and wisdom. He will forever remain one of the war’s most read figures.
Colin Woodward is the editor of the Lee Family Digital Archive at Stratford Hall.