The “Lesser” Civil War


By Colin Woodward

Civil War Central and Not-So Central

Central Virginia is, appropriately enough, Civil War central. Yes, the war spanned all the southern states and even some northern ones (hello Vermont, this is a stick up!). Anyone interested in Robert E. Lee and the Civil War will have hit the major sites: Antietam, Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Petersburg, but that just scratches the surface.

When living in Richmond back in the years 2005-2010, I didn’t have a car, and so I didn’t visit many battlefields. I did manage to see the Stonewall Jackson Shrine at Guinea Station and to walk the grounds of Spotsylvania. I also visited Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor (briefly). But trips to battlefields were rare for me.

Now, in my second year of residing again in Virginia, I have had the chance to walk more in the footsteps of Robert E. Lee and the Lee family. Of my list of Robert E. Lee sites, I can check off Stratford, where he was born and where I work, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Manassas, and Antietam, just to name a few. In my last post, I talked about visiting Petersburg again, which included a stop at Lee’s headquarters at Violet Bank.

But today I’m going to talk about the “lesser” Civil War sites around Richmond. These are places that don’t get the vast numbers of visitors that the big battlefields do, but are nonetheless part of the epic story of the Civil War/War between the States/Second American Revolution/War of Northern Aggression/War of the Rebellion/Late Unpleasantness/War of Southern Independence.

Milford Station

Last week, I drove to the North Anna and Milford Station battlefield. Milford Station is obscure by Civil War standards. To get to the battlefield, you have to turn off of Route 3 in Caroline County. Milford is what you could call a “wide place in the road.” It had a store and houses, but things were quiet when I visited on Friday morning. The loudest thing I heard was a train pass nearby.

Milford Station battlefield in Caroline County

The site is a historical bridge between the slaughter-filled battle of Spotsylvania and the far less bloody movements at the North Anna. On 1864 May 21, Union commander Winfield Scott Hancock drove Confederates across the Mattaponi River (not to be confused with the Po, Ni, Poni, Mat, Ta, or Matta rivers). Hancock’s efforts forced Lee to change his base of operations further south at Hanover Junction. The Union victory at Milford Station broke the stalemate that had developed at Spotsylvania Courthouse. The North Anna became the scene of the next round of fighting.


The North Anna

The North Anna was part of the Overland Campaign, which was the bloodiest of the Civil War. After failing to destroy each other at Spotsylvania, the armies of Grant and Lee moved further south. They met again at the North Anna in the third week of May 1864.

I drive over the North Anna every time I go up I-95 to get to work. On the day I visited the battlefield, however, I took the more leisurely Route 1. In Doswell, I took a left off of Rte. 1 at the Civil War Trails sign. Another two miles or so brought me to the North Anna battlefield park.

The park is not part of the National Park System. And by NPS standards, it is rustic. A gravel road leads to the battle site. You then have to walk a good distance along a dirt trail before you see any interpretive panels. The area is heavily wooded: quite a contrast to how it looked in 1864. Farmers don’t like trees, and many parts of 19th century Virginia, as was true of the country at large, was less wooded than it is now. This photo, nevertheless, gives a good sense of how Civil War armies could turn a battlefield into a desert. Men needed wood for fires and entrenchments. From Virginia to Georgia, in 1864, soldiers could strip an area bare in order to keep fighting.

Contemporary photo of the North Anna battlefield

The losses at the North Anna were slight compared to what had gone before: 30,000 casualties at the Wilderness and an additional 30,000 men killed, wounded, and captured at Spotsylvania. But by today’s standards, the clash at the North Anna was a bloodbath. Grant suffered roughly 4,000 casualties before he moved to Cold Harbor. Lee suffered about 1,500 killed, wounded, and missing.

An Ailing Robert E. Lee

At the time of the battle, Robert E. Lee was not feeling well. He was suffering from diarrhea and not getting much sleep. He felt so lousy that he spent much of his time in a wagon rather than on horseback.

The fighting at the North Anna is interesting not only for what happened, but what did not. At the battle, Lee had constructed one of his strongest defenses of the war. As Emory Thomas has written, “Lee’s defensive position on the North Anna was ingenious.” Thomas suggests that Lee might have dealt Grant a major blow had he been feeling better and had Grant fallen into the Confederate trap. Unfortunately for Lee, Grant did not.

And yet, the North Anna was important, not just because it was part of the Overland Campaign, but because it contributed to Grant’s decision to make an all-out assault at Cold Harbor about a week later. By the time the Union army had arrived at Cold Harbor, Grant was tired of running up against Lee’s entrenchments and thought a massive frontal assault would break the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant was wrong. He was rash at Cold Harbor, and Lee made him pay dearly for it on 1864 June 3.

As Douglas Southall Freeman has noted, Lee’s stand at the North Anna forced Grant away from a direct attack on Richmond from the north. It also kept Lee connected to his supply lines in the Shenandoah Valley. “No achievement,” Freeman wrote in his biography of Lee, “meant more in prolonging the struggle.”

Emmanuel Church

Closer to Richmond, I stopped at two sites close together along Route 1, not far from where Hilliard meets Brook Road. There, the nineteenth century meets the twentieth: remnants of the Civil War are overshadowed by a strip mall with a recently abandoned Martin’s store as its anchor.

Cemetery at Emmanuel Church

Nearby is Emmanuel Episcopal Church, which was built in 1860. It has a beautiful old cemetery, where, sure enough, I came upon some Confederate history. One marker memorialized Confederate soldiers. Another was a large tombstone for Captain John William Drewry, an officer in the Southside Artillery.


Six Degrees of Lee

As is often the case, there’s less than six degrees of separation when one wants to make a connection between a minor Civil War figure such as Drewry and the Lees. John Drewry’s artillery unit fought in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Another connection: John William Drewry was the brother of Augustus Drewry (1817-1899), who owned the land on which the battle of Drewry’s Bluff was fought in May 1862. At the battle was Sidney Smith Lee, who commanded naval forces. Augustus and John were the sons of Martin Drewry, whose other son, Clay, was also an officer in the Confederate army. Clay served with Ransom in the Army of Northern Virginia.

Earthworks along Route 1, where Richmond meets Henrico County

Near Emmanuel Church, I found earthworks that were used during the war to defend the Confederate capital. The works were one of the countless military projects during the war that used slave labor. The Confederate army used tens of thousands of African Americans to protect its troops and strategic locations, though none of those black men (until March 1865) were considered soldiers. The area I visited was where Jeb Stuart launched his famous ride around McClellan’s army in 1862. The fortifications remaining are the only such works I have seen in the Richmond area.

The site was also in the vicinity of where Gabriel Prosser planned his slave uprising in 1800. But that’s a story for another time.




Podcast: Dr. Allen Guelzo of Gettsyburg College



Allen Guelzo is a three time winner of the prestigious Lincoln Prize and a professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College. But as he tells Colin, he began as a scholar of colonial religion and philosophy. In their talk, they discuss religion, Abraham Lincoln, and Robert E. Lee (about whom Dr. Guelzo is writing a much anticipated biography). Colin also asks about Dr. Guelzo’s appearance on The Daily Show during the 2008 presidential campaign.



Petersburg Again

The Crater in 1865. The site is much easier to navigate in 2017.


July 30 marked the 153rd anniversary of the battle of the Crater, one of the bloodiest battles of the nine month long Petersburg campaign, which became the lengthiest siege in American history. The Crater battle, fought on 1864 July 30 was historic for many reasons, but only recently have historians examined it at much length. Of the Confederate victory there, Robert E. Lee said of the enemy, “I trust he will succeed no better in his next than his last attempt.” The battle was arguably the last real victory for the Army of Northern Virginia.

Stratford follows me everywhere. Intersection of Stratford Avenue and Crater Road near the battlefield

On my trip to Petersburg last week, I revisited the Crater battlefield, which I had seen about ten years ago.  I had the chance to reevaluate the place. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been there, and I wanted to check out some sites I had not known about the last time I visited the “Cockade City.” As is true of so many places, with PVA (to quote 19th century French critic Jean-Baptiste Alphone Karr), the more it changes, the more it stays the same.


The Siege Museum in downtown Petersburg

Petersburg is a city with major problems. It has had long standing issues with crime, financial solvency, political dysfunction, and public education. A discussion of these things goes beyond the scope of a fluff blog piece. When it comes to history tourism, though, anyone interested in the Civil War should visit the city.

Last week, I wanted to hit two museums I had not been in before: the Siege Museum, which is downtown, and Violet Bank, used by Robert E. Lee as his headquarters for a few months of the siege. My trip again highlighted for me the pleasures and frustrations involved in visiting Petersburg.

Unfortunately, my good camera’s battery went dead upon my arrival, so I was forced to take pictures with my Verizon flip phone.

Old Towne

To say Petersburg is historic is an understatement. Old Towne has a rich history that includes major events in the Revolution and the Civil War. The house on Bank Street, where Edgar Allan Poe stayed, still stands. Steven Spielberg chose Petersburg to film parts of his 2012 film Lincoln.

As is true of anywhere, I suppose, Old Towne follows national economic trends. When I taught college in Petersburg back in 2005-06, the economy was doing great and Petersburg’s downtown seemed to be coming back. But when I visited a few years after the economic depression of 2008-09, Old Towne had taken a noticeable turn for the worse. One coffee shop I had loved had closed.

Yet, based on what I saw on Tuesday, Old Towne seems on the rebound, and I hope it continues to improve. I had a “Dirty Banana” (a banana shake with a shot of espresso) at Demolition Coffee on Bank Street, a nice cafe that I want to revisit for breakfast with the family.

Magnolia tree on the grounds of Violet Bank

It’s easy to get around Old Towne on foot, and when I was last there, it was a good day for walking. The weather was warm, dry, and sunny. I had a good lunch at Longstreet’s, but unfortunately the Siege Museum (apparently still being renovated) was not open for visitors.

A short drive over the Appomattox River bridge brought me to Violet Bank, where Lee lived for several months in 1864. Lee often liked to live in a tent when he should have been indoors, but in Petersburg, he apparently came to his senses. His last headquarters was located at Edgehill, further west, but that building burned down a long time ago.

Violet Bank is next to an enormous magnolia tree, which is as impressive as the building itself. Since Violet Bank Violent Bank was not open, that left me with time to visit the battlefield again.

Violet Bank, site of Robert E. Lee’s second-to-last headquarters used during the Petersburg siege

The Crater Battlefield

Getting to the Crater wasn’t easy. The area along Crater Road was a mess of roadwork, and there seemed no way to get inside the park without making a major flanking maneuver. I ignored the park’s Do Not Enter road sign. No ranger was there to arrest me, though, as I drove illegally onto the battlefield. Luckily, it didn’t take me long to get to the Crater site. I hope any Civil War buff would have forgiven me for butting my way into the park.

It is easy to see why Petersburg was so vital. Grant attacked Petersburg in June 1864 because of the city’s importance as a rail juncture. And sure enough, the railroad is still prominent. After being there only a few minutes, a train drove through the park, a few hundred yards away, along the Norfolk & Petersburg line.

The infamous Crater is not nearly as large as it was in 1864. Time and erosion has filled it in with earth and grass. As it is true of all the national parks, you have to use your imagination when viewing the grounds. The Crater is a shadow of its former self, but it’s clearly marked and you can still see the depressions in the ground where the Federals blew a huge hole in the Confederate defenses. I was one of only a few people in the area that afternoon, but one of them was English (as I could tell when he asked about the UDC). Like me, he was interested in exploring hallowed ground.

The battle signified a shockingly bad missed opportunity for the Union, whose commanders botched the assault and allowed the Rebels to win the day. Federals, chief among them Pennsylvania coal miner soldiers, spent weeks digging under the Confederate fortifications. They managed to get 500 feet under the Rebel lines and pack the mine with tons of explosives.

Tunnel at Crater battlefield. Federals used it to blast a hole in the Confederate line (just a few yards to the back of the man pictured). Confederates were also mining at that time, but they weren’t able to stop Union miners in time to prevent the July 30 explosion

The explosion was felt in Richmond and blew a huge hole in the Confederate line. The blast could have been fatal to Lee’s army. And yet, the Federals took an hour to mount their assault. The delay gave the Confederates time to regroup. Poorly led Yankees went into the Crater rather than  around it. Rebels under William Mahone (a Petersburg native) poured a withering fire into the huddled Yankee masses in the Crater. As Mahone noted, it became a “turkey shoot.” The film Cold Mountain features a fairly good recreation of the Crater battle,  which featured vicious hand to hand combat.

Monument to William Mahone’s counterattack at the battle of the Crater, 1864 July 30

The Union might have won the battle and the fight for Petersburg in July 1864 were it not for incompetent leadership. General Ambrose E. Burnside’s corps made up the attacking force. But at the last minute, the decision to let African American troops lead the attack was changed for political reasons. Union commanders feared a debacle might suggest northern generals were using black troops as cannon fodder.

Black troops fought well, but they charged into the fray after white forces had already been halted in the Crater. Union Colonel James Ledlie, who was supposed to manage the attack, chose to stay in a bombproof bunker with a bottle of booze rather than direct his men. The slaughter at the Crater became a no quarter fight.

It’s not easy taking pictures with a Verizon flip phone, but this shot gives a sense of how much of the Crater has been filled in.

Aftermath and Legacy

The fighting at the Crater was horrid and was the scene of the greatest massacre of African American troops of the war. Rebel troops were enraged at the sight of charging African Americans and they vowed to take no prisoners. Amid the carnage, even some white northern troops killed their black comrades in order to avoid Confederate retribution.

The debacle resulted in General Ambrose Burnside losing his job. Colonel Ledlie was dismissed from the army a few months later. The siege dragged on. And only in the past few years have historians such as Kevin Levin have examined the Crater battle at length: what it meant in the larger story of the Peterbsurg siege, our racial past, and Civil War memory.

The Petersburg siege was, as Shelby Foote once said, a “rehearsal for World War I.” During World War I, the Crater battle was repeated, so to speak, at the Somme and during the 1917 battle of Messines, where Allied miners blew a hole in the German defenses in Belgium. The shock was felt in London, and the explosion at Messines was the loudest man-made sound in history up to that time.

Many historians have walked the grounds of Petersburg, but one in particular stands out. In 1940, Life magazine featured an insightful story on Virginia born Civil War historian and Lee disciple Douglas Southall Freeman. Of all the battlefields Freeman could have chosen for the shoot, he went to the Crater. Freeman went into one of the tunnels, and one photo shows how much more of the original Crater was still there.


When I visited last week, I didn’t have any reporters with me (let alone a servant), but it was another enjoyable visit to the NPS and one that further educates me on the terrain, geography, and landmarks of the Civil War.

Some sources on the Crater and the Petersburg siege:

Axlerod, Alan. The Horrid Pit: The Battle of the Crater, the Civil War’s Cruelest Mission. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2007.

Greene, A. Wilson. Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.

Hess, Earl J. Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010.

Levin, Kevin. Remembering the Battle of the Crater: Was as Murder. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012.

Slotkin, Richard. No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864. New York: Random House, 2009.



New LFDA Intern!

My name is Katie Gibson, and I will be the LFDA intern for this summer! I will be transcribing letters and uploading them to .

Randolph Fairfax
Randolph Fairfax

My first week here at Stratford Hall has already taught me a lot about the Lee family from reading their letters.

One of my favorite letters so far is a letter from Robert E. Lee Jr. to his mother, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee. He writes to her three days after the Battle of Fredericksburg. In the battle he lost a good friend named Randolph Fairfax, who died from a shell fragment. The two might have known each other as students at the University of Virginia. Robert writes that “he will be a great loss both to his parents friends & to the world.” Randolph, pictured here, was only twenty years old when he died. He is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

Stay tuned for more, and don’t forget to catch this weeks episode of AMC’s Turn: Washington Spies. See if you can pick out which scenes were filmed here at Stratford Hall!

Visiting Chancellorsville (Again)

Fairview portion of the Chancellorsville battlefield, scene of the worst fighting. This photo is from the Union perspective looking toward Hazel Grove, where Confederate cannon pounded the northern lines.

By Colin Woodward

This month marks the anniversary of the Chancellorsville campaign. Shelby Foote once called battle of Chancellorsville “Lee’s masterpiece.” Indeed, the battle showed Lee at his best, where he defeated an army that outnumbered him 2:1. Scholars know well the story of Jackson’s immortal flank attack and Hooker’s notorious loss of nerve on the eve of the battle. And yet, after visiting the battlefield again, I learned a lot I didn’t know about one of war’s greatest fights.

To get a head start on the battle’s anniversary, I visited Chancellorsville in late April, when I figured the weather would be the most spring-like. I’ve been through the battlefield numerous times while heading to points west. Only a few times, however, have I left my car and walked around. My most recent visit was the most in-depth.

I decided to follow the path of Jackson’s troops as they formed and marched to attack Joseph Hooker’s right flank on May 2. The National Park Service road is paved and has room for two cars, but in 1863, the road probably looked more like this one nearby. Actually, it probably wasn’t even this good.


The Wilderness

Jackson’s men marched through the gloomy Wilderness area, which would be the scene of an equally vicious battle in 1864, fought on much of the same ground. In 1863, the Wilderness was a tangled area of second growth. The region might have been good one lumber, but not farming. The locals referred to the area as the “Poison Fields” due to the high concentration of iron in the soil.

The rich minerals in the ground, however, provided the iron for the Catharine Furnace, pictured here. The furnace helped make iron for Confederate munitions, though Federal troops destroyed it in 1864.


To fire the furnaces, workers needed plenty of wood, which the Wilderness had in abundance. The woods were of use to locals making a living, but it was a nightmare for marching soldiers. “It is impossible to conceive a fields worse adapted to the movements of a grand army,” wrote John Davis Billings, a Massachusetts artillery officer, concerning the Wilderness.

Jackson’s Flank March

At around eight in the morning on May 2, Jackson’s men passed Catharine’s Furnace. In one of the war’s worst moments of recon, Union eye witnesses saw the Rebel movements, but convinced themselves that Jackson’s men were retreating. Some fighting took place. Especially hard hit were the men of the 23rd Georgia.

Lee waged the Chancellorsville campaign at great risk to his army. He split his army twice: once when he left 10,000 troops to defend against Yankees Fredericksburg and a second time in the Wilderness. Hooker’s army outnumbered Lee’s 2:1, but Lee sent half of his army with Jackson to smash Hooker’s right flank. Jackson’s infantry assault was one of the largest single attacks of the war. His troops stretched out for ten miles, and it took six hours for all of his men to pass a single spot along the march.

wilderness 1866
The Wilderness, photographed in the spring of 1866

Jackson didn’t launch his assault until late in the afternoon. His attack sent the Union forces reeling, but did not crush the Yankee forces, and Stonewall wanted to resume the fighting that night. While patrolling for a night assault, Jackson was seriously wounded by his own men and died a week later.

Hazel Grove and Fairview

In the course of the battle, the Federals made the serious mistake of abandoning the high ground at Hazel Grove. Seeing their opportunity, the Rebels took Hazel Grove, from where they placed their artillery to fire at Yankees defending the area near the Chancellor house, where Hooker had his headquarters.

Jackson’s afternoon flank attack is the most famous part of the battle. But the bloodiest combat took place on May 3 in the area known as Fairview, where Federal troops and artillery batteries fought determined attacks by the Confederates, who closed in on three sides. It was one of the ugliest mornings of the war. In the early hours, more than 17,500 men were killed, wounded, or captured. The NPS writes it was “perhaps the bloodiest morning in America’s history.”

Hazel Grove, looking toward what would have been the Union lines

The fighting on the 3rd was vicious. Hooker himself was wounded when an artillery shell dislodged a chunk of the Chancellor house, which fell on his head. Other major fighting took place at Salem Church, though it is considered a separate battle.

Visitors to Chancellorsville have the advantage of being at the center of some of the war’s major battles. Chancellorsville overlaps with the Wilderness as well as the Fredericksburg battlefield. Spotsylvania is not far away either. Last month, I took the opportunity to visit the Fredericksburg battlefield again, where significant fighting took place in May of 1863.

Fredericksburg, Part II

Just as Chancellorsville is overshadowed by Jackson’s flank attack, it is tempting to think that the battle of Fredericksburg = Marye’s Heights. The fighting there on 1862 December 13 was dramatic and unforgettable. But there was much happening on other parts of the field. And in May of 1863, six months after Burnside’s failed offensive, Union troops under John Sedgwick again attacked Marye’s Heights. This time, in what has been called the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, they were successful in driving the Confederates from the infamous sunken road. The fighting was far less bloody, but it was dramatic.

Site of Lee’s headquarters on Fredericksburg battlefield. Cannon is pointed toward the historic part of the town.

Lee Drive

If one follows Lee Drive, it will take you through the heart of the Fredericksburg battlefield. The area is heavily wooded in parts. Ironically, it feels more like the Wilderness at times than the Wilderness battlefield. A steep climb will take you to Robert E. Lee’s headquarters, which had a good view of the town. Throughout the park, Confederate entrenchments are still visible.

Scene of the extreme right of the Confederate line at Fredericksburg. The “Meade Pyramid” is located on the other side of the railroad tracks.

The Fredericksburg battlefield stretches to Hamilton Crossing. There, Lee Drive ends at what is one of the prettiest parts of the park. One gets a view of the railroad and the “Meade Pyramid,” which commemorates the only Union breakthrough of December 1862.

A Matter of Trust

Civil War parks, of course, have value for historians and non-historians alike. Lee Drive is a perfect spot for joggers and cyclists. And the battlefields themselves double as hiking trails. In September of last year, the Civil War Trust announced it had bought 25 acres of the Fredericksburg battlefield. Hopefully, such efforts will continue, while respecting Virginians’ willingness to expand living and commercial space in the area.

In the meantime, visiting battlefield such as Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg remain one of the most thrilling aspects of studying Robert E. Lee and the Civil War.

Colin Woodward is editor of the Lee Family Digital Archive at Stratford Hall. He welcomes submissions from those interested in the Lee family of Virginia and the Civil War.

Podcast: David Cox

REL book religion

David Cox is a UVA graduate, doctor of theology, and the author of The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee. He and Colin talk in Lexington (where Lee is buried) about the general’s religious beliefs and how he tried to live the life of a good Episcopalian. David also discusses his work on a new project concerning the Lee Chapel.

Robert E. Lee, the Writer


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.”

Lee’s Hill, where Robert E. Lee watched the battle of Fredericksburg unfold.

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.

An example of Lee’s wartime handwriting

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.”

Patriotic Bore?

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.

patriotic gore

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?

Edmund Wilson

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.

pryor book

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.

charles carter lee
Charles Carter Lee

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.