August 11, 1863 (Tuesday)
When Jefferson Davis received General Lee’s letter of resignation, he was, of course, in no way entertaining the idea of allowing Lee to leave. Through the summer, Davis had made strange decisions to favor generals he liked (Bragg) over generals who had proven themselves (Johnston). For Davis, Lee was both.
Davis genuinely like Lee, and most certainly respected his skills as a commander as much as his own. “If I could take one wing [of the army] and Lee the other,” Davis apparently mentioned around this time, “I think we could between us wrest a victory from these people.” Of course, Davis could not leave Richmond to take command in the field, but neither could he allow Lee to succumb to the bad press the defeat at Gettysburg had wrought.
Two days prior to receiving Lee’s letter, Davis wrote a paroled General Pemberton, who had not resigned, but expressed the same disgust over his portrayal in the newspapers. Pemberton, however, conceded that the maxim was true, that “success is the test of merit.”
This phrase, quoted by Pemberton, and quickly defeated by Davis, was actually a paraphrasing of a line from Albert Sidney Johnston’s report following the capture of Fort Donelson in February 1862. A.S. Johnston was trying to join forces with General P.G.T. Beauregard amidst the criticisms in the press. If he could pull it off, his detractors “now declaiming against me will be without an argument.” The actual quote written by Johnston was: “The test of merit in my profession with the people in success. It is a hard rule, but I think it right.”
With Pemberton’s recalling of A.S. Johnston in mind, Davis replied to Lee’s resignation. Just as he had with Pemberton, Davis struck down Johnston’s claim. “There has been nothing which I have found to require a greater effort of patience,” began the President, “than to bear the criticisms of the ignorant, who pronounce everything a failure which does not equal their expectations or desires, and can see no good result which is not in the line of their own imaginings.”
Davis was willing to admit, as he had before, “that an officer who loses the confidence of his troops should have his position changed, whatever may be his ability, but-when I read the sentence I was not at all prepared for the application you were about to make.” He never expected Lee to resign.
In consolation, Davis reminded Lee that “expressions of discontent in the public journals furnish but little evidence of the sentiment of an army. Davis found the press to be “generally partisan” and “venal.”
Though Lee had mentioned the writings in the papers, it wasn’t his only reason for offering his resignation. He had been sick since at least April, suffering two or more probable heart attacks in that span. He could no longer perform his own reconnaissance, and partially attributed the failures on July 2nd at Gettysburg to that end.
In this, Davis did his best to understand “the embarrassments you experience in using the eyes of others, having been so much accustomed to make your own reconnaissances.” To that, he could only offer the advice that practice would “do much to relieve that embarrassment.” Also, the more Lee understood the ground upon which he fought the less dependent he would be upon “topographical information.” Davis was basically grasping at this point, but quickly got to his true meaning.
If he were to admit that Lee was right – that the press had correctly exposed Lee’s failures, and that the army had turned against their leader- Davis wondered, “where am I to find that new commander who is to possess the greater ability which you believe to be required?” Simply put, there was no such commander in the South. If there was, Davis confessed, “if Providence should kindly offer such a person for our use, I would not hesitate to avail of his services.”
In the past, Davis had warned Lee to not unnecessarily expose himself to the dangers of the battlefield. “I felt our country could not bear to lose you,” he wrote. “To ask me to substitute you by some one in my judgment more fit to command, or who would possess more of the confidence of the army, or of the reflecting men of the country, is to demand an impossibility.”
In closing, Davis urged Lee to “take all possible care of yourself, that your health and strength may be entirely restored, and that the Lord will preserve you for the important duties devolved upon you in the struggle of our suffering country for the independence which we have engaged in war to maintain.”
Davis’ letter would not reach Lee until August 22nd, a strangely long time since the Army of Northern Virginia was less than seventy-five miles northwest of Richmond. In that time, Lee would do all he could to restore his army and stem the tide of desertions which naturally followed such a loss.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 2, p639-640; Vol. 7, p261; Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy by Ethan S. Rafuse; Jefferson Davis: Ex-president of the Confederate States of America, Volume 2 by Varina Davis. [↩]