August 8, 1863 (Saturday)
General Lee wasn’t a beaten man, any more than his Army of Northern Virginia was a beaten Army. They were, however, both suffering. Lee had been ill since the spring, suffering a possible heart attack or two along the way. The defeat at Gettysburg greatly depressed him, and sent the typical murmurings through the Southern press, already cranky over the loss of Vicksburg. With all this in mind, General Lee decided the only honorable thing he could do was offer his resignation to President Jefferson Davis.
The letter, written from his camp near Orange Court House, was a strange and meandering one. Lee was hardly one to beat around the bush, but for the first two lengthy paragraphs, the General muses over the state of his army and the Southern People. The latter was on his mind when he turned philosophical, writing that “We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies, and to prevent our falling into greater disasters.”
Lee was alluding to the murmurings, of course. “Our people have only to be true and united,” he continued, “to bear manfully the misfortunes incident to war, and all will come right in the end.” He understood how easy it was to “blame others for the non-fulfillment of our expectations,” but Lee found it “unbecoming in a generous people… I grieve to see its expression.”
He then cut to the point: “The general remedy for the want of success in a military commander is his removal. This is natural, and, in many instances, proper. For, no matter what may be the ability of the officer, if he loses the confidence of his troops disaster must sooner or later ensue.”
These sentiments nearly echo Davis’ own words as he tried to figure out what to do about General Braxton Bragg in the West. Unlike Bragg, Lee chose to fall on his sword.
I have been prompted by these reflections more than once since my return from Pennsylvania to propose to Your Excellency the propriety of selecting another commander for this army. I have seen and heard of expression of discontent in the public journals at the result of the expedition. I do not know how far this feeling extends in the army. My brother officers have been too kind to report it, and so far the troops have been too generous to exhibit it. It is fair, however, to suppose that it does exist, and success is so necessary to us that nothing should be risked to secure it. I therefore, in all sincerity, request Your Excellency to take measures to supply my place.
To General Lee it came down to personal expectations. “I cannot even accomplish what I myself desire, he admitted before asking, “How can I fulfill the expectations of others?”
Public opinion wasn’t the only thing on Lee’s mind, and it wasn’t the only reason he was submitting his resignation. He was ill, and had been for a long time. “I have not yet removed from the attack I experienced the past spring,” wrote Lee referring to what was probably his first heart attack. “I am becoming more and more incapable of exertion, and am thus prevented from making the personal examinations and giving the personal supervision to the operations in the field which I feel to be necessary.”
Prior to the battle of Gettysburg, Lee was hardly what one might call a hands on commander. He could give either James Longstreet or Stonewall Jackson vague orders and both could nearly read his mind without the kind of “personal supervision” Lee was describing. If the campaign taught Lee anything, it was that those days were over. His army needed someone who could fill every gap and take very able division commanders by the hand as they led their new corps.
“Everything, therefore, points to the advantages to be derived from a new commander,” concluded Lee, “and I the more anxiously urge the matter upon Your Excellency from my belief that a younger and abler man than myself can readily be attained.”
Though Lee could give no suggestions as to who this “younger and abler man” might be, he knew the army deserved “one that would accomplish more than I could perform and all that I have wished.”
Davis would receive the letter in two days time, replying on the 11th.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 2, p624; Vol. 51, Part 2, p752-753; Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy by Ethan S. Rafuse; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe. [↩]