Letter from General R. E. Lee.
[The following letter of General Lee explains itself and is of great historic value. It was not
intended for publication, and is written with that caution so characteristic of the man. But
anything from our grand old Chief is highly prized, while it deepens the regret that he was not
spared to fulfill his purpose of writing the history of his campaigns.]
Lexington, Va., 15 April, 1868.
William M. McDonald, Cool Spring, near Berryville, Clarke Co., Va.:
My Dear Sir--I thank you for your kind letter of the 3d instant, which I have been unable to answer till to-day. I hope that your school history may be of such character as will insure its broadest circulation, and prove both interesting and instructive to the youth of the whole country.
As regards the information you desire, if you will refer to my official report of March 6th, 1863, which was published in Richmond in 1864, you will find the general reasons which governed my actions; but whether they will be satisfactory to others is problematical. In relation to your first question, I will state that in crossing the Potomac I did not propose to invade the North, for I did not believe that the Army of Northern Virginia was strong enough for the purpose, nor was I in any degree influenced by popular expectation. My movement was simply intended to threaten Washington, call the Federal army north of that river, relieve our territory and enable us to subsist the army. I considered it useless to attack the fortifications around Alexandria and Washington, behind which the Federal army had taken refuge, and indeed I could not have maintained the army in Fairfax, so barren was it of subsistence and so devoid were we of transportation. After reaching Frederick City, finding that the enemy still retained his positions at Martinsburg and Harper's Ferry, and that it became necessary to dislodge him, in order to open our communication through the Valley for the purpose of obtaining from Richmond the ammunition, clothing &c., of which we were in great need, after detaching the necessary troops for the purpose, I was left with but two divisions (Longstreet's and D. H. Hill's) to mask the operation. That was entirely too weak a force to march on Baltimore, which you say was expected, even if such a movement had been expedient.
As to the battle of Gettysburg, I must again refer you to the official accounts. Its loss was occasioned by a combination of circumstances. It was commenced in the absence of correct intelligence. It was continued in the effort to overcome the difficulties by which we were surrounded, and it would have been gained could one determined and united blow have been delivered by our whole line. As it was, victory trembled in the balance for three days, and the battle resulted in the infliction of as great an amount of injury as was received and in frustrating the Federal campaign for the season.
I think you will find the answer to your third question in my report of the battle of Fredericksburg. In taking up the position there, it was with the view of resisting General Burnside's advance after crossing the Rappahannock, rather than of preventing its passage.
The plain of Fredericksburg is completely commanded by the heights of Stafford, which prevented our occupying it in the first instance. Nearly the whole loss that our army sustained during the battle arose from the pursuit of the repulsed Federal columns into the plain. To have advanced the whole army into the plain for the purpose of attacking General Burnside, would have been to have insured its destruction by the fire from the continued line of guns on the Stafford hills. It was considered more wise to meet the Federal army beyond the reach of their batteries than under their muzzles, and even to invite repeated renewal of their attacks. When convinced of their inutility, it was easy for them, under cover of a long, dark and tempestuous night, to cross the narrow river by means of their numerous bridges before we could ascertain their purpose.
I have been obliged to be very brief in my remarks, but I hope that I have been able to present to you some facts which may be useful to you in drawing correct conclusions. I must ask that you will consider what I have said as intended solely for yourself.
Very respectfully and truly, yours,
R. E. Lee.
(Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 7, pages 445-446)