11 September 2009

The Character Of General Lee

The following is another guest post by Professor Daniel N. Rolph. Mr. Rolph is a historian and Head of Reference Services at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The Character of General Robert E. Lee: An Unknown Event

Numerous works have been published on the life of General Robert E. Lee, particularly concerning his activities as head of the 'Army of Northern Virginia' of the Confederacy, during the period of the American Civil War.

Many Civil War scholars are aware of the admiration and respect which General Lee received, both on and off the battlefield, by friend and foe alike.

A wonderful example of Lee's 'character,' is manifested in the 'Civil War Letters, of Major James Cornell Biddle,' of the 27th Pennsylvania Infantry, housed at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, primary sources which reflect only a small part of an extensive collection of Civil War related materials.

On October 21, 1863, months after Lee's humiliating defeat by Federal forces at Gettysburg, Major Biddle, of the 'Army of the Potomac,' stationed at Warrenton, Virginia, related a recent experience to his wife, Gertrude Meredith Biddle of Philadelphia, concerning his famed opponent, General Robert E. Lee. He remarked:

"Lee followed on a parallel line with us as far as Broad Run and as soon as we got in his front, and advanced against him he retreated, he remained for one night at this place.

"An old lady living here went to see him. She put out her hand, and told him it had never touched a Yankee, and commenced abusing our troops. Lee they say rebuked her, and told her he was sorry to hear her speak in that way, that there were a great many gentlemen in our army, and some of those whom she mentioned were men whom he had a very great esteem for, and were formerly his most cherished friends.

"The officers whom he took prisoners were allowed to remain in a house at this place and upon promising not to attempt to escape, to hire a wagon to take them to Culpepper without any guard." (Original source: 'Civil War Letters of James Cornell Biddle,' Collection No.1881, 1 Box, Folder 18, October 21, 1863.)

What makes the above account unique is that not only do these remarks derive from a Federal opponent of Lee, rather than an officer of the Confederate Army, it is also ONLY recorded in a manuscript of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and found in no other Lee biography. It is truly another example of the speciality and broad scope of manuscript materials available within our collections here in Philadelphia.

For further reference to the HSP's vast collections on the Civil War, see my Guide to Civil War Manuscripts and book, My Brother’s Keeper: Union & Confederate Soldiers’ Acts of Mercy During the Civil War, a work containing material drawn largely from both published & unpublished sources at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


Chaps said...

War-era Georgia Senator Ben Hill eloquently expressed a lasting Lee tribute: "He possessed every virtue of other great commanders without their vices. He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a victor without oppression, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy and a man without guile. He was a Caesar without his ambition; Frederick without his tyranny; Napoleon without his selfishness, and Washington without his reward.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hey Chaps. My local PBS affiliate aired an excellent documentary about Lee today. It was written and hosted by Bud Robertson and William Davis. I'll post on it soon.


Chaps said...

I'd give a body part if I were able to work at Robertson's center at VT... or if I had the finances to volunteer.

Michael Bradley said...

Given the desire of some writers to discredit Lee and disprove all the good things he said or did, I suspect it is only a question of a few months before we see a scholarly treatise "proving" that this event never happened.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

It wouldn't surprise me.