The Confederate we still don't know

150 years after Robert E. Lee took command of the South's army, his descendants are intent on keeping his secrets

Published July 31, 2011 1:01PM (EDT)

Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee

On July 31, 1861, exactly 150 years ago Sunday, the Richmond Examiner reported that Gen. Robert E. Lee, who at that time was serving as a confidential military adviser to President Jefferson Davis, was on his way to western Virginia (now West Virginia) to consult with other Confederate generals there about campaign plans. His "inspection" tour, as the newspaper called it, became Lee’s first experience as a field general, and things did not go well from there. Confederate forces, operating in mountainous terrain that proved nearly impossible to defend, suffered defeat at the battle of Cheat Mountain, which took place over several days during the second week of September. Humiliated by the defeat, Lee wrote to his wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, in a letter dated Sept. 17, 1861: "I cannot tell you my regret and mortification at the untoward events that caused the failure of the plan."

What’s interesting about Lee’s letter to his wife is that it was published, in truncated form, in a book "Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee," compiled by his son, Robert E. Lee Jr., in 1904. The younger Lee excised the final lines of the original letter, now located at the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) in Richmond, and indicated the deletion with ellipses. From the son’s perspective, the omitted lines had no inherent importance. They read:

"Custis [Lee’s eldest son] writes the girls [Lee’s daughters] have gone to Carter’s. They did not get your letter in time. I hope I may be able to get there before you leave. I may have to go to the Kanawha & if so will write you from Lewisburg. Fitzhugh [another son] is very well. Charlotte [Fitzhugh’s wife] writes the baby is better. Love to Daughter [Mary Custis Lee, his eldest daughter]."

Below his signature, Lee added a postscript:

"I am much obliged to you for your offer of socks. I should like to have ½ dozen good thick cotton socks if you could get them knit & have the cotton."

If you’re primarily interested in Lee’s role as a Confederate general, the final sentences of this letter probably seem irrelevant, with their references to family members and cotton socks. But if you want to understand Lee not only as a military leader, but also as a man, the last lines of his letter are revealing, if only because they do mention such mundane matters. But historians have been repeatedly stymied in their efforts to humanize Lee -- socks and all -- by the descendants of the general, who, like his son, have worked assiduously to keep Lee the man hidden from view.

Since Lee’s death in 1870, the Lee family has chosen to perpetuate the general as a "marble man" -- a phrase that his fellow West Point cadets used and later biographers have employed to describe Lee’s reluctance to express his feelings openly. But getting to know Lee better, as a man and a general, has been difficult for historians not only because the general kept many of his personal feelings bottled up, but because historians have not been allowed full access to the documentary record pertaining to Lee, particularly his personal papers.

Why should this matter? Civil War historians have long been concerned that there is no modern edition of Lee’s papers, such as the splendid printed volumes of Ulysses S. Grant’s papers -- Lee’s most famous adversary -- compiled and published between the early 1960s and the present. The Grant Papers were expertly edited by the late John Y. Simon and are now under the able direction of John F. Marszalek at Mississippi State University. The Grant Papers project resembles many other historical editing endeavors, including the Thomas Jefferson Papers at Princeton, the George Washington Papers at the University of Virginia, the Adams Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Jefferson Davis Papers at Rice University and the Freedmen and Southern Society Papers at the University of Maryland, to name just a few.

Most of these projects publish their subjects’ papers not only in old-fashioned books with covers on them, but many of them also make the documents available online, which, when it comes to studying the Civil War in depth, is one of the great features of, for example, the Grant Papers (full disclosure: John Simon told me decades ago that the Grant family prohibited the publication of some of Grant’s Mexican War letters; he described them as being only a handful of documents). The availability of these historical records has enabled scholars and students to see their subjects whole, warts and all. The Lee descendants, however, don’t want historians or the public to see their ancestor’s flaws. Like many families, they’ve sought to keep their skeletons in the closet and to protect Lee’s historical reputation, perpetuating the image of him as not only a brilliant general but as a nearly perfect man -- a man of marble rather than of flesh and blood. In fact, the Lee descendants have steadfastly served as the Vatican Guard of their famous progenitor.

It was during the late 1980s that I first encountered how protective the Lee descendants are about their great ancestor. Having gained some previous experience on some historical editing projects, I gave a great deal of thought to the possibility of initiating a Lee Papers project. In those days, I was working in Washington, D.C., and I learned that Lee’s granddaughter, Mary Custis Lee deButts, lived in Upperville, a tony little village in Virginia horse country, not far from the nation’s capital. So I wrote her a lengthy letter spelling out my plans and asking only for her endorsement of my efforts. A couple of weeks went by with no answer, and then those weeks turned into more than a month. I decided to call her, but that phone call proved to be one of the most bizarre I’ve ever had as a historian.

To the best of my recollection, the telephone conversation went something like this: She answered the phone, I explained who I was and mentioned my letter, and she said abruptly, "We are never, I repeat, never, going to let those papers out of the family. They are safe in a bank vault. I don’t even have them here. No one is ever going to see them." She was polite enough not to hang up on me, but the conversation did not last more than a couple of minutes. It was, of course, the first clue I had that the Lee descendants were in possession of documents relating to Robert E. Lee that no one outside the family knew about.

As it turned out, my plans for a Lee Papers project never got off the ground. Since then, other historians have also attempted to launch such a project and, for various reasons, have failed. When deButts died in 1994, at the age of 94, I figured that the letters in the vault had been passed on to a trustworthy next-of-kin -- someone who would also take the Lee family secrets to the grave.

Fast forward to 2002, eight years after deButts’s death. On Nov. 27, the Washington Post reported that after more than 80 years following the death of Robert E. Lee’s daughter, Mary Custis Lee, two steamer trunks full of her papers had been "found" in a bank vault in Alexandria, Va. The trunks "came to light" after E. Hunt Burke, the vice chairman of the Burke & and Herbert Bank & Trust Company discovered them in the silver vault of the bank’s Alexandria branch. Five years later, six Lee descendants, including Robert E.L. deButts and Robert E. Lee IV, formally deposited the trunks at VHS; two years later, two of the descendants, according to a VHS archivist, "donated a quarter share of the title to this collection to the Virginia Historical Society."

A review of the VHS online catalog, however, reveals that "a few items in this collection are currently held under the terms of restricted access and are not available for viewing." Actually several entire sections of the Mary Custis Lee Papers are fully closed to researchers, although a VHS archivist told me in an email that letters in Robert E. Lee’s "hand are open to research but not to copying or reproduction." The travel diaries and letters of Mary Custis Lee dating from the 1870s are entirely closed to researchers. The restricted documents, explains the archivist, actually constitute "a comparatively small portion of the overall [Mary Custis Lee] collection," yet he admits that "it is also a bit difficult to estimate just how much material is currently restricted" or entirely closed. In all, the Mary Custis Lee collection -- only one of several Lee collections at VHS -- consists of 6,495 items.

The restrictions on the use of Lee documents at VHS have been put in place by the Lee descendants. But VHS is not the only repository that restricts access to Lee documents. Another example is the deButts/Ely collection at the Library of Congress (LC), where photostatic copies of Lee family documents have been deposited. In 1933 and 1934, two Lee descendants -- Mary Custis Lee deButts and Ann Carter Ely, who were sisters -- deposited the collection, which then consisted of original documents. In 1956, deButts wrote a letter to LC on behalf of herself and her sister asking that the reminiscences of Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee’s wife, be restricted to researchers because of the virulent nature of some of her sentiments expressed in the document. Then, in 1960, the collection was withdrawn by the Lee descendants from LC, this time permanently, although the depositors did allow the library to make the photostats that are now, for the most part, available to researchers. The original documents withdrawn from LC found a new home at VHS.

But something strange later happened concerning the photostats at LC. In 1977, Thomas L. Connelly, who had already established himself as a historian with little good to say about Robert E. Lee, published his book, "The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society." Connelly argued that Lee’s public image had been largely shaped after the Civil War by a "Lee cult" that worshipped the general like a god and rewrote history according to a Southern interpretation of the Lost Cause. In making his case, Connelly quoted the Civil War reminiscences of Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee that revealed her sharp bitterness toward Lincoln and the Northerners who had defeated her husband. Through some administrative error at LC, Connelly had been allowed to see the reminiscences despite the restriction on the document’s use. According to LC records, after the publication of Connelly’s book, Mary Custis Lee deButts wrote again to LC and reiterated her intention and that of her sister that Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee’s reminiscences should be off-limits to researchers. In 1981, LC placed the document in a separate, restricted container, where it has remained ever since.

A decade ago Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee’s reminiscences surfaced once again, but this time under the auspices of the Lee Vatican Guard. In 2001, Robert E.L. deButts, a New York attorney and the great-great grandson of Robert E. Lee (and the grandson of Mary Custis Lee deButts), edited and published Mrs. Lee’s "My Reminiscences of the Civil War" in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (VMHB), a quarterly journal published by VHS. To his credit, Robert E.L. deButts seems to have followed accepted scholarly editing practices in transcribing and annotating Mrs. Lee’s reminiscences. In a postscript to the reminiscences, he attempts to explain why her opinions of Northerners and the outcome of the war were so bitter. His discussion is fair and balanced, so far as anyone outside of the Lee family -- i.e., historians who have been denied access to many of the family’s papers -- can discern. He does not explain why the Lee descendants tried to keep the document from public view for so long, nor does he cite the fact that Thomas Connelly quoted some key passages from the reminiscences in his 1977 book. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t mention that his grandmother made sure no one could see the document at LC after Connelly quoted from it.

The article edited by deButts raised the prospects of giving scholars a wider glimpse into the Lee family papers. Equally encouraging was the publication in 2007 of Robert E. Lee’s courtship letters, also edited and annotated by Robert E.L. deButts and published in VMHB. But for all his apparent desire to make the courtship letters accessible to the public, deButts, as a member of the Lee Vatican Guard, held back several letters that he, without further explanation, apparently decided were not worthy for others to see. Out of the existing 21 letters that comprise the courtship correspondence between Lee and Mary Anna Randolph Custis before their marriage, deButts published only 13 written by Lee and two written by Mary. Why he chose not to publish the other six letters written by Lee is a mystery.

So far as I can tell, the publication of these 15 selected letters was the first instance in which any portion of the Mary Custis Lee Papers found in the bank vault trunks was made available to scholars and the public. At about the same time, the Lee descendants, including Robert E.L. deButts, also granted access to some of the restricted Mary Custis Lee Papers to Elizabeth Brown Pryor, the author of the recent, award-winning book "Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters" (2007). In her book’s acknowledgments, Pryor says she has "marveled at the Lee family’s generous encouragement of new scholarship." Although Pryor is rather testy when it comes to talking about her work or her relationship with the Lee descendants (she insisted on seeing a copy of this article in advance of publication before making any comments for the record; I agreed to her terms), she forcefully asserted in an email that "my experience with many members of the Lee family over several decades" belies the restrictive handling of Robert E. Lee’s papers that many other historians -- including myself -- have experienced. She added: "The Lee family has always been extremely generous in allowing me use these collections. I was not restricted in any way ... The only request was that I consult about quotations from documents being used by Mr. deButts and Dr. [Susan Carter] Vogel, both of whom are working on upcoming publications. This seemed to me to be a normal scholarly courtesy."

Actually, she’s wrong about this -- it is not "a normal scholarly courtesy." Whether or not Lee descendants are working on their own publications (deButts is now engaged in editing Lee’s family letters and Vogel, another Lee descendant, is editing Mary Custis Lee’s travel letters and journals for publication) should not restrict other scholars from using and quoting documents deposited in a historical repository. Unless, that is, the family wants to control what scholars are quoting from those documents. Pryor states firmly, however, that "I have never been refused access to anything I have asked to see."

Despite Pryor’s sensationally pleasant dealings with the Lee descendants, researchers cannot simply walk into the VHS reading rooms and ask to see any Lee document they want. The Lee family persists in maintaining its control over the Lee papers, abetted in that effort by the ready cooperation of VHS, which has accepted deposits of the family papers (with a portion of the title remaining in the family’s legal hands) rather than outright donation of them (in which VHS would hold full title). VHS is not to be condemned for this policy, since its philosophy is probably a good one -- better to get physical possession of the papers for conservation and preservation, not matter what restrictive terms the family may insist on.

What’s so bad, then, about the Lee descendants’ monopoly, especially considering the fact that some family members seem to be publishing Lee documents in a responsible manner, i.e., according to scholarly textual standards? The problem is that as family members, the Lee descendants cannot possibly be objective in their work. Who’s to say what they might silently suppress or misconstrue if, as Lee’s descendants, a particular document makes them (rather than us) feel uncomfortable? Whatever the Lee family is hiding, they think it’s important enough, as in Robert E.L. deButts’s case, to skip publishing six courtship letters without explanation. It would have been far better for the two Lee descendants to have allowed independent historians -- those free of family bias or those not beholden to the family in any way -- to edit all of the Lee family papers for publication. (I’m not nominating myself for the job, by the way. I’ve lost any earlier interest I had in editing Robert E. Lee’s papers, and, as it stands, my research interests fall rather far afield of Lee at the moment.)

Still, it would nice to know more about the man who decided to violate his solemn oath to protect and defend the Constitution by taking up arms against the United States -- the nation his idol George Washington and his father Light-Horse Harry Lee fought to sustain in the American Revolution. Robert E. Lee is important historically because he devoted himself to a cause that was, at its core, anti-American; yet he -- among countless other Confederates -- was convinced that he acted only as a paragon of patriotism. It’s the essential delusion of every traitor. The truth is, though, that we will never really know Robert E. Lee until his family allows researchers to have complete access to his papers.

By Glenn W. LaFantasie

Glenn W. LaFantasie is the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University. He is working on a book about Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.

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