Robert E. Lee’s condolence letter to his son Rooney, 1864

In this beautifully written letter, Confederate general Robert E. Lee attempts to console his son William Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee on the loss of his wife. The letter demonstrates the emotion that Lee felt for his family and offers a glimpse of the strength that carried Lee through the war. His faith in God, his empathy for others’ misfortunes, and his belief in the Confederate cause, all granted Lee the fortitude he needed to endure the war. One can see all of these attributes in this single, short missive.

Robert E. Lee to William F. Lee, April 24, 1864. (Gilder Lehrman Collection, GLCPerhaps none of Lee’s children incited his paternal anxiety more than Rooney. Born on May 30, 1837, he lived up to the reputation of the prodigal second son. As a child, Rooney’s carefree character and tendency towards self-indulgence caused his father great distress. When West Point rejected Rooney’s application in 1855, Lee’s son temporarily entered Harvard. He quit school in 1857, enlisted in the Army, and received a commission as second lieutenant. In 1859, Rooney married his cousin Charlotte Wickham, and although Robert E. Lee originally had misgivings about the relationship, he soon came to cherish Charlotte like a daughter. Soon after the marriage, Rooney resigned from the Army and began a career as a planter at White House Plantation, which had been bequeathed to him by his grandfather, George Washington Parke Custis. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Rooney joined the Confederate cavalry and performed admirably.

The middle years of the Civil War brought the Lee family a cascade of tragedies. In the fall of 1862, typhoid fever claimed the lives of Lee’s youngest daughter, Annie, and his only grandson, Rooney’s son, Robert. In June of 1863, Rooney was wounded and captured by Union troops. While her husband was a prisoner at Fort Lafayette in New York, Charlotte gave birth to a sickly daughter, who died in December. Meanwhile, Mary Lee’s declining health and Charlotte’s ongoing battle with tuberculosis continually worried the family. Then, on December 26, 1863, after a period of relatively good health, Charlotte died unexpectedly while her husband remained a prisoner of the Union Army.

In February 1864, Rooney was exchanged by the Union Army and by the end of March had returned to his unit. Grief-stricken over the loss of his wife and two children, Rooney turned to his father for support and guidance. The elder Lee, also devastated by so many family deaths, eloquently consoled:

God knows how I loved your dear dear wife, how Sweet her memory is to me, & how I mourn her loss. My grief Could not be greater if you had been taken from me. You were both equally dear to me. My heart is too full to Speak on the Subject, nor Can I write. But my grief is not for her, but for ourselves. She is brighter & happier than ever, Safe from all evil & awaiting us in her Heavenly abode. May God in his Mercy enable us to join her in eternal praise to our Lord & Saviour. Let us humbly bow ourselves before Him & offer perpetual prayer for pardon & forgiveness!

Yet, even during this devastating time, Lee emphasized duty and reminded his son that every available man would be needed to save the Confederacy. General Ulysses S. Grant had assumed command of all Union forces and had begun moving federal troops across the Rappahannock River. Although Lee had never faced Grant in battle, he knew that this Union general would not be as easy to defeat as his predecessors. Grant had already defeated two Confederate armies: one at Fort Donelson in 1861 and another at Vicksburg in 1863.

We Cannot indulge in grief however mournful yet pleasing. Our Country demands all our thoughts, all our energies. To resist the powerful Combination now forming against us, will require every man at his place. If victorious we have everything to hope for in the future. If defeated nothing will be left us to live for.

Robert E. Lee to William F. Lee, April 24, 1864. (Gilder Lehrman Collection, GLCThis advice undoubtedly helped both men put their personal losses into perspective. In addition, their concentration on duty would help distract the Lee men from their grief. Not long after writing this letter, Lee supported Rooney’s promotion to major general, making him the youngest officer in the Confederate army to achieve that rank.

This letter is an outstanding example of strength of Lee’s character and his relationship with his children. As difficult as the Civil War was for all Americans, it was especially tragic for the renowned General Robert E. Lee and his family. As this letter helps to demonstrate, Lee’s letters to his children typically preach discipline, duty, and responsibility, while, at the same time, tempering strictness with extraordinary tenderness and affection.

Transcript

Camp Orange Co: 24 Apl ’64

I recd last night My dear Son your letter of the 22nd. It has given me great Comfort. God knows how I loved your dear dear Wife, how Sweet her memory is to me, & how I mourn her loss. My grief Could not be greater if you had been taken from me. You were both equally dear to me. My heart is too full to Speak on this Subject, nor Can I write. But my grief is not for her, but for ourselves. She is brighter & happier than ever, Safe from all evil & awaiting us in her Heavenly abode. May God in his Mercy enable us to join her in eternal praise to our Lord & Saviour. Let us humbly bow ourselves before Him & offer perpetual prayer for pardon & forgiveness!

But we Cannot indulge in grief however mournful yet pleasing. Our Country demands all our thoughts, all our energies. To resist the powerful Combination now forming against us, will require every man at his place. If victorious we have everything to hope for in the future. If defeated nothing will be left us to live for. I have not heard what action has been taken by the Dept in reference to my recommendations Concerning the organization of the Cavy. But we have no time to wait & you had better join your brigade. This week will in all probability bring us active work & we must strike fast & strong. My whole trust is in God, & I am ready for whatever he may ordain. May he guide guard & Strengthen us is my Constant prayer!

Your devoted father
R E.Lee


Add comment

Login or register to post comments