This week in history: Gen. Robert E. Lee offers to resign

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 6 2014 7:25 p.m. MDT

General Robert E. Lee, photographed by Mathew Brady on the back porch of his Richmond home, one week after surrendering his army. Photo: Library of Congress. (Library of Congress) General Robert E. Lee, photographed by Mathew Brady on the back porch of his Richmond home, one week after surrendering his army. Photo: Library of Congress. (Library of Congress)

Following the disaster for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg in early July 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee offered to resign his command on Aug. 8 after he had brought the remains of his forces back to Virginia. Lee's offer to resign stemmed from his military failure, as well as his belief that the public had lost confidence in his ability to command.

Lee's plan in invading the North in the late spring of 1863 had been to seek out the Army of the Potomac and crush it in battle. The resulting July 1-3 Battle of Gettysburg proved the largest battle of the American Civil War, in which both sides lost roughly 23,000 men. Lee had made several costly errors during the campaign, including abandoning his original plan to pick ground to hold and defend against the Union army once in the North, as well as the disastrous Pickett's Charge, which turned the battlefield into a Confederate slaughterhouse on the third day of battle.

Following the battle, a demoralized Lee led a demoralized army back into a demoralized Confederacy. On July 4, the day after Gettysburg, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant succeeded in taking Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last Confederate strong point on the Mississippi River. With the fall of Vicksburg, the Confederacy was cut in two. Indeed, knowing that Vicksburg would soon fall, Lee had invaded the North in the East with the intention of mitigating the effects of the catastrophe and hoping to deal the North a complementary, and perhaps war-winning, blow.

In his book, “Look Away: A History of the Confederate States of America,” historian William C. Davis wrote, “Lee's incredible victory at Chancellorsville in May swung the pendulum back to confidence, only to have it swing yet again after his crushing defeat at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July. 'The prospect is a dark one,' (journalist Littleton B.) Washington recalled a few weeks later. 'Nothing could exceed the public depression.’ ”

After Gettysburg, the South could not win a military victory in the Civil War. It lacked the resources and manpower to launch another offensive campaign into the North, even as the Union army grew stronger. Increasingly, the Confederate strategy was to wear down the Northern armies as they came south, and hope for a military stalemate and acceptable political solution.

As Northerners rejoiced over their twin victories, many believing that an end to the war was in sight, Lee made his initial report to Confederate President Jefferson Davis on July 31. Magnanimous as always, the Confederate general accepted personal responsibility for the defeat: “No blame can be attached to the army for its failure to accomplish what was projected by me. … I am alone to blame, in perhaps expecting too much of its prowess & valor.”

Despite the old adage that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan, Lee's most able corps commander, James Longstreet, (Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson having died the previous May after the Battle of Chancellorsville), also believed he himself deserved a measure of blame. Biographer Jeffry D. Wert wrote in his book, “General James Longstreet: The Confederacy's most Controversial Solider":

“In a July 24 letter — which he subsequently published — Longstreet (wrote) that he 'would prefer that all the blame should rest upon me. As General Lee is our commander, he should have the support and influence we can give him. … I leave to show that much of the responsibility of Gettysburg rests on my shoulders.’ ”

Longstreet had advised Lee against Pickett's Charge, and even encouraged Lee to stick to the original plan of a tactically defensive battle in the North. Despite this, Longstreet knew Lee's value as a symbol to the Confederate people and his ongoing popularity with the Army of Northern Virginia. Though his battlefield criticisms would later come out, in the weeks following the disaster at Gettysburg, Longstreet saw value in keeping Lee in charge of what was arguably the Confederacy's most important army.

Lee, however, was perhaps suffering a justified crisis of confidence in his ability to lead. Certainly, he was aware that newspapers from Richmond to London were questioning his position in light of the failure. Whether or not he genuinely believed that he should be relieved of command following Gettysburg, the magnitude of the disaster for the Confederate cause demanded that he offer his resignation. Such criticism could not be ignored, and on Aug. 8 he sent a formal letter to Davis, offering to step down.

Lee opened by thanking Davis for his attentiveness to the needs of the army. Then, Lee waxed philosophical: “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. Our people have only to be true and united, to bear manfully the misfortunes incident to war, and all will come right in the end.”

Lee then noted the role of press, and his belief that the army perhaps wanted him to be replaced: “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 ….”

He then further professed his inability to carry on in the position: “I do this with the more earnestness because no one is more aware than myself of my inability for the duties of my position. I cannot even accomplish what I myself desire. How can I fulfill the expectations of others?”

Lee also argued that his health was not what it should be for the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and he beseeched Davis to appoint a “younger and abler man” to replace him. He ended the epistle with reassurances that he had nothing to complain about, and had always been shown kindness from his superiors and comrades. In the book, “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,” historian James M. McPherson remarked on the letter that, “Thus said a man whose stunning achievements during the year before Gettysburg had won the admiration of the Western World.”

Davis refused the offer of resignation, writing that nowhere was a man of Lee's talents available. To find a replacement for Lee was, in Davis' words, to “demand the impossible.” In the book “Gettysburg,” historian Stephen W. Sears stated that in a letter to a friend a few days later, Confederate Senator Louis Wigfall noted that Davis became enraged whenever anyone expressed doubt about General Lee's ability to retain his command.

With President Davis publicly behind him, and his army still willing to follow him, Robert E. Lee continued on as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia for the rest of the war. Lee proved repeatedly that despite his failure at Gettysburg he did indeed remain a first-rate military commander. The war saw mounting casualties in its final year and half, and the South's ability to mount a prolonged resistance after any realistic chance of military victory in the war owed much to Lee's tactical ability.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company