Sunday, December 19, 2021

Robert E. Lee’s Christmas Letters Home

   Confederate general Robert E. Lee spent all four of the war-year Christmases away from his wife Mary. Three of his Christmas Day letters home survive.

   Lee’s first letter was written while the general was stationed South Carolina. Writing from his headquarters on the Coosawhatchie, Lee told Mary that he could not let the day pass without writing to her. He was “thankful for the many among the past that I have passed with you. . . For those on which we have been separated we must not repine.” Lee mentioned about where Mary needed to go. She had been forced to flee from Arlington early in the war and had become a refugee. Lee mentioned Fayetteville, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah. Mary obviously wanted to come to Coosawhatchie, but Lee did not approve of the idea. They were in a somewhat exposed area and, if attacked, it would be too hard to move her. Lee then mourned the loss of Arlington, and wished he could purchase Stratford, the place he had been born. Lee also counselled Mary not to put too much stock in rumors of a war between the United States and Great Britain. “We must make up our minds to fight our battles & win our independence alone. No one will help us.” We require no extraneous aid, if true to our selves. But we must be patient. It is not a light achievement & cannot be accomplished at once.”[1]

   The second Christmas of the War Lee spent in camp near Fredericksburg.  The battle was fought just twelve days before. He spent part of the day at a dinner with Jackson, Stuart, and Pendleton at Moss Neck.[2] Lee considered the day a “holy day” and his heart was “filled with gratitude to Almighty God. . . What should have become of us without His crowning & protection?” Lee believed that “if our people would only recognize it & cease from their vain self boasting & adulation, how strong would be my belief in final success & happiness to our country.” Lee regretted that his position at the top of the Army of Northern Virginia prevented him from seeing Mary and those of his children still at home. He also regretted how cruel war was and prayed for peace. He wrote a little of the battle of Fredericksburg, and regretted that his recent victory was not more complete. But then he turned to his losses. “My heart bleeds at the death of every one of our gallant men,” Lee wrote.[3]

   Lee spent Christmas Day 1863 at St. Thomas’s in Orange Court House. He then penned a letter home dated “Xmas night, 1863”.[4] It was a short letter. “I am filled with sadness dear Mary at the intelligence conveyed in your letter of last evening.” Lee’s daughter-in-law, Charlotte, was gravely ill, dying the next day. “The blow is so grievous to us’” he wrote. The only personal note not reflecting on Charlotte came at the end of the letter: “I received today two boxes you sent. Distributed the socks & am much obliged for the turkey.”[5]

   The last Christmas of the war for Lee was spent in camp Near Petersburg. Lee attended church that morning, and then went to the Bannister home for dinner.[6] Lee apparently did not write Mary until December 30. Lee thanks Mary for a previous note and for the fur robe from the Lyons and talks of food and clothes. Concerning Christmas Day, Lee wrote that he was “grateful to be able to attend church on that day & offer my feeble praise to our Merciful Father for the precious gift of his Holy Son,” Lee then describes his dinner and a writes couple more personal notes.[7]

[1] Dowdey and Manarin, The Wartime Papers of R.E. Lee, 95-96.

[2] Knight, From Arlington to Appomattox, 230.

[3] Dowdey and Manarin, The Wartime Papers of R.E. Lee, 379-380.

[4] Knight, From Arlington to Appomattox, 346.

[5] Dowdey and Manarin, The Wartime Papers of R.E. Lee, 644-45.

[6] Knight, From Arlington to Appomattox, 460.

[7] Dowdey and Manarin, The Wartime Papers of R.E. Lee, 879-880.