The Fabricated Letter of Robert E. Lee

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014-2015, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the November 2014 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

Anyone who has an email account has received them: those forwarded emails that relate some preposterous, attention-grabbing information about some public figure and are intended to put that public figure in a bad light. President Barack Obama is a Muslim who will not recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and his birth certificate is a forgery. At a right-to-life rally, President George W. Bush repeatedly used the word “feces” instead of “fetus.” Many years before 9/11, Senator Al Gore was warned by Oliver North about Osama bin Laden. The origin of these emails is almost never known, but people who oppose these public figures and the causes they embrace send these emails around the internet to discredit both the public figures and their causes. At best, these emails are misleading embellishments that bear little resemblance to the truth, and many times they are simply false. But with the internet these emails can reach and potentially sway an incredibly large and widespread number of people. The Civil War had a similar fabrication that was circulated to readers as a factual occurrence, although it, of course, was not disseminated by email.

The fabrication was a letter purportedly written by Robert E. Lee to his eldest son, Custis. There are a couple of articles that can be found on line in which there is detailed and conclusive evidence to convincingly refute the authenticity of the letter, and anyone who is interested in this evidence is referred to these articles.

Custis Lee

The letter was reportedly found in Lee’s home, Arlington House, and was first published in the New York Sun on November 26, 1864 and then subsequently published in other newspapers. The two-paragraph letter was supposedly written to Custis Lee when Custis was a cadet at West Point. In the first paragraph, Robert E. Lee purportedly gives advice to his son about honesty in dealing with others, and in the second paragraph Lee discusses devotion to duty.

The letter reads in part as follows. “You must study to be frank with the world: frankness is the child of honesty and courage…Deal kindly, but firmly, with all your classmates; you will find it the policy which wears best. Above all, do not appear to others what you are not…(T)here is no more dangerous experiment than that of undertaking to be one thing before a man’s face and another behind his back. We should live, act and say nothing to the injury of any one. It is not only best as a matter of principle, but it is the path to peace and honor.

“In regard to duty, let me…inform you that nearly a hundred years ago there was a day of remarkable gloom and darkness—still known as the dark day— a day when the light of the sun was slowly extinguished as if by an eclipse. The Legislature of Connecticut was in session, and as its members saw the unexpected and unaccountable darkness coming on, they shared in the general awe and terror. It was supposed by many that the last day—the day of judgment—had come. Someone, in the consternation of the hour, moved an adjournment. Then there arose an old Puritan legislator, Devenport of Stamford, and said, that if the last day had come, he desired to be found at his place doing his duty, and, therefore, moved that candles be brought in so that the house could proceed with its duty…Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things like the old Puritan. You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less.”

Robert E. Lee

Based on the text of the fabricated letter, Lee does not come across very badly. (There are some Unionists who harbor such intense animosity toward Robert E. Lee that had one such person authored this kind of fabrication, he would have made Lee look like the anti-Christ.) Instead, Lee comes across in the fabricated letter as a caring, wise, and engaged father. The letter puts Lee in such a favorable light that after it was debunked, even admirers of Lee had difficulty accepting that the last lines of the letter in altered form are not an authentic Lee quote. (“Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less.”) Since Lee is not made to look malevolent or buffoonish, what, then, is the motive of the perpetrator of this hoax? There is no definitive answer, but there are a few suppositions.

It may be that this whole incident was simply someone’s prank to fool a major newspaper into publishing something that was a sham, and this may be all that the perpetrator had in mind. Another possibility that has been proposed as the motive is that the intent was to put Lee in a bad light by including the anecdote about the Connecticut Puritan. According to this conjecture, Lee and the Confederate cause are made to look bad because Lee needed to resort to a story about a Northerner in order to advise his son about devotion to duty. In this interpretation, Robert E. Lee, the most successful Confederate commander, was not able to find a suitable Southern example when he wanted to give guidance to his son about devotion to duty. Another possibility is that publication of the letter implicitly proclaimed the occupation of Lee’s own home by the Union army. This letter was published in newspapers in late November 1864, after Abraham Lincoln’s re-election and the fall of Atlanta, and at a time when Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was blocking the Army of the Potomac from capturing Richmond. But although Lee was holding off a Union army from the Confederate capital, his home was in such thorough possession by the Union army that even something as personal as a letter to his son was in Union hands. In this interpretation of the motive for the fabricated letter, Robert E. Lee, the personification of the Confederate military, was portrayed as being unable to protect his own home, and, by extension, Lee and the Confederacy were portrayed as being too weak to prevent defeat by the Union.

Whatever the motive for the fabricated letter, this incident shows that the practice of disseminating fabrications to discredit public figures is not a new phenomenon. The only difference is in the techniques that are employed to distribute those fabrications. In the attempt to put Robert E. Lee in a bad light by using a letter purportedly written by Lee, the written word was spread to the public by the most effective means available at the time, namely newspapers. Nowadays that mode of dissemination is archaically slow compared to the methods available to us. With emails sent over the internet, fabrications can be spread not just throughout the country, but all over the world in far less time than it took Civil War newspapers to distribute the Lee fabrication. Whoever sought to discredit Lee with the fabricated letter probably would have liked to spread his fabrication by email, but he was limited to the means that were available to him, and the internet did not exist at the time of the Civil War. After all, according to an email that was being circulated several years ago, it was not until long after the Civil War that Al Gore invented the internet.