Rediscovered: Robert E. Lee's Earliest-Known Letter
Pryor, Elizabeth Brown, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Every research project resembles a treasure hunt, its days of painstaking labor enlivened by the hope of surprising discoveries. Not all scholarly explorations yield rich historical booty, but sometimes a valuable document unexpectedly appears, as thrilling as a pirate ship's emerald earrings. As is so often the case, the rediscovery of Robert E. Lee's earliest-known letter happened accidentally, while searching for something quite different.
The letter is Lee's personal application to West Point, giving some biographical details and explaining his preparatory studies. Historians had assumed this letter existed, for Charles Carter Lee, Robert's brother, mentions it in his own petition to the War Department. "I enclose you a letter from my youngest brother, who is an applicant, as you know, for a place at the Military Academy," reads his note of 28 February 1824 to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. Robert's rediscovered letter also bears that date.1
Long missing from the National Archives, which holds Lee's application file, the letter resurfaced while the author was searching an 1886 edition of the Alexandria Gazette for a set of local recollections. The paper contained a brief article entitled "A Letter Written by General Lee," which explained that a gentleman in San Francisco had the letter in his possession, acquired "through the influence of a friend in Washington." It included a transcription and mentioned that a facsimile had been reproduced in the San Francisco Post. The transcription was intriguing but seemed to contain factual inaccuracies. Its provenance was also questionable.2 To authenticate the document, either the original or a verifiable facsimile would have to be found.
The San Francisco Post proved to be elusive: many California archives were destroyed during the earthquake of 1906, and the paper changed its name during the period when the letter was reproduced. With the help of the Virginia Historical Society and the Doe Library at the University of California, Berkeley, however, a rare microfilm copy of the San Francisco Evening Post-which was thought to be the likeliest journalistic descendant-was acquired. And after a painstaking search, the letter marvelously appeared-in facsimile. A comparison of the signature, address line, and handwriting with the note previously thought to be the earliest Lee manuscript showed them to be identical.3
Having just heard that it was always agreable to you to receive from every applicant for a Cadets Warrant, a statement of his age, studies, &c, made by himself, I take the earliest opportunity of sending you the following.
I completed my eighteenth year on the 29th of last January, I have read, besides the small authors which are generally begun with, Caesar, Sallust, Virgil, Cicero, Horace, and Tacitus of the Latin Authors, and the Graeca Minora, the Graeca Majora, Xenophon, Homer, Longinus of the Greek, and have studied Arithmetic, Algebra, and the first six books of Euclid.
In confirmation of my statement I enclose you the certificate of Mr Leary which though less flattering and rhetorical than that which Mr Garnett was so kind as to send you is more precise and satisfactory.
Alexa, Febry 28th 1824. I remain Sir your most
Obedient Servant R. E. Lee4
On the surface this is a not-overly fascinating account of Lee's classical education. But look closely, for it not only reveals a rather uncertain young man but also raises some tantalizing questions about the date of Lee's birth.
We know Lee had a taste for military life and wanted badly to go to West Point. For 150 years, biographers have surmised that he attended the military academy because of his family's diminished fortunes; as the youngest son, there were simply no means to give him any other education. Yet recently discovered documents show that his mother tried to discourage an army career and that it was Lee's own determination that carried him to the academy. …