Gettysburg Address: Parsing a Letter with a Detailed Description

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Review of General Robert E Lee as a Source in His Gettysburg Battle Report to Confederate President Davis

Robert E Lee is perhaps one of the most influential and controversial generals in American military history. He is often considered a brilliant tactician yet a lackluster strategist. He is also sometimes considered loyal to his state to a fault of fighting for a cause some consider to be the unjust enslavement of fellow human beings, but others consider a fight for liberty against an oppressive and overbearing government. Regardless of your moral judgement of General Lee, it is undisputable his role in American history. In this review, all aspects of General Lee as an original source of history will be considered as his letter detailing the events and effects of the Battle of Gettysburg are analyzed.

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Lee was the 4th child of Ann Hill Carter and Henry Lee, a cavalry leader during the American Revolution and governor of Virginia (Dowdey). Despite the apparent advantage of his father’s position, he was not particularly wealthy, and thus went to West Point Military school rather than a prestigious traditional university (Dowdey). He graduated second in his class, which, along with his father’s prestige during the Revolution and outstanding conduct during the Mexican-American War, gave him an outstanding military pedigree that set the framework to rise through the ranks of the US Military. He was in Texas when it became the 7th state to secede on February 1, 1861 and returned to Virginia when he was asked to command an army to oppose the seceded states, declining the position. When Virginia later voted to secede, he resigned from his position in the US Army and was accepted his most famous position as the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. His reasoning for siding with the confederacy was noted in a letter to his sister, Anne Marshal, where he stated that although he thought the war would “yield to nothing”, and “ [I] had not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home”(Recollections).

Now, with his reasoning for participating in the war established, comes the letter detailing his defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg, widely considered the most significant battle of the American Civil War. General Robert E. Lee wrote this letter to the first and last President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, on July 4th, 1863 (Lee, Report). This was after over two years of constant fighting between the Union and Confederacy where although Lee had achieved many momentous victories in individual battles, he recognized his army to be losing the war of attrition. He recognized that the economy of the Union was much stronger than that of the Confederacy and therefore felt that he had to press the attack before he ran out of men and supplies (Recollections).

He describes to the Confederate President in very broad strokes the events of the battle. He mentions to Davis that “intelligence was received that the army of General Hooker was advancing” and so he commanded the entire army to Gettysburg to cut off the advance (Lee, Report). On the first day of the three-day battle, he speaks of his army ambushing the Union troops from the town, taking “more than 4000 prisoners” and pushing them to “a strong position in the rear of the town” where they were heavily reinforced (Lee, Report). On the second and third days he describes an effort from his army to advance on the Union position, and making promising gains, but ultimately taking heavy losses and having to retreat.

The purpose of this letter is clearly to inform President Davis the impact of the Battle of Gettysburg. The letter is very formal in nature in that it only describes the events that happened from Lee’s perspective and does not engage in any frivolities. It also doesn’t describe any of the conflict or events before the battle, so it can be assumed that Davis either was already informed of the circumstances beforehand or it was not considered relevant information for Lee to share. Although President Davis also had a military background, Lee probably assumed that the more minute details were not as relevant to his position, since he submitted a far more detailed report to the Headquarters of the Army of West Virginia (Recollections). Instead, he opts into more detail about the heavy losses taken from the battle, especially regarding the many officers and generals who died or were injured.

The content of the letter is mostly credible and believable. He says much of the same information in his report to military headquarters, just in much greater detail. A few details change, such as the number of prisoners taken in the initial attack being closer to five thousand rather than four thousand, but he may not have had the exact information at the penning of the earlier letter. However, he seems to have left the state of the army and thus the entire front of the war vague in his letter to Davis, and the President would also probably be relatively in the dark about the future of the war. In a letter to his wife on July 12th, merely 8 days after the retreat, solemnly stated,

“…You will, however, learn before this reaches you that our success at Gettysburg was not so great as reported–in fact, that we failed to drive the enemy from his position, and that our army withdrew to the Potomac. Had the river not unexpectedly risen, all would have been well with us; but God, in His all-wise providence, willed otherwise, … May God guide and protect us all is my constant prayer. (Recollections, Ch. 5)’

This indicates that Lee was very pessimistic about the chances of the Confederacy after Gettysburg. He seemed resigned to the fact that only God could save him and his army from ultimate defeat.

Although clearly concerned about the future of the war, he didn’t let his burden show to anyone except his wife. His son recollected an interaction with his father shortly after Gettysburg, stating:

“The disappointment in the Gettysburg campaign, to which he alludes in his letter to my mother, was not shown in anything he said or did. He was calm and dignified with all, at times bright and cheerful, and always had a pleasant word for those about him.” (Recollections, Ch. 5).

The stoicism he showed was clear in the letter to Davis as well as in person, even to his own son. It also showed that he was trying to set a tone of stoicism as the culture for his entire army. The social conditions around him would have surely started to break down if their own commander was showing signs of despair with regards to the outlook of the war.

This document is immensely important to the history of the United States. Robert E. Lee is arguably the most important figure in US military history and it details his perspective of arguably the most important battle in US history. It also shows that his relationship with President Davis was strictly professional, exemplifying his prioritizing of Virginia over the Confederacy as a whole. More than that, it is important to me personally as an American since the battle was so crucial to the history of the country I live in. It was the deadliest battle of the entire civil war and had a very high number of officers and generals killed. I also have an interest in US military history in general since I have many family members who have served in the US military dating all the way back to the American Revolution. I also have family that lived in Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania, which Lee’s army departed from to get to Gettysburg, so the location of the battle has personal relevance to me. The Battle of Gettysburg was a tremendous event in history, and Lee’s letter to Davis showed about the General’s character.

Works Cited

  1. Lee, Robert E., July 4th, 1863. The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.
  2. Clifford Dowdey.
  3. Lee, Robert E. jr., The Recollections & Letters of Robert E. Lee. Copyright, 1904, by Doubleday, Page & Company. Published, October 1904.

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Gettysburg Address: Parsing a Letter with a Detailed Description. (2021, Nov 30). Retrieved from

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