Primary Source: Letter from Gen. Robert E. Lee to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, 1863

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

After losing the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, Robert E. Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis a letter outlining his situation. It offers insight into the state of the army, Lee's personal thoughts, and the relationship of the two men.

1863 and the Civil War

General Robert E. Lee, the commanding general of the Confederate army, wrote a letter to President Jefferson Davis of the Confederacy following the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3rd, 1863. Lee and Davis had a tempestuous relationship: Lee was an audacious commander who favored aggressive action while Davis adopted a strategy of not losing rather than winning, hoping to force the Union to agree to a negotiated end to the war.

Lee remains, by far, the most popular figure of the Confederacy throughout the Civil War. He is often considered one of the greatest American soldiers, capable of doing far more with far less than his (sometimes inept) Union counterparts who relied on raw numbers to win battles. Yet Lee had his faults, including his decision to commit such a large portion of his army to the fighting in Gettysburg, which is often considered the turning point of the Civil War. After the defeat at this small Pennsylvania town, the Confederate military would never again seize the initiative and go on the offensive for the remainder of the war.

Historians have criticized Davis for micro-managing the war rather than leaving it to his commanding officers. Some, however, have been more sympathetic of Davis due to the difficulty of his position. One of the great ironies of the Civil War is that the Confederate government, meant to contrast the overarching federal authority of the United States by giving states greater autonomy, left Davis without the authority needed to order the southern states to commit more men and resources to the conflict.

If you'd like more practice in how to analyze and interpret letters as primary sources, please check out our lesson Practice Analyzing and Interpreting a Letter.

Text of Letter from Gen. Robert E. Lee to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, 1863

His Excellency Jefferson Davis

President Confederate States

Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia near Hagerstown, Md, July 8, 1863.

Mr. President,

My letter of yesterday should have informed you of the position of this army. Though reduced in numbers by the hardships and battles through which it has passed since leaving the Rappahannock its condition is good and its confidence unimpaired.

When crossing the Potomac into Maryland, I had calculated upon the river remaining fordable during the summer, so as to enable me to recross at my pleasure, but a series of storms commencing the day after our entrance into Maryland has placed the river beyond fording stage and the present storms will keep it so for at least a week.

I shall therefore have to accept battle if the enemy offers it, whether I wish to or not, and as the result is in the hands of the Sovereign Ruler of the universe and known to him only, I deem it prudent to make every arrangement in our power to meet any emergency that may arrive.

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