In 2002, two trunks were discovered at the Burke & Herbert Bank & Trust Co. in Alexandria. The trunks were full of letters and other artifacts collected by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s eldest daughter.
Until recently, the only people allowed to see the documents were members of the Lee family and Virginia Historical Society archivists.
But Elizabeth Brown Pryor got a glimpse of a rarely seen side of history when the Lee family granted her access to many of the letters for her 2007 book, “Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters.”
The letters shed new light on young Lee’s relationship with his wife, Mary Custis Lee, a descendant of Martha Washington. Until now, it was not known whether Lee had married for love. But Ms. Pryor said letters from Lee to his future bride “crackle with sexuality.”
Letters from after the Civil War reveal a man struggling with the consequences of the decisions he made in April 1861, when Virginia seceded to the Confederacy and Lee went with it.
“There’s a lot of justifying; you can see that this is a very troubled mind, as we can imagine,” Ms. Pryor said. “It would almost have been strange to go through that experience with the disappointment he did and have not been troubled.”
Ms. Pryor rejects the idea that Lee’s decision to resign from the U.S. Army and lead the Southern army was a foregone conclusion. In fact, Lee could have made a different decision, and many other Virginians did. Forty percent of Virginian officers stayed loyal to the Union, including Gen. Winfield Scott, a man Lee greatly admired. Many Virginians in Lee’s own family remained with the Union.
Lee agonized over the decision for days, pacing back and forth on his porch in what Ms. Pryor called a “Shakespearean moment in American history.” Lee had served more than 30 years in the U.S. Army, spending more time in New York than in any other state. He considered the secession movement “anarchy” and hoped Virginia would not secede.
Lee’s siding with the Confederacy may have surprised some in the North, including President Lincoln and Scott, who thought Lee would fight for the Union. Only a month before Lee resigned from the U.S. Army, he met Lincoln at a White House reception. The next week, Lincoln offered Lee a promotion, which Lee quickly accepted after several states — but not Virginia — seceded.
“It’s hard to know [why Lee resigned his commission and joined the Confederacy] because he never comes out and says, ‘Here’s the reason I did it.’ In fact, he’s very private about it,” Ms. Pryor said.
After resigning from the Army in April 1861, Lee wrote to his brother, “Save in defense of my native State, I have no desire ever again to draw my sword.”
Ms. Pryor also noted that Lee told a friend that he was educated to be loyal to Virginia over the United States. The friend — recalling Lee’s Federalist, Revolutionary War-hero father, Henry Lee III or “Light Horse Harry,” who helped put down the Whiskey Rebellion — wondered about the source of the curious education.
“I think it shows you there’s an emotional quality to this, an instinctual quality to his decision that didn’t have anything to do with facts,” said Ms. Pryor. “I think that’s really it: an instinctual decision on his part.”
Still, Lee’s decision to lead Confederate troops remains puzzling, given his stated desire to sit out the war. Ms. Pryor thinks Lee’s views on slavery “color the reason he emotionally felt more of a tie with the South than he did with the North.”
“That is just not true,” she said. “I found lots and lots of documents relating to slavery and relating to his views of slavery.
“It’s interesting because Lee had the greatest publicist in the world in the 19th century who wanted to portray him in a certain way,” she said. “When a society creates a folkloric figure, it superimposes the traits on that person that it would like him to be considered as having, such as Lee being anti-slavery.”
She said it is true that Lee regarded slavery as an “unfortunate institution” but that view was primarily because of the harmful ways slavery affected whites. Other than that, Lee’s position on slavery “is absolutely the pro-slavery line of his day, right down the line.”
Ms. Pryor said one interesting aspect of Lee’s legacy is how varied the opinions are about the man. In some regions, Lee is regarded as a symbol “of everything that the South thinks is good and what they’d like to have people believe is true about their society.” She said Lee has been a “role model” to Southerners. Others view Lee as “a symbol of oppression” or “a person who betrayed the nation’s trust.”
Despite what one may think of Lee, Ms. Pryor said, the lesson of his life is that “you can fail and still not be a failure,” a notion counterintuitive in an American culture that values achievement and victory.
“Whatever happened during the war, whatever you think about the decisions he made in 1861, he becomes a positive force for the reunification of the country,” said Ms. Pryor. “There’s this redemptive quality about it as well, that you can get another chance, in which you can get it right, somehow, in the end.”