Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Today in Civil War history: August 8, 1863, Davis refuses Lee's resignation

I stated before that I wanted this Civil War blog to be unique and I will stick to that. Today I want to discuss an event that occured 144 years ago and to many it is one of those obscure events that had an impact on the Civil War. Confederate President Jefferson Davis refused General Robert E. Lee's resignation. Our story actually begins after the battle of Gettysburg and the first major defeat of Robert E. Lee. Shelby Foote once said that, "Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Robert E. Lee as commander." The South lost 28,000 men at Gettysburg and it was a cost that they never recovered from. Lee became very depressed after the battle and he sat down one day to write a letter to Davis.

In part Lee wrote "I cannot even accomplish what I myself desire. How can I fulfill the expectations of others? In addition I sensibly feel the growing failure of my bodily strength. I have not yet recovered from the attack I experienced the past spring. I am becoming more and more incapable of exertion, and am thus prevented from making the personal examinations and giving the personal supervision to the operations in the field which I feel to be necessary. I am so dull in making use of the eyes of others I am frequently misled. Everything, therefore, points to the advantages to be derived from a new commander, and I the more anxiously urge the matter upon Your Excellency from my belief that a younger and abler man than myself can readily be obtained."
Lee's offer was not accepted by Jefferson Davis who wrote Lee on two different occasions to refuse the proposition. Davis wrote, "I have impressed upon you the propriety of avoiding all unnecessary exposure to danger, because I felt our country could not bear to lose you. To ask me to substitute you by some one in my judgment more fit to command, or who would possess more of the confidence of the army, or of the reflecting men of the country, is to demand an impossibility. . . ." As history states, Lee continued as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia for the wars duration and his death in 1870 was celebrated by the entire nation. The Confederacy would have lost the war sooner had Robert E. Lee's resignation been accepted by Davis. In retrospect, some might accuse Lee of keeping the war going by not quitting even if his resignation wasn't accepted. That is easy to say when you look at the history of it but even with the setbacks of Gettysburg and Vicksburg many Confederate leaders felt that they still had a chance to win the war. Without Robert E. Lee those chances would have collapsed under their own weight because General Lee was seen as a key to maintaining southern morale. He was one of the war's best commanders and without him all would have been lost in Confederate minds.


Freeman's entire work on Lee is available for online reading and it is located here:

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