President Abraham Lincoln and General Robert E. Lee are forever linked in our minds because they were the major players on each side during the Civil War. Their last names begin with the same letter but the similarities don't stop there. After dying their contemporaries painted them as the idealistic vision of perfection. These colleagues claimed that Lee and Lincoln had few vices and were the greatest leaders in their respective fields. The truth behind these claims is not the purpose of this blog because they share something that few people discuss and many are unaware of.
Despite the wealth of R.E. Lee and Abe Lincoln books out there today neither man wrote personal memoirs. All historians have to go by are the letters, reports and documents written by these men. Yes, it is better than nothing but lets not forget that their contemporaries wrote their first biographies. Lee and Lincoln have been unable to speak on many of their actions and they may remain silent forever.
If Lee's heart had held up and/or Booth's bullet had misses Lincoln's head than we might have the memoirs of these great men. Why did Lee order Pickett's Charge? How impressions did Lincoln get from his cabinet when he announced the Emancipation Proclamation? These and a million other questions go unanswered unless a lost document shows up in some dusty archive somewhere.
What does the lack of personal memoirs cause? For one thing, it causes many historical questions to go unanswered because we cannot view the events through their own eyes. Moreover, historians of Grant and Sherman can read the words of those men and make historical judgement based on the facts written. In many ways we cannot do this with Lincoln and Lee. Many of the facts behind their actions come from their documents and letters. As historians we have to make due with what we have and many libraries hold thousands of these valuable items. It is a shame that Lee's postwar descriptions of his campaigns and Lincolns post-administration view of his presidency go unanswered. Unfortunately these moments are lost forever to history. However, if anyone asked me the two historical books that I would like to read the most it would be the Memoirs of Abraham Lincoln and the Memoirs of Robert E. Lee. Great stuff.