August 8, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee submitted his resignation as commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to President Jefferson Davis.
As both the Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate army settled into their camps following the Gettysburg campaign, Lee reflected on his defeat, his general depression as a result, and his recent health problems (having possibly suffered a heart attack). He wrote Davis from his Orange headquarters acknowledging the high command’s dissatisfaction with his performance at Gettysburg.
Lee took a philosophical tone regarding the state of the army:
“We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies, and to prevent our falling into greater disasters. Our people have only to be true and united, to bear manfully the misfortunes incident to war, and all will come right in the end.”
Noting the natural inclination to “blame others for the non-fulfillment of our expectations,” Lee wrote that it was “unbecoming in a generous people… I grieve to see its expression.” Lee then wrote:
“The general remedy for the want of success in a military commander is his removal. This is natural, and, in many instances, proper. For, no matter what may be the ability of the officer, if he loses the confidence of his troops disaster must sooner or later ensue. I have been prompted by these reflections more than once since my return from Pennsylvania to propose to Your Excellency the propriety of selecting another commander for this army. I have seen and heard of expression of discontent in the public journals at the result of the expedition. I do not know how far this feeling extends in the army. My brother officers have been too kind to report it, and so far the troops have been too generous to exhibit it. It is fair, however, to suppose that it does exist, and success is so necessary to us that nothing should be risked to secure it. I therefore, in all sincerity, request Your Excellency to take measures to supply my place.”
Lee further explained:
“I cannot even accomplish what I myself desire. How can I fulfill the expectations of others? I have not yet removed from the (heart) 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. 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 attained.”
Lee’s letter of resignation shocked Davis, who relied on Lee as his top field commander. Dealing with other pressing matters at the same time, Davis responded to Lee three days later:
“Yours of the 8th instant has been received. There has been nothing which I have found to require a greater effort of patience than to bear the criticisms of the ignorant, who pronounce everything a failure which does not equal their expectations or desires, and can see no good result which is not in the line of their own imaginings.”
Davis acknowledged “that an officer who loses the confidence of his troops should have his position changed, whatever may be his ability, but-when I read the sentence I was not at all prepared for the application you were about to make.” Davis declared that “expressions of discontent in the public journals furnish but little evidence of the sentiment of an army,” and he considered the press “generally partisan” and “venal.”
Regarding Lee’s argument that he should be replaced, Davis wrote:
“But suppose, my dear friend, that I were to admit, with all their implications, the points which you present, where am I to find that new commander who is to possess the greater ability which you believe to be required?… if Providence should kindly offer such a person for our use, I would not hesitate to avail of his services… My sight is not sufficiently penetrating to discover such hidden merit, if it exists, and I have but used to you the language of sober earnestness when 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.”
Davis refused to accept Lee’s resignation, concluding:
“It only remains for me to hope that you will take all possible care of yourself, that your health and strength may be entirely restored, and that the Lord will preserve you for the important duties devolved upon you in the struggle of our suffering country for the independence which we have engaged in war to maintain.”
When Lee received Davis’s letter, he responded by offering to serve in a lesser capacity: “The lower the position, the more suitable to my ability, and the more agreeable to my feelings. Beyond such assistance as I can give an invalid wife and three houseless daughters I have no object in life but to devote myself to the defense of our violated country’s rights.”
But Davis would have none of it. Lee was the only Confederate army commander with whom he never had a quarrel. He could not allow him to serve in any capacity other than commander of the army that protected the Confederate capital.
Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 428; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 315; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), p. 656-62; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 338; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 162; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 395-96