Primary Resource

Memoranda of Conversations with General Robert E. Lee by William Preston Johnston (1868, 1870)

In these memoranda, dated in 1868 and 1870, William Preston Johnston recalls two conversations with Robert E. Lee, then president of Washington College, in Lexington. Johnston, the son of the Confederate general Albert Sydney Johnston, was a Confederate veteran and a member of the faculty. Johnston went on to serve as president of Louisiana State University and was the first president of Tulane University.

Transcription from Original

General R. E. Lee,

Memoranda of Conversation

May 7, 1868

General Lee talked with me today about the operations of his army. He said that at the Wilderness, Ewell showed vacillation that prevented him from getting all out of his troops he might. If Jackson had been alive and there, he would have crushed the enemy. He said Longstreet was slow in coming up "next day" (I think he said); that if he had been in time he would have struck the enemy on the flank while they were engaged in front. He said Longstreet was often slow. He said that when his line was attacked there while Longstreet was relieving Hill (or vice-versa) that the men received a blow that injured their morale. He always felt afraid when going to attack after that. He spoke of Grant's gradual whirl and change of base from Fredericksburg to Port Royal, thence to York River and thence to James River, as a thing which, though foreseen, it was impossible to prevent. He said that his campaign had been compared by General Johnston to his retreat from Dalton. "I do not propose to criticize him," said he, "but I fought the enemy at every step. I faced him and I protected Richmond. Stay-at-home critics may censure my army," said he, "but I believe I got out of them all that they could do or all that any men could do. After Gettysburg, the Herald announced that the army could not be outmaneuvered and must be crushed; and that policy was soon after adopted."

He spoke pretty freely of the policy of the war. He claimed that he knew the strength of the United States Government; and saw the necessity at first of two things—a proclamation of gradual emancipation and the use of negroes as soldiers, and second the necessity of the early and prompt exportation of the cotton. I mentioned the difficulty of a "Confederate Government" resisting a centralized one, to which he assented. He regretted that Breckinridge had not been earlier made secretary of war. "He is a great man", said General Lee. "I was acquainted with him as Congressman and Vice-President and as one of our generals, but I did not know him till he was secretary of War, and he is a lofty, pure, strong man."

General Lee said he is an "American citizen," that he is not factious, but that he cannot and will not say that the Radicals are right. He does not think that the movement of Baldwin, A. H. H. Stuart and others (now) to ask for negro-suffrage and general amnesty will do any good. I expressed this view to which he agreed, and added that immediately after the war he had advised them to adopt "impartial suffrage," (which, he said, would have excluded ten negroes and one white man), say on some restricted franchise basis, and these gentlemen scouted the idea. Old Mr. Wickham said they ought to demand a reopening of the African Slave Trade, "which just shows," said he, "how mad men were." He spoke, however, of the good intentions of Stuart and others.

I spoke to the general of writing his history of the war which elicited the above remarks. He spoke of the difficulty of getting the documents to verify his statements, and his wish to be able to prove all he said; but he told me his purpose to write a history of his army. He explained to me his business arrangements, seizure of Arlington, etc.

The General had been talking with me about the various offers to induce him to enter the insurance business; but the sacredness of such a trust, as he expressed it, and the difficulties of conducting it, made him averse to trying it.

I wish I had taken down more of the conversations of General Lee. No man can talk to him when he opens his mind in full confidence without feeling that he is a proud, pure, strong man. He is confident of his own ability on the battle-field. His capacity is far far above his usual conversation.

W. P. J.

Lexington, Virginia, Friday, march 18, 1870.

Tuesday last, General Lee said to me at his office where I had called on some little matter of routine, that if he did not get better, he would be obliged to resign his position as President of Washington College. I expressed by hope and confidence that he would speedily recover if he would relieve himself of some part of the burthensome labor he takes on himself, but I was called off at once by my hour of lecture. I called next day to hand him a letter I had prepared at his request for his signature. I then took occasion to say to him, after an apology for that liberty, that his words had impressed me very deeply, (as in fact, they had, for I knew that with his reticence and poise he would not have uttered them without much purpose) and that I was greatly pained. I added that his first duty was to himself and his family, but that I was confident his illness was due to overconfinement and want of relaxation and change of air and scene and begged that he would either visit his many friends at Savannah, as I knew Miss Agnes wished, or that he would visit General Rooney Lee at the White House.

He said his trouble was party rheumatic (in his back) but that an adhesion of the membrane of the heart to the pleura impeded his breathing, so that while he could walk down hill, any ascent made it necessary for him to stop and rest, even between the chapel and his house. When he came here, he could and did easily walk to Thornhill, or to my house; and now, though he rode easily, he scarcely walked at all. He alluded to his age, his wish to rest, and, on some little farm, to enjoy the outdoor life of the country. He said he could not go to Savannah without meeting more people than he wanted to.

He was evidently labouring under great depression of spirits, as is always the case with him, when sick.

I tried to point out to him as delicately as I could, that what we wanted here was his control, and not work; that he had everything in such excellent running order, that in his absence the machine would run for a while by its own momentum, with the inspiration of his headship to which we all all looked.

He paid the Faculty some compliments. He mentioned that he wished to visit Alexandria to settle up Mr. Custis's estate. My conversation on these and other topics lasted an hour and a quarter. I saw from this conversation that if he was not turned from his purpose he would resign.

Yesterday, after a conference with White and Allan, who had both been spoken to on the same subject by him, we agreed to call an informal Faculty meeting today and present him our regrets at his state of health and ask him to take at once a journey and a couple of months' relaxation. Colonel Allan consented to draw a paper to that effect, and did so presenting it in the Faculty meeting today at 3 p. m. where all were present except Professor Campbell, absent by some mistake. Professor Kirkpatrick was in the chair, and we adopted the resolutions suggested, and also requesting him to have a professor to attend to his duties during his absence. I (as chairman), White, and Allan were appointed a committee to wait on him, which we did about five o'clock. The General was not looking well. After a few words of ordinary conversation, I told him that the Faculty, in view of his health, had had a meeting and deputed us to present him the letter I then handed him. he playfully replied that we were an irregular body as the President was absent; and, in the same spirit, I told him we had guarded his rights, and only acted as individuals as he would find. He read the paper, and in brief repeated what he had said to me more fully in private, rather evading a direct answer to our request and speaking of horseback exercise, etc. I also substantially, but very briefly and pointedly, repeated my former conversation and told him that it had been frequent matter of comment with us all that he was doing work no wise suited to him; that he ought to be relieved of all clerical labour; and that we felt his true work to be in his supervision and control and the zeal which his mere presence created among us all, and that what we wanted was his wisdom and example to guide us. I also suggested that the best monument to his fame would be a history vindicating our cause; that it was due to himself and the country, and while his residence here might well afford him the best opportunity for the work, it would incidentally benefit the College.

The General replied that he was old. Spoke of our aid in attending to his correspondence and again spoke of the manner in which the Faculty had done their duty. He said he was hardly calculated for a historian. He was too much interested and might be biassed. I said that every body would at least give him credit for trying to tell the truth, at which he laughed. He spoke of his efforts to get correct copies of the Confederate records now in Washington and the difficulties, and alluded with some feeling and despondency to the demoralization of the country and his fear that worse was ahead. By the bye, the other day, he spoke to me of the "vindictiveness and malignity of the Yankees, of which he had no conception before the war." He said today also, that General Scott was induced to believe that pacification was intended by Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward, and tried to persuade him that Mr. Lincoln would recede. He was told that Mr. F. P. Blair asked in the caucus, "In that event what is to become of the Republican Party?" The same question now animates the North to cruelty. He finally alluded again to his age, ill-health, wish for rest and desire and to make some permanent home for Mrs. Lee, "who is very helpless", he said. He also said that he felt he might at any moment die.

I answered that whatever was his final resolution, he had done a good work here, and we would be satisfied of the wisdom and good feeling on which it was based.

During the latter part of the interview, his eyes were often moist, and we all laboured under a good deal of feeling. He promised to consider the communication. And now it is my belief that his purpose is fixed and that we shall soon lose General Lee at Washington College. I begged him last Fall to take a trip, but could not persuade him.

William Preston Johnson