Sunday, November 25, 2012

Robert E. Lee's Daughter Laments the Great War

When the maelstrom of war swept through Europe during the summer of 1914, many vacationing Americans were caught up the in tide of events and found themselves unwitting witnesses to the opening rounds of the First World War. One such Americans was none other than Mary Custis Lee – the oldest daughter of the famous Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Ms. Lee had been travelling abroad for nearly a decade by the time that war broke out and had resided in France, Germany, Italy, and even Egypt. She happened to find herself in Germany when that country violated Belgian neutrality and the dominoes began to fall, ensuring that what many thought would be a short European war would develop into a global conflict. Wisely deciding that she had better return to the United States, Ms. Lee managed to work her way through Holland to London, where she gave a fascinating interview to the New York Times as she awaited transport to the U.S.


Mary Custis Lee, 1914
The interview took place at Hyde Park Hotel on October 21, 1914. By this point in the early days of the war, the “Miracle of the Marne” had taken place and the race to the race to the sea had just finished. The horrors of large-scale trench warfare that would define the conflict had not begun, yet Ms. Lee speaks of the soldiers suffering in the trenches.
From the 22 October 1914 issue of The New York Times:

LONDON, Oct. 21.—Miss Mary Lee, the only surviving daughter of Gen. Robert E. Lee, has just reached London from Hamburg via Rotterdam, and to-day she gave the correspondent of THE NEW YORK TIMES a striking interview at Hyde Park Hotel, where she will stop until she sails for America.
I am a soldier's daughter," she said, "and descended from a long line of soldiers, but what I have seen of this war, and what I can foresee of the misery which must follow, have made me very nearly a peace-at-any-price woman."

A battalion of Lord Kitchener's new army was marching by directly beneath the room in which Miss Lee was speaking. They started to sing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," and Miss Lee, who had never heard this now imperishable music hall ballad, went to the window and stood for some time silently looking at the column of khaki-clad men below her. When she turned to speak again there were tears in her eyes, and her voice broke.
"My father often used to say," she said, looking straight at a table on which was a picture of Lord Kitchener, autographed by "K. of K." himself no longer ago than last Christmas, "that war was a terrible alternative, and should be the very last. I have remembered those words in the last three months, and I often wonder and wonder with many misgivings if in this case war was the last alternative. As I say, I am a soldier's daughter, and got my first full view of life in the dark days of one of the world's great civil wars, but it has been an altering experience for me to watch, one week in Germany and the next week in England, the handsome, the strong, the brave of both countries marching away to kill or to get killed, perhaps to return no more, perhaps to return maimed and useless men. My father used to say it was not those who were killed in battle—often a quick and always a glorious death for a soldier—but those who, crippled and mangled and enfeebled, faced after the war a world that they could not understand and that had no place for them.

"I think of all of this and ask myself why must it be? What can be worth it? I feel close to the English people, and particularly close to the English Army. I have known many English officers and their wives and daughters. Last Winter, in Egypt, I had the privilege of seeing something of Lord Kitchener, and I have a high admiration for him. But much of what I see in the English press seems hysterical and without reason. The spy mania, for instance, and the senseless calling the Germans Huns and Vandals. I have known many German military men, and I cannot believe that these men are what the English imagination has painted them.
"From the beginning of the war I have been neutral. I have tried to follow President Wilson's advice in word and deed. My sympathy is with suffering wherever it exists—with the brave men who are fighting and suffering in the trenches and the brave women who, in practically all the homes of Europe, are waiting and suffering."

Mary Custis Lee, the last surviving child of Gen. Lee, would live to see the full realization of trench warfare and even lived to see the Armistice. She passed away on November 22, 1918.

23 comments:

  1. Burgess Foster, BA, MSJanuary 5, 2013 at 2:52 AM

    I can appreciate her candor. Her father was a traitor though. He was the West Point Superintendent, he chose to raise an army and lead it against the sovereignty of the USA. "Last Alternative!" Give me a break! He was more responsible for pogrom and carnage than Osama bin Laden: 500,000 killed on American soil!! Robert E. Lee never did a day in jail-Jefferson Davis not prosecuted ... are you kidding me. One story has it that Lee tried to get back a piece of furniture at Arlington Place that belonged to General Geo. Washington his distant relative by marriage! The gall! And Jefferson Davis was the son-in-law to Zachary Taylor-they probably poisoned the POTUS. U.S. Senator from MI Zacharia Chandler was right-they all should have stretched hemp! Her interview was Historical .... May her soul rest in peace!And to think we the U.S. Gov't allowed former Confederates who betrayed us for Domestic Enemies were allowed to retake their seats in the U.S. Congress: men like Alexander Stephens, V.P. of the CSA!!!

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    1. He did not raise an army. Separatists had already organized and captured many arsenals in the south and very nearly captured Col. RE Lee who was on his way from Texas to Washington as an officer in the US army.

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    2. In a letter to President Grant after rumors of war with Spain were rampant former General Nathan Bedfore Forrest wrote to Grant volunteering for service in the US Army should war break out. Grant wrote him back thanking him for his patriotism and said had war broke out then Grant would have appointed Forrest the command of the entire US Army.

      How's that for forgiveness?

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    3. jeff davis did see Jail time, and as part of the terms of surrender R.E. Lee got to walk home! Perhas your Ba. and MS, were in science, definitly neither art or History!

      And what a grand dame!

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    4. Robert E. Lee did NOT fight for a "country." He fought for freedom and was a great man.

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  2. Mr. Foster sir, while you may have as much disdain as you wish for Robert E. Lee, your commentary shows a complete and total disregard for the historical record, the political and social climate prior to and during the American Civil War and a lack of contextual understanding of history. It is easy for us today to view the Civil War and the actions of those who aligned themselves with the Confederacy as traitors when we view it through the lens of modern day social and political environments. One can't remove the people and events from their time and make the sort of judgments you have made much less draw the conclusions you have drawn. You are entitled to your opinion of course, but you are not entitled to your own facts removed from proper historical context.

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  3. Mr. Hormula, I cannot articulate my feelings as well as you, but I wholeheartedly agree with your comments!

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  4. I understand Michael Homula's tendency toward viewing the 19th century through a lens that is not borne of current sensibilities, but Mr. Foster is absolutely correct. The leaders of the Confederacy WERE traitors, and defending them now, in later centuries, suggests that the union was not an institution to be respected until AFTER Appomattox. There is no difference between pre-Civil War south and post-Civil War south. They seceded from their country because rich planters could not maintain their wealth if they had to pay for labor. They had turned a blind eye to the inhumanity of slavery, and saw it only as a mercantile concern. They fought for their states' "rights." True enough, however, it's a game of semantics since those "rights" they coveted so much were simply the right to maintain their slave economy and continue to grow it into the new Kansas/Nebraska territories. The northern aspect of the country knew that it couldn't outlaw slavery in one felled swoop, so they made a case for containment. Lee was a slave trader up until the time that he left Arlington and moved his family to Richmond for the duration of the war. Jeff Davis was absolutely a traitor to his country, regardless any representative argument the south may have had for the ability to maintain some equality with the industrial north. None of that matters because there IS a bottom line to this discussion. Slavery has never known ONE SINGLE DAY when it was merely the 'way of the times' and not an injustice to humanity. Slavery has ALWAYS been exactly the same as we view it today. The fact that a majority of Americans didn't feel that way as late as the 19th century alters nothing. There WERE abolitionists in the 19th century as well, and as long as there were intelligent people who saw and felt the inhumanity of slavery as a cause celebre, then opposition to slavery ought not to have been an outlandish concept. The war WAS fought over slavery, though the south to this day has a very hard time with that admission, because they've fallen in love with the term "states' rights," which, in the case of the Civil War, meant the right to continue the practice of slavery. Let's get real. Lincoln's and Grant's attitude toward their enemy upon surrender was magnanimous, and, in keeping with that notion, the worst thing that happened to the south, apart from the death of hundreds of thousands of it sons, was the assassination of Lincoln. He alone would have been the savior of postwar Dixie. Instead, thanks to Mr. Booth, the south got carpetbaggers and financial punishment, none of which would have occurred had Lincoln lived to serve out his next 4 years.

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    1. and as Mr Lincolns' ferry pulled away from Harrisons landing , he stood, and turned to the Band conductor and simply requested"PLay Dixie " "It belongs to all of us Now"

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    2. unions fine, just the inbreads who dont recognie thats states rights was found wanting, Thank God for Ulyssys S. Grant! Savior of the Union!

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  5. How's that Union working out for you, As were slowly dragged into DEBT servitude and generational betrayal.

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  6. War is hell & a waste of human life.

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  7. It is not disingenuous to view the Civil War through contemporary lenses. Read the c.1860 papers and you will see the same condemnation of traitors such as Lee, Jackson, and Davis. There is no way to put lipstick on the carnage caused by the CSA. The country is still sick with the PTSD hangover from the Civil War.

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  8. As far as I am concerned, General Lee was the greatest and most loved General Officer the US Military ever produced.

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    1. Not true: see generals: Washington ,Arnold, Chesty Puller ,Winfield Scott,Admiral Perry, andrew Jackson, Green, Faregut, and the Most Beloved General ever, U.S. Grant!

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  9. Lee, like other men, was faced with an intolerable decision: His home, Virginia, the place of his ancestors, was breaking away from the Union. He was a career U.S. military officer who's allegiance, skill and bravery were never before in doubt. The war that had been coming for years finally arrived- Started by the real problem children, BTW- South Carolina- and now Lee was left to make an impossible choice.

    What to do? His home was splitting in two. Lee chose his home State- Virginia, his family and his friends, over the Union.

    I don't blame Lee. And since I have never been faced with the choice, I won't judge him either.

    This I will say- Damn him to hell- He was offered the overall command of all Union forces. If he'd taken it, the Confederacy could have been beaten swiftly and many thousands of lives may have been saved. In that respect, he does have blood on his hands.

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  10. With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan, to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace amoung ourselves and with all nations.

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  11. traitor is a matter of opinion as i am sure the british felt the same about the continental congress back in the day, the difference as far as i can see is that the colonies were put there as an extension of the empire; states were connected voluntarily and as such should have been allowed to leave peacefully once it had been voted upon.

    quite frankly it really doesn't matter why a state wants to leave if they are in a voluntary union. lincoln and grant crushed the south utterly and those people weren't going to ever forgive that. sure, lincoln probably convinced himself that he would save the south especially after having so much blood on his hands but common sense would dictate that wasn't ever going to happen. kill my husband brother or father, take my cherished possessions burn my house down and leave me impoverished....well, it's not a stretch to say that i would hate you and wish for you to burn in hell for eternity.

    so i have to disagree with the whole lincoln saviour thing although to hear liberals talk he, jfk and barack obama are the holy trinity-LOL!

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  12. I am not the anonymous above nor am I any anony below this entry should there be any. Lee declined to "raise his sword" against friends and family as he regarded his fellow Virginians. This great strategist abhorred slavery as did Stonewall Jackson. Leaving the Union army and the Commander in Chief role offered to him weighed on him heavily and was a great agony.
    In the end he realized that any Federal Union which required rifles and bayonets to hold it together was a Union he could never muster any affection for. I would liken it to staying in a loveless marriage out of fear of being disinherited by a rich inlaw.

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  13. As to Miss Lee's comments about trenchs, they were used extensively during the siege of Richmond, and since the article states that the interview took place after the Race to the Sea she likely had a better idea of what was coming than most.

    U.S. Civil War; Keep in mind that pre-Civil War the Union was viewed as being more similar to what the European Union is thought of as now, though still with a stronger central government. Going home to defend your family, friends and property was not likely seen as it would be now. As late as the 1840's New England had been threatening secession over taxation, trade, and foreign relations issues. If South Carolina had remained patient and not fired on Fort Sumter the C.S.A. would likely have been allowed to go it's own way, there were a number of parties, both North and South, that were attempting to negotiate such an outcome.

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  14. A. David Merritt: sorry But perhaps you dont realize that before Ft sumter, there were actually battles, seizing of forts, armories, and even a cornel shot for removing the confederate flag in Arlington Virginia(old Map washington DC>)

    Sumter was not the first, but it was the one were even President Buchanon drew the Line! There would not have been the states that followed (Tenn, North carolina,Virginia maryland,arkansas)but there wouldhave been a war, albeit with greater Brevity!

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    1. The fact that you have President Buchanan still making decisions in mid-April 1861 and Maryland seceding after Ft. Sumter only serves to highlight your ignorance regarding that period of history.

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  15. Lee was a man of honor and integrity rather than a traitor as was suggested by Mr. Foster. The only traitor during Lincoln's War was Lincoln himself as he started a war by invading the South and kept the South in the Union through force of arms and 600,000 deaths. Two republics died when General Lee surrendered and look what we have now. States should have the right to democratically withdraw from the Union as this right and opportunity is the final defense against tyranny.

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