Lot 13
  • 13

Lee, Robert E.

200,000 - 300,000 USD
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Autograph letter signed ("R E Lee"), 1 1/4 pages (8 x 5 1/8 in.; 203 x 129 mm) on a sheet of paper, Richmond, 13 June 1865, to General Edward O. Ord, with autograph envelope addressed "Genl Ord | Comm[andin]g &c" and docketed "fr Gen Lee," accompanied by several related later documents (described below).


Autograph letter signed ("R E Lee"), 1 1/4 pages (8 x 5 1/8 in.; 203 x 129 mm) on a sheet of paper, Richmond, 13 June 1865, to General Edward O. Ord, with autograph envelope addressed "Genl Ord | Comm[andin]g &c" and docketed "fr Gen Lee," accompanied by several related later documents (described below).
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Catalogue Note

Robert E. Lee's long road to amnesty and restored citizenship.

While the two figures most intimately associated with the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse are Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, Grant's compatriot Edward O. Ord played an instrumental role in ending the Civil War. On 9 April, he led the Army of the James on a forced march to relieve General Phil Sheridan, and his arrival determined Lee that his Army of Northern Virginia could no longer successfully resist the North's offensive. No less a warrior than William Tecumseh Sherman stated that Ord's "skillful, hard march the night before was one of the chief causes of Lee's surrender." Ord—encouraged by Confederate General James Longstreet, whom he had met during an exchange of prisoners— had in fact been working for a month to initiate peace talks between Lee and Grant. Ord had the honor of receiving Lee's letter of 9 April asking for "a suspension of hostilities pending the discussion of the terms of surrender," which he eloquently docketed, "the within read—acted upon ... men at rest ... firing stopped" (sold, Sotheby's, 26 October 1988, lot 102).

The assassination of President Lincoln threw the peace and reconstruction process into confusion. Lincoln's successor, Vice President Andrew Johnson, shared his lenient view of the vanquished South, but he did not possess either the political capital or skill that Lincoln had, and many of his efforts were thwarted by hardliners bent on punishing the former Confederate states. Lee himself was indicted on charges of treason in federal court in Virginia.

Both Ord and Lee were strong proponents of full regional reconciliation once the South had laid down her arms, and Ord sent the former Confederate commander a copy of President Johnson's Amnesty Proclamation of 29 May 1865. Johnson's executive order granted "to all persons who have, directly or indirectly, participated in the existing rebellion, except as hereinafter excepted, amnesty and pardon, with restoration of all rights of property, except as to slaves, and except in cases where legal proceedings, under the laws of the United States providing for the confiscation of property of persons engaged in rebellion, have been instituted."

In Lee's case, three of the fourteen stated exceptions stood in the way of his amnesty and pardon: "3d, all who shall have been military or naval officers of said pretended Confederate government above the rank of colonel in the army or lieutenant in the navy; ... 5th, all who resigned or tendered resignations of their commissions in the army or navy of the United States to evade duty in resisting the rebellion; ... 8th, all military and naval officers in the rebel service, who were educated by the government in the Military Academy at West Point or the United States Naval Academy." However, Johnson's Proclamation provided that special application could be made by any person belonging to the excepted classes.

With this understanding, Lee began his efforts to obtain post-war amnesty with the present letter to E. O. Ord:

"I am much obliged to you for a copy of the proclamation. I have thought it best to proceed as I would have done had I not heard of the action of the Court at Norfolk, & therefore have enclosed to Genl Grant an application for amnesty which I have requested may be acted on, provided it is not the intention of the Govt: to prosecute me. I believe that is the mode of proceding pointed out, & I shall be much obliged to you if you will present it to Genl Grant. With thanks for your kindness & regrets for your disposition."

Lee's letter to Grant (now in the National Archives) was of a much more formal nature: "Upon reading the President's proclamation of the 29th ult., I came to Richmond to ascertain what was proper or required of me to do, when I learned that, with others, I was to be indicted for treason by the grand jury at Norfolk. I had supposed that the officers and men of the Army of Northern Virginia were, by the terms of their surrender, protected by the United States Government from molestation so long as they conformed to its conditions. I am ready to meet any charges that may be preferred against me, and do not wish to avoid trial; but, if I am correct as to the protection granted by my parole, and am not to be prosecuted, I desire to comply with the provision of the President's proclamation, and, therefore, inclose the required application, which I request, in that event, may be acted on."

The enclosure to President Johnson (also in the National Archives) was written in a similar voice: "Being excluded from the provisions of amnesty and pardon contained in the proclamation of the 29th ult., I hereby apply for the benefits, and full restoration of all rights and privileges, extended to those included in its terms." Lee then cites the categories of his exclusion: "I graduated at the Military Academy at West Point in June, 1829; resigned from the U. S. Army, April, 1861; was a General in the Confederate Army, and included in the surrender of the Army of N. Va., April 9, 1865."

Lee's letter to Ord is here accompanied by a typed transcript of the above letter to Johnson, attested and signed by his oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee. The transcription also includes an explanatory paragraph by G. W. C. Lee: "When Gen. Lee requested me to make a copy of this letter to Presdt. Johnson, he remarked: It was but right for him to set an example of making formal submission to the Civil Authorities; and that he thought, by so doing, he might possibly be in a better position to be of use to the Confederates, who were not protected by Military paroles—especially Mr. Davis." This attestation is enclosed in an autograph envelope endorsed by Fitzhugh Lee: "Copies of letter from Gen Lee to ... President Johnson dated June 13, 1865 taken from his letter book in reference to his being restored to the rights of an American citizen."

While Lee did set an exemplary model of reconciliation for both the North and the South in the five remaining years of his life, he did so as a man without a country. Grant endorsed Lee's application for pardon and amnesty and forwarded it to President Johnson. And, on 2 October 1865 (the same day he assumed the presidency of Washington College), Lee submitted a notarized copy of an Amnesty Oath pledging to "henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Union of States thereunder." But the federal government never acted on his application. While there has been some speculation that either Johnson or Secretary of State William Seward may have purposely ignored Lee's amnesty request, it seems more likely that the papers were lost due to a clerical error.

Lee's original Amnesty Oath was rediscovered by a researcher in the National Archives in 1970, and this provided the impetus for the question of Lee's pardon to be resurrected. Finally, on 5 August 1975, President Gerald R. Ford signed at Arlington House, Lee's former home, a joint resolution of the United States Congress "To restore posthumously full rights of citizenship to General R. E. Lee." An official copy of the Resolution—signed by President Ford, Speaker of the House Carl Albert, and Vice President (and President of the Senate) Nelson A. Rockefeller—is here included with Lee's letter to Ord:

"Whereas this entire Nation has long recognized the outstanding virtues of courage, patriotism, and selfless devotion to duty of General R. E. Lee, and has recognized the contribution of General Lee in healing the wounds of the War Between the States, and

"Whereas, in order to further the goal of reunion of this country, General Lee, on June 13, 1865, applied to the President for amnesty and pardon and restoration of his rights as a citizen, and ...

"Whereas, on October 12, 1870, General Lee died, still denied the right to hold any office and other rights of citizenship, and

"Whereas a recent discovery has revealed that General Lee did in fact on October 2, 1865, swear allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and to the Union, and

"Whereas it appears that General Lee thus fulfilled all of the legal as well as moral requirements incumbent upon him for restoration of his citizenship: Now, therefore, be it

"Resolved by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That, in accordance with section 3 of amendment 14 of the United States Constitution, the legal disabilities placed upon General Lee as a result of his service as General of the Army of Northern Virginia are removed, and that General R. E. Lee is posthumously restored to the full rights of citizenship, effective June 13, 1865"—that is, the date of the present letter.

The final elements in this documentary archive of Robert E. Lee's quest for pardon and amnesty are a typed letter signed by President Ford, 7 August 1975, and an accompanying pen, sent to Missouri congressman James W. Symington: "It was with great pleasure that I signed, on August 5, Senate Joint Resolution 23 restoring posthumously the long overdue full rights of citizenship to General Robert E. Lee. This legislation corrects a 110-year oversight of American history. You, as a Member of Congress, took the necessary action to remove the legal obstacles to citizenship. As a memento of this historic event, in which every citizen can take pride, I am pleased to send you this ceremonial pen."