Hidden Histories

The Character of Gen. Robert E. Lee: An Unknown Event

Thursday, 4/17/08
Numerous works have been published on the life of General Robert E. Lee, particularly concerning his activities as head of the 'Army of Northern Virginia' of the Confederacy, during the period of the American Civil War.

Many Civil War scholars are aware of the admiration and respect which General Lee received, both on and off the battlefield, by friend and foe alike.

A wonderful example of Lee's 'character,' is manifested in the 'Civil War Letters, of Major James Cornell Biddle,' of the 27th Pennsylvania Infantry, housed at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, primary sources which reflect only a small part of an extensive collection of Civil War related materials.

'General Robert E. Lee,' Society Portrait Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania

On October 21, 1863, months after Lee's humiliating defeat by Federal forces at Gettysburg, Major Biddle, of the 'Army of the Potomac,' stationed at Warrington, Virginia, related a recent experience to his wife, Gertrude Meredith Biddle of Philadelphia, concerning his famed opponent, General Robert E. Lee. He remarked:


"Lee followed on a parallel line with us as far as Broad Run and as soon as we got in his front, and advanced against him he retreated, he remained for one night at this place.

"An old lady living here went to see him. She put out her hand, and told him it had never touched a Yankee, and commenced abusing our troops. Lee they say rebuked her, and told her he was sorry to hear her speak in that way, that there were a great many gentlemen in our army, and some of those whom she mentioned were men whom he had a very great esteem for, and were formerly his most cherished friends.

"The officers whom he took prisoners were allowed to remain in a house at this place and upon promising not to attempt to escape, to hire a wagon to take them to Culpepper without any guard." (Original source: 'Civil War Letters of James Cornell Biddle,' Collection No.1881, 1 Box, Folder 18, October 21, 1863.)

What makes the above account unique is that not only do these remarks derive from a Federal opponent of Lee, rather than an officer of the Confederate Army, it is also ONLY recorded in a manuscript of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and found in no other Lee biography. It is truly another example of the speciality and broad scope of manuscript materials available within our collections here in Philadelphia.

For further reference to the HSP's vast collections on the Civil War, see my Guide to Civil War Manuscripts and book, My Brother’s Keeper: Union & Confederate Soldiers’ Acts of Mercy During the Civil War, a work containing material drawn largely from both published & unpublished sources at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.