Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/March/Testimony of General R. E. Lee

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Southern Historical Society Papers, March 1876

We next introduce


who was Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate armies, who has been widely charged with being particeps criminis in this matter, but whom the world will ever believe to have been as incapable of connivance at a cruel act as he was of the slightest departure from the strictest accuracy of statement.

The following is an extract from his sworn testimony before the Congressional Reconstruction Committee:

{{fine block|"Question. By Mr. Howard: 'I wish to inquire whether you had any knowledge of the cruelties practiced toward the Union prisoners at Libby Prison and on Belle Isle?' Answer. 'I never knew that any cruelty was practiced, and I have no reason to believe that it was practiced. I can believe, and have reason to believe, that privations may have been experienced by the prisoners, because I know that provisions and shelter could not be provided for them.'

"Q. 'Were you not aware that the prisoners were dying from cold and starvation?' A. 'I was not.'

"Q. 'Did these scenes come to your knowledge at all?' A. 'Never. No report was ever made to me about them. There was no call for any to be made to me. I did hear—it was mere heresay—that statements had been made to the War Department, and that everything had been done to relieve them that could be done, even finally so far as to offer to send them to some other points—Charleston was one point named—if they would be received by the United States authorities and taken to their homes; but whether this is true or not I do not know.'

"Q. 'And of course you know nothing of the scenes of cruelty about which complaints have been made at those places (Andersonville and Salisbury)?' A. 'Nothing in the world, as I said before. I suppose they suffered for want of ability on the part of the Confederate States to supply their wants. At the very beginning of the war I knew that there was suffering of prisoners on both sides, but as far as I could I did everything in my power to relieve them, and to establish the cartel which was agreed upon.'

"Q. 'It has been frequently asserted that the Confederate soldiers feel more kindly toward the Government of the United States than any other people of the South. What are your observations on that point?' A. 'From the Confederate soldiers I have heard no expression of any other opinion. They looked upon the war as a necessary evil, and went through it. I have seen them relieve the wants of Federal soldiers on the field. The orders always were that the whole field should be treated alike. Parties were sent out to take the Federal wounded as well as the Confederate, and the surgeons were told to treat the one as they did the other. These orders given by me were respected on every field.'

"Q. 'Do you think that the good feeling on their part toward the rest of the people has continued since the close of the war? A. 'I know nothing to the contrary. I made several efforts to exchange the prisoners after the cartel was suspended. I do not know to this day which side took the initiative. I know there were constant complaints on both sides. I merely know it from public rumors. I offered to General Grant, around Richmond, that we should ourselves exchange all the prisoners in our hands. There was a communication from the Christian Commission, I think, which reached me at Petersburg, and made application to me for a passport to visit all the prisoners South. My letter to them I suppose they have. I told them I had not that authority, that it could only be obtained from the War Department at Richmond, but that neither they nor I could relieve the sufferings of the prisoners; that the only thing to be done for them was to exchange them; and, to show that I would do whatever was in my power, I offered them to send to City Point all the prisoners in Virginia and North Carolina over which my command extended, provided they returned an equal number of mine, man for man. I reported this to the War Department, and received for answer that they would place at my command all the prisoners at the South if the proposition was accepted. I heard nothing more on this subject.'"}}

The following private letter to a friend and relative was never intended for the public eye, but may be accepted as his full conviction on the subject:

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"Lexington, Va., April 17, 1867.

"Dr. Charles Carter,
No. 1632 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, Pa.:

"My Dear Dr. Carter—I have received your letter of the 9th inst., inclosing one to you from Mr. J. Francis Fisher, in relation to certain information which he had received from Bishop Wilmer. My respect for Mr. Fisher's wishes would induce me to reply fully to all his questions, but I have not time to do so satisfactorily; and, for reasons which I am sure you both will appreciate, I have a great repugnance to being brought before the public in any manner. Sufficient information has been officially published, I think, to show that whatever sufferings the Federal prisoners at the South underwent, were incident to their position as prisoners, and produced by the destitute condition of the country, arising from the operations of war. The laws of the Confederate Congress and the orders of the War Department directed that the rations furnished prisoners of war should be the same in quantity and quality as those furnished enlisted men in the army of the Confederacy, and that the hospitals for prisoners should be placed on the same footing as other Confederate States hospitals in all respects. It was the desire of the Confederate authorities to effect a continuous and speedy exchange of prisoners of war: for it was their true policy to do so, as their retention was not only a calamity to them, but a heavy expenditure of their scanty means of subsistence, and a privation of the services of a veteran army. Mr. Fisher or Bishop Wilmer has confounded my offers for the exchange of prisoners with those made by Mr. Ould, the Commissioner of the Confederate States. It was he that offered, when all hopes of effecting the exchange had ceased, to deliver all the Federal sick and wounded, to the amount of fifteen thousand, without an equivalent, provided transportation was furnished. Previously to this, I think, I offered to General Grant to send into his lines all the prisoners within my department, which then embraced Virginia and North Carolina, provided he would return me man for man; and when I informed the Confederate authorities of my proposition, I was told that, if it was accepted, they would place all the prisoners at the South at my disposal. I offered subsequently, I think, to the committee of the United States Sanitary Commission, who visited Petersburg for the purpose of ameliorating the condition of their prisoners, to do the same. But my proposition was not accepted. Dr. Joseph Jones has recently published a pamphlet termed 'Researches upon Spurious Vaccination,' etc., issued from the University Medical Press, Nashville, Tenn., in which he treats of certain diseases of the Federal prisoners at Andersonville and their causes, which I think would be interesting to you as a medical man, and would furnish Mr. Fisher with some of the information he desires. And now I wish you to understand that what I have written is for your personal information and not for publication, and to send as an expression of thanks to Mr. Fisher for his kind efforts to relieve the sufferings of the Southern people.

"I am very much obliged to you for the prayers you offered for us in the days of trouble. Those days are still prolonged, and we earnestly look for aid to our merciful God. Should I have any use for the file of papers you kindly offer me, I will let you know.

"All my family unite with me in kind regards to your wife and children. And I am, very truly, your cousin,

(Signed)"R. E. Lee."