Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Robert E. Lee, Gentleman & George McClellan, Jerk

by Stephen J. Gertz

Two signed autograph letters by the American Civil War's commanding generals, Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army and George B. McClellan, commander of the Union Army at the war's onset, are coming to auction at Swann Galleries Autograph sale, November 26, 2013.

The Lee letter, dated March 13, 1855
, is estimated to sell for $25,000-$35,000. The McClellan letter, composed May 14, 1854, is estimated for $100-$200. Both were written to Captain George W. Callum (1809-1892), a supervisor in the Corps of Engineers and instructor of engineering at West Point.

Each is indicative of their personalities. Lee is humble and gracious; McClellan is stilted, egotistical, and condescending, deigning to accept an offer.

Lee, a colonel at the time and Superintendent of West Point, expresses regret at his departure from the Corps of Engineers to accept an appointment as Lt. Colonel of the 2nd Cavalry, stating his preference for Engineer duty to that of Cavalry during peacetime, and remarking on West Point business including his assurance to Callum that he will continue his work on the Register of [the Officers and] Graduates.

...I assure you my separation from the Corps of Engrs is attended with bitter regret…

While acknowledging the compliment bestowed on me by the Pres: as unexpected as undeserved, I confess my preference in time of peace for Engr duty over that of Cavalry; But so long as I continue an Officer of the Army, I can neither decline promotion or service...

...The item introduced into my estimate for the Register of Graduates has been granted. I shall give to my successor your Mem: & inform him of our understanding as to your undertaking its preparation…

"Mr. Newlands has not yet been able to finish the record of changes in the Register he loaned us. I will endeavor to have it completed and returned to you before I leave...

I am as yours,


McClellan, then a lieutenant and writing from Philadelphia, was bored to tears with peacetime service. He commanded an engineering company while serving at West Point. In 1853, at the behest of Jefferson Davis, then U.S. Secretary of War, he was assigned to survey an appropriate route for the nascent transcontinental railway. He flubbed the job, overlooking three hugely superior routes. He was insubordinate to political figures: when the governor of the Washington Territories ordered McClellan to turn over his expedition logbooks so he could determine just what the hell had happened, the short in stature, long on ego lieutenant refused. It is believed that he did so because of embarrassing comments he recorded throughout the log.  He had a big mouth.

After mature deliberation upon the testimony adduced I have come to the conclusion that if you still want my very valuable assistance at the Assay office I am perfectly willing to accede to your offer. It is desirable for me, for many reasons, to be in the East for a while. I would be glad if you would move in the matter as soon as possible, for should this project fail I will apply for a leave of absence for six months [...] before I am bagged for any out of the way service...

Sincerely your friend,

Geo B. McClellan

Translation: "After condescending to think about it I've decided that if you still require the wonderfulness of myself and all that my majesty can contribute, I will deign to accept your request."

McClellan's desire to to stay in the East (Philadelphia) for a while refers to his courtship of Mary Ellen Marcy, his future wife. The reference to applying for a six-month leave "before I am bagged for any out of the way service" was prescient. In June 1854, a month after this letter was written,  he was bagged for out of the way service by Jefferson Davis, who ordered him to embark on a secret reconnaissance mission in Santo Domingo in Haiti. Jefferson Davis saw something in McClellan that others failed to observe, and in 1855 McClellan was promoted to Captain.

The estimates for the letters reflect the value and esteem that collectors (and history) have placed upon these two major figures. Robert E. Lee is considered to be one of the greatest generals of all time. His brilliant, often audacious maneuvers and battlefield instincts led to victory after victory - as long as George B. McClellan commanded the Union forces.

McClellan knew how to build an army but was reluctant to use it. Insecure behind a facade of confidence, he was loathe to admit mistakes and accept responsibility; he offered President Lincoln nothing by excuses for his inaction and timidity, and he never hid his disdain for his Commander-in-Chief. Until Lincoln relieved him of duty, the position of the Union army was dire.

How badly has McClellan fared in the marketplace? The letter offered above is one of two being offered in the same lot estimated at $100-$200. Only his Civil War correspondence fetches decent prices but compared to Lee, Grant, Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and other War Between the States luminaries, prices for McClellan letters are lame. According to ABPC, $8,500 is the top price paid for a McClellan ALS within the last thirty-seven years (To Gen. Ambrose Burnside on May 21, 1862, expressing pride in his past victories & preparing for battle at Richmond). In 2004, a McClellan autograph letter signed fetched $3,200. Two years later, in 2006, the same letter sold at auction for 3,000.

In 2011, a signed copy of Robert E. Lee's farewell letter to his troops ("General Order #9), dated April 10, 1865, sold at Christie's for $80,000. "After 4 years of ardous service...I bid you all an affectionate farewell. [Sgd] R.E. Lee Genl.

McClellan never seemed to accept responsibility for his failures; he blamed others. Lee, in contrast, wore his shortcomings - such as they were - heavily. When Robert E. Lee was appointed Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia he accepted with solemnity. When George B. McCellan was promoted to Commander of the Army of the Potomac he reveled in his newly acquired power and fame.

One was a gentleman, the other a jerk.

Images courtesy of Swann Galleries, with our thanks.


  1. Hilarious, but sad too. Lee had other letters, and slave ledgers. In fact, see the book by Elizabeth Pryor, who had in her hands the two trunks full of Lee's letters and slave ledgers (yes, slave ledgers) kept by the family for 150 years.

    Lee was a gentlemen? Well, depends. Do gentleman taunt slave girls before and during their torture? Lee did. Do Gentlemen sell children as punishment? Lee did.

    Do Gentlemen pay 34 times his usual payment for slaves, when the slave is a 14 year old girl? Lee did.

    Lee also wrote dirty letters -- sexually explicit letters -- to various women for decades. Oh you didn't know that? Even after the CIvil War, Lee was writing sexually explicit letters, he even bragged about his son's sexual ability (likely with a slave girl)

    Turns out, slave rape was common at Arlington. Also turns out, Lee could lace his letters with religious puffery when writing his wife, but not so much religion when writing other women.

    Pryor reveals all this very carefully -- she clearly is on Lee's side. SHe blames the slave girls, in her own editorial voice, for the tortures they endured, claiming it was a law, that Lee had to have them whipped (wrong) and that whipping (discipine) early in life could prevent more damaging torture later/ She does not use those words, but that is how she explains the tortures.

    Plus, she claims Lee use of whips was "due to his poor cross cultural communication skills". As if he wouldnt have taunted and tortured those girls, if he knew some ebonics.

    Pyror is very careful HOW she relates the horrors, that include rapes, whippings, and sale of your own children from rape. Pryor seems irritated when she wrote of the many very light skinned slaves born at Arlington - they were whipped, sold, abused too. She didn't seem to mind it nearly as much when dark skinned women were treated that way, but WOW was she peeved about white looking women, as if whipping them hurt any less, and losing their children at auction block killed them inside any less.

    Before you praise Lee, know more than the myth. The book "Reading the Man" is a good place to start, even though she covers for him on every page.

  2. Absolute rubbish! Nothing here but presentism, innuendo, and psycho-babble. Read Freeman as an antidote.


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