Tuesday, April 19, 2011

William S. Rosecrans, Robert E. Lee, and the White Sulphur Springs Letter

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

As you all know, my current project involves Union Civil War veterans who migrated west - to places like California and Oregon. So naturally, I turned to the William S. Rosecrans collection at UCLA. Rosecrans, former commander of the Army of the Cumberland, moved to Los Angeles after the war and dipped his beak into all kinds of things including the promotion of railroads and heavy investment in land ventures.

I came across an interesting correspondence in that collection that I thought I would share here. It turns out, General Rosecrans was not in sympathy with the government’s policy towards the southern states in the immediate postwar years. The radical measures enacted for the reconstruction of the South seemed, to him, harsh and vindictive. In August, 1868, he wrote General Robert E. Lee requesting him to confer with leading citizens of the southern states and prepare a statement that would reflect the wishes and sentiments of his people with regard to the future of the South. General Lee’s reply is known as the White Sulphur Springs Letter.

Here is a segment of the letter dated August 26, 1868 - concerning former slaves:

It is true that the people of the South, in common with a large majority of the people of the North & West, are, for obvious reasons, inflexibly opposed to any system of laws which would place the political powers of the country in the hands of the negro race. But this opposition springs from no feeling of enmity, but from a deep seated conviction that at present, the negroes have nether the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power. They would inevitably become the victims of demagogues, who for selfish purposes, would mislead them to the serious injury of the public. The great want of the South is peace. The people earnestly desire tranquility & a restoration of the Union. They deprecate disorder and excitement is the most serious obstacle to their prosperity.

RE Lee

This letter is indicative of Lee's public position on freedmen and the restoration of the Union. Privately he spent his days in bitter reflection. But when he conferred with former enemies on public statements, he often took up this conciliatory tone of moderation.

The collection is rich with others' response to the letter - published throughout the South. Nathan Bedford Forrest, P. G. T. Beauregard, and John Brown Gordon number among the many former Rebels who wrote Rosecrans in support of both the letter and Rosecrans's efforts to to initiate correspondence with Lee on the subject. Even Lee himself wrote a brief note of thanks (I'm holding Lee's letter in the picture on the left...cool, yes?).

So as I wade deeper in to the historical record - expect more little tidbits like this one. I am sure there are zillions right around the corner.




  1. You should be wearing archival gloves holding that letter, man. ;-)

    Loewen and Sebesta's Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader includes a transcript of postwar congressional testimony by Lee (1867, I believe) in which he advocated the removal of all freedmen and -women from Virginia, to the "cotton states" further south. As with the White Sulphur Springs Letter, Lee was quite clear that he saw emancipation and the extension of civil rights (esp. suffrage) to African Americans as a detriment to "the people of the South."

  2. Great idea. I love how this works. Take a self service epislte from Lee -- a man who was utterly convinced God ordainded slavery and "intended and knew" slavery had to be painful to slaves because "pain is necessary for their instruction, and use that self serving epistle as some kind of DNA test for his "beliefs" on race relations.

    OH, and let's also complete ignore his actions, like the newspaper reports of screaming at slave girls as he had them whipped. Let's pretend t hat didn't happen. Let's also pretend Lee's slave ledgers don't exist, and they don't show he paid 600% higher bounties for young girls

    But - lets take his self aggrandizing letter about his lack of rancor against blacks. Brilliant. Say, why do we need "scholars". Lets just quote Lee on how wonderful he was.

    Let's also ignore the bounties Lee paid for women and children living in the NORTH, as freed people, Heavens, that's nothing. After all, Bobby wrote a LETTER. And in that letter he said he did not harbor bad feelings against blacks.

    SO let's just pretend those letters to his wfie wishing for the quick death of slave children didn't exist. Some clever gnome snuck in the trunks Lee's family had to hold Lee's letters.

    Great scholars. Wonderful. What you should be doing is demanding the release of Lee's slave ledgers, which we know show prices he paid for 14-15 year old girls. And we know those prices are 600% higher , at least, than he paid for "boy slaves". Apparently, Lee was very fond of young girl slaves. Especially the light skinned girls. Let's demand the slave ledgers be available to the public. In memory of the girls Lee had stripped to the waste, hung up in his barn, and whipped as he kept count, and according to credible witnesses, yelled, "Hit her harder, hit her harder"/

  3. Mark - I am not sure you read the post. That was a public statement made by Lee as a conciliatory gesture during a very problematical period in southern history. But I pointed all of that out.
    Few have implied that I am a Lee apologist. So I find your comments interesting to say the least.
    He was a complicated man with both flaws and virtues. If you cared to look, you would have noticed that I have written at length on Lee - including his conflicting opinions on slavery.
    You seem to be part of this recent Internet onslaught depicting Lee as some sort of a sociopath. I had to block one person on Twitter because they were using abusive language - I went to your website to have a look at your evidence on the subject but it was under construction. So I guess I will have to wait and see what you come up with.
    My advice to you and your cohorts (if you want to be taken seriously) is to back off on your combative tone. No one of merit will engage you in a reasonable discussion if you are simply yelling at them.

  4. You know, my opinion of Rosecrans is not very high, and knowledge of this letter does nothing to disabuse me of that opinion. Setting aside some reports that suggest he exercised poor self-control during battle, Rosecrans surely gave a less-than-stellar performance at Iuka and Corinth: anyone letting Price and/or Van Dorn get away has little to brag about. And speaking of Bragging, Rosecrans did have some success in Tennessee, even if his foot-dragging style and dismissive treatment of Lincoln was somewhere between that of Buell and Little Mac. After Grant stuck him in St Louis, Rosecrans tried to siphon off troops on the way to support Sherman at Atlanta, at which point Grant and Halleck came very close to relieving him from duty. I hadn't heard of this letter before, but it strikes me as more of Rosecrans' usual peacock preening: so far as I know, at this point after the war he was hardly a spokesman for Federal policymakers, and he appears mostly to be playing for the limelight. In short, I'd find this kind of letter more intriguing had come from practically anyone else other than Rosecrans.