soldier with rifle american civil war THE


The Lost Causers' Mis-quote Lee


You serious students, take heed: the radicals on both edges of the Bell Curve—the lost causers and the bleeding hearts—cannot be trusted to make their cases with the objective truth of history in mind; each has an agenda and is not adverse to fudging here and there. The ordinary student takes for granted it will be good enough to invest but a few minutes listening to the spiel of one or the other, to survive the course with a C. But the serious student knows its the drilling that produces the A.

Bell curve

Almost as soon as General Lee signed the surrender document at McLean's farmhouse at Appomattox, the newspapers of the South coined the phrase—"principles for which the South contended," in writing pieces about the origin and "cause" of the struggle.

North Carolina Weekly 1866

NC Weekly 1866

Washington Evening Star 1867

Evening Star 1867

Democrat Advocate (MD) 1866

Democrat Advocate 1866

Somewhere along the time line, from 1866 to the Age of the Internet, the lost causer web sites have adopted as their flagship quotation of their spiel, this.

Confederate Colonel

Yes, all reasonable persons can agree that "everyone should do all in his power to collect and disseminate the truth, in the hope that it may find a place in history and descend to posterity." General Lee, indisputably, wrote these words in a letter he addressed to Pierre Beauregard dated October 3, 1865. (See, J.W. Jones, Life and Letters of Robert Edward Lee: Soldier and Man, (Neale Pub. Co. 1906) at p. 390.) But, what of the next sentence the lost causers attribute to Lee in the same quotation; that "history is not the relation of campaigns and battles and generals or other individuals, but which shows the principles for which the South contended and which justified her struggle for those principles?


The first point to keep in mind, is that General Lee, being the hard core soldier that he was, can hardly be expected to identify "principles" as the bone of contention between the warring dogs—the Union and the Confederacy. As he put it to Beauregard in his October 3, 1865 letter:

"I need not tell you that true patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them—the desire to do right—is precisely the same. The circumstances that govern their actions change; and their conduct must conform to the new order of things. History is full of illustrations of this. Washington himself is an example. At one time he fought against the French under Braddock, in the service of the King of Great Britain; at another, he fought with the French at Yorktown, under the orders of the continental Congress of America, against him. He has not been branded by the world with reproach for this; but his course has been applauded."

Ultimately the answer to the political question—whether the conduct of Lee and Washington, in taking up arms against the existing government under which they lived, was "treason"—turns on the answer to the question of the people's intent and understanding when they ratified the Constitution in their respective conventions. The analysis has been stated and restated ad naseum, from the beginning of the Union's history to this day. Charles Francis Adams, the grandson of John Adams, summarized the argument this way.

"The delegates [to the Philadelphia Convention] met to harmonize trade differences; they ended by perfecting a scheme of political union that had broad consequences of which they little dreamed. That Madison, Marshall and Jay were equally blind to consequences does not follow. They probably designed a nation. If they did, however, they were too wise to take the public into their confidence; and, today, no impartial student of our constitutional history can doubt for a moment that each State ratified the form of government submitted in the firm belief that at any time it could withdraw therefrom. Probably, however, the more far-seeing, and, in the long run, they alone count, shared with Washington in the belief that this withdrawal would be accompanied by practical difficulty. And, after all is said and done, the legality of secession is a metaphysical abstraction so long as the right of revolution is inalienable. So. . . the Secessionists of 1861 stand in history's court by no means without a case." (Bushnell Centenary, Vol. I, Should Cromwell Have a Statue? at p. 15. (1902); italics added.)

In his letter to Beauregard, Lee was writing as a soldier to a soldier. His language is clear, precise, devoid of concepts of abstraction. But, writing at the same time to third persons, members of the general public, he is less blunt, more ambiguous in his meaning. To a Northern man who wrote him a few months later, he replied with this:

"I must give you [thanks] for doing me the justice to believe that my conduct the last five eventful years has been governed by my sense of duty. I had no other guide, nor had I any other object than the defense of those principles of American liberty upon which the constitutions of the several States were originally founded. . ." (Life and Letters, supra, at p. 391.)

And, replying to an inquiry made by Lord John Acton, a member of the British House of Commons and a political associate of Gladstone during the war, Lee, or someone for him, wrote this.

"I am conscious of the compliment conveyed by your request for my opinion as to the light in which American politics should be viewed, and had I the ability, I have not the time to enter upon a discussion, which was commenced by the founders of the constitution and has been continued to the present day. I can only say that while I have considered the preservation of the constitutional power of the General Government to be the foundation of our peace and safety at home and aboard, I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the States and to the people, not only essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continance of a free government."

So far in his choice of text, Lee has offered Acton nothing but platitude. But in the syntax of the next sentence, he makes the phrase "Maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the States and to the people" the subject.

"I consider [the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the States and to the people] as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas the consolidation of the States into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive aboard and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it."

And, then, Lee gets to the whole point of the States' secession from the Union in 1861:

"But I will not weary you with this unprofitable discussion. Unprofitable because the judgement of reason has been displaced by the arbitrament of war, waged for the purpose as avowed of maintaining the union of the states. If, therefore, the result of the war is to be considered as having decided that the union of the states is perpetual under the constitution, it naturally follows that it is as incompetent for the general government to impair its integrity by the exclusion of a state, as for the states to do so by secession; and that the existence and rights of a state by the constitution are as indestructible as the union itself. The legitimate consequence then must be the perfect equality of rights of all the states; the exclusive right of each to regulate its internal affairs. . . and the right of each state to prescribe for itself the qualifications of suffrage. The South has contended only for the supremacy of the constitution, and the just administration of the laws made in purusance of it." (Selections from the Correspondence of the First Lord Acton, Vol. I, at pp. 301-305 [letter dated December 15, 1866] Longman's, Green & Co. (1917).)

What exactly was Lee probably thinking of, when he invokes the concept of the "supremacy of the constitution and the just administration of the laws," who can say. Though certainly we know from his pre-war writings, he grasped the essential political fact of the concept of American liberty: the political principle expressed by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and explained by Madison in the Federalist No. 31, that whenever the people of a sovereign State believe the government they have ordained to operate over them, has become dangerous to their lives, liberty and property, they possess the inalienable right to throw their allegiance to it, off; and substitute in its place a new government. This is what the people of the thirteen British Crown colonies did, in 1775, and this is what the people of the seceded States did, in 1860-61. This principle the people of South Carolina invoked, in December 1860, when they concluded that the political faction known as the Republican Party, in taking control of the Federal (not "national") Goverment, intended to use the power of government to interfere with the domestic institution of their State—a power the people did not grant in ratifying the Constitution in 1789. That this principle of the constitution—the frame of the Federal political system—was changed arbitrarily by war is a fact Lee's language suggests, he was unwilling to concede in 1866. That is that now the Federal Government had wrested to itself by war the power to dictate to the States what their domestic policies can be, whether the social or political question is abortion, drugs, sexual orientation, or who votes.

That Lee had no illusions about this first American principle of liberty being the legitimate basis for secession, there can be no reasonable doubt. In January 1861, writing to his son, he said:

"Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It was intended for perpetual union, so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution, or the consent of all the people in convention assembled. . . Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets. . . has no charm for me. If the Union is dissolved, and the Government disrupted, I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people. . ." (italics added.)

In a letter written to Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson, on February 25, 1868, Lee recounted his last hours as an officer in the United States Army.

"Upon reflection after returning to my home [from a meeting with Gen. Scott] I concluded that I ought no longer to retain any commission I held in the United States Army, and on the second morning thereafter (April 20, 1861), I forwarded my resignation to General Scott. . . Two days afterwards, upon the invitation of the Governor of Virginia, I repaired to Richmond; found that the convention then in session had passed the ordinance withdrawing the State from the Union; and accepted the commission of commander of [Virgina's] forces, which was tendered to me." (Life and Letters at p. 133.) (Note: A supermajority of the properied white males of Virginia, by public ballot, ratified the convention's ordinance on May 23, 1861. That evening Lincoln's armies invaded Virginia.)

The pieces available to be read on this web site make the case that the reason the people of South Carolina and the Gulf States decided that their States secede from the Union, was their objectively reasonable fear that the Republican Party intended to use the instrument of the Federal Government to induce freedom for the Africans where they lived. That the consequence of this, for the people of these particular States meant political chaos and storm and civil war within the State, no reasonably thinking person can fail to understand would have been the reality of the time.

As for Virginia, her convention repeatedly rejected resolutions to secede, until the Union Secretary of War Cameron's telegram, demanding Virginia provide its militia to the Federal Government, for its use in attacking the seceded States, landed on Governor Letcher's desk. On the surface of things, it seems easy that Virginia should hand over her militia to the Federal Government; but, in the reality, doing so meant the Federal Government's army would expect to march through Virginia's territory, to attack South Carolina and, by force of arms, coerce her people to give it their allegiance and their obedience to its laws. Such an easy way out for Virginia, her people did not take. So, was Virginia, much less Lee, contending for a principle? And, if so, exactly what principle was it she was contending for? Neither the lost causers nor the bleeding hearts offer the serious student the objective answer.


The actual text of Lee's letter to Beauregard reads this way:

"Everyone should do all in his power to collect and disseminate the truth, in the hope that it may find a place in history, and descend to posterity. I am glad to so no indication in your letter of an intention to leave the country. I think the south requires the aid of her sons now more than at any other period of her history."

Where, then, did the language—"principles for which the South contended and which justified her struggle"—come from? The answer is from a combination of three persons: Thaddeus K. Oglesby, Alexander Stephens' private secretary for a time; Mildred Rutherford, a Georgian and member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy; and Eda Powell, a chairperson for the UDC, writing in the Confederate Veteran Magazine.

Thaddeus K. Oglesby (1848-1920) was born in Missouri but spent most of his life in Georgia. He was trained as a lawyer but earned his living as a writer and bookseller. In the early years of the war he served for a time as private secretary to Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens. In August 1864, he enlisted in Company A, Cobb's Guard, of the Georgia Infantry, served with the 24th Georgia Regiment of Artillery and was paroled at Greensboro, North Carolina in April 1865. After the war he held positions with the Augusta Chronicle, the Athens Banner, and the New Orleans Time-Democrat. In 1891, reacting to what he perceived as the hostile editoral slant of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Oglesby published a series of letters in the Montgomery Alabama Advertiser newspaper which, later, were published together in pamphlet form and widely distributed throughout the South.

Ausgusta Chronicle

Augusta Chronicle, 1891

Montgomery Advertiser

At about the same time, the United Confederate Veterans was organized in New Orleans, under the leadership of John B. Gordon, a Georgian, and Oglesby was invited to address the organization's "Historical Committee" which he did in April, 1894. In 1899, Oglesby made a speech before a Georgia chapter of the United Confederate Veterans in which he accurately quoted from Lee's 1865 letter to Beauregard.


Then, in 1911, Oglesby made a speech at Winthrop College, before the Georgia chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, in which he introduced an unidentified "letter" of Lee's and purported to summarize what he considered the gist of its text to mean.

Watson magazine banner

A libel on southern women

It is impossible to understand where Oglesby got the idea that a letter of Lee's existed which contained the substance of the language that he attributes to it, in his speech at Winthrop College. The student can search through all known letters written by Lee and not find text remotely similar to Oglesby's description. The best the student can do, is point to Lee's letter to Lord Acton in which he does refer to "principle" and does use the word "contending." But it is a long stretch of the meaning of English, to claim Lee's Acton letter is the source of Oglesby's use of the language—"principles for which the South contended in that war and which justifies her struggle for them."

Mildred RutherfordNext into the picture comes Mildred Lewis Rutherford. Rutherford was a Georgian and, like Oglesby, a public defender of the South who authored several pamphlets and books rebutting the Northern story-line of the cause of the war. It appears that Rutherford was either in the audience when Oglesby gave his address at Winthrop College, or she read the address as it was printed in Watson's Magazine. In 1923, Rutherford began publishing what was called Mrs. Rutherford's Scrap Book which offered the reader a long list of reasons why the war occurred and which was followed by a pamphlet titled The Truths of History. In this latter publication, in its preface, Rutherford restates the language Oglesby used in his Winthrop College Address, of 1911, but enclosing it in quotations and attributing the quotation to Lee.

Rutherford quote

No explanation exists in the record for Rutherford's use of quotations marks and her statement that "General Lee said." Furthermore, in transforming Oglesby's summarizing of something he claims he read in a Lee letter, into a quotation attributable to Lee, Rutherford changed Oglesby's language "which justified her struggle for them" to "which justified her struggles for those principles."Notwithstanding her presumption, at least Rutherford distinquished between the quotation of words found in Lee's letter to Beauregard, from the words yet to be found in Oglesby's unknown letter.

Rutherford's motif was repeated by a woman named Ida Powell, a chair person for the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who appears to be the first person to merge the legitimate quote of Lee's with the illegitimate, by inserting the bogus quotation in a piece published in the Confederate Veteran Magazine, in 1929.

Confederate Veteran banner

Confederate Veteran quote

The editor of the Confederate Veteran, Edith Pope, repeated what appears to be Mrs. Powell's intentional misquote of Lee, in the supposed academic journal, The Tennessee Historical Journal, in 1935. But, like Mrs. Rutherford, and unlike Mrs. Powell, Mrs. Pope at least separated the misquote from the authentic quote; though Pope adopts Rutherford's edit of Oglesby's original statement in his Address of 1911. Nonetheless, it is Mrs. Powell's misquote that the lost causers have seized upon in this latter time to wave on their collective mastheads as the actual words of General Lee.

Tennessee Historical Jounral

Edith Pope piece

Does it matter whether words are put in General Lee's mouth that he did not say? Of course it does. Why not simply tell the truth? Because, neither the lost causers nor the bleeding hearts want to face the truth; that neither dog in the fight was fighting over "principle." One side was fighting for independence, necessitated by the fear of living in the foreseeable future with freed Africans in their communities, and the other side was fighting to suppress the rise of a foreign power on the North American continent. As in all things human, it was a plain matter of self-interest ruling.