Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 119 / Number 3
"Thou Knowest Not the Time of Thy Visitation": A Newly Discovered Letter Reveals Robert E. Lee's Lonely Struggle with Disunion
- Elizabeth Brown Pryor, pp. 276–96
A recently discovered letter in the Mary Custis Lee Papers at the Virginia Historical Society gives us new insights about one of the most consequential decisions in American history. Written by Robert E. Lee's eldest daughter, Mary, the letter is now the best available account of Lee's struggle to decide where his loyalties lay in April 1861. As an eyewitness at the scene, Mary Custis Lee provides insider information about her father's mood and political thinking. She also sends up a few surprises. Among them is the fact that Lee's choice was not made in solidarity with his kin and community. In fact, it contrasted sharply with his immediate circle's Unionist allegiance. The letter provides rich details about the family's dismay over the decision and illuminates the military and social issues that influenced Lee's thinking. Historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor discusses the significance of this document and puts it in perspective with the previously known sources on Lee's decision. A full transcript of the letter is appended to the article.