Celebrated Civil War documents signed by Robert E. Lee up for sale

General Orders No. 9 ‘farewell’ issued at Appomattox; General Orders No. 59 followed ‘glorious victory’ by Lee at Chancellorsville

Two truly historic Civil War documents, arguably the cornerstone of any U.S. military collection devoted to the Confederacy, are being offered for sale by a longtime collector who’d read this newspaper’s recent accounts of Rappahannock County history and the battle of Gettysburg.

The manuscripts, each signed by Confederate General Robert E. Lee, are the celebrated “General Orders No. 9” and “General Orders No. 59,” according to the collector’s representative, Dolores Behnke.

Orders No. 9, Lee’s poignant farewell to the men of the Army of Northern Virginia and likely signed at Appomattox, is written in neat clerical handwriting on a sheet of blue-ruled paper, one day after Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. The dateline reads: “Head Qrs. Army No Va April 10th 1865.”

Col. Charles Marshall, Lee’s military secretary, would later recall the circumstances under which the order was composed: “On the night of [the surrender] April 9th . . . General Lee sat with several of us at a fire in front of his tent, and after some conversation about the army and the events of the day in which his feelings toward his men were strongly expressed, he told me to prepare an order to the troops.”

Lee was so anxious for the order to be issued in timely fashion, Marshall later recalled, that he “directed me to get into his ambulance, which stood near his tent, and placed an orderly to prevent anyone from approaching us. I made a draft in pencil and took it to General Lee who struck out a paragraph, which he said would tend to keep alive the feeling existing between the North and South, and made one or two other changes. I then returned to the ambulance, recopied the order and gave it to a clerk in the office of the Adjutant General to write in ink.”

One of two historic documents now offered for sale were issued and signed by Gen. Robert E. Lee, including General Orders No. 59 where Lee added in his own hand, four words: “again” and “fifteen miles distant,” indicating the manuscript is likely Lee’s final draft after the Battle of Chancellorsville, when Gen. Hooker was forced to retreat across the Rappahannock River. Manuscript, No. 9, is Lee’s farewell to the Army of Northern Virginia, issued at Appomattox one day after his surrender. Lee’s signature seen here, “R.E. Lee /Genl,” is described as pristine. Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo

According to historical data forwarded by the collector, who asked not be identified, “copies were then made for transmittal to corps commanders and other members of the army staff, each dutifully signed by Lee that day, while other individuals made their own copies, which they brought to Lee to sign as souvenirs — a practice that continued for the remaining five years of his life. Apart from the deletion of five words, the elision of paragraph breaks, some incidentals of punctuation and capitalization, and the substitution of ‘unceasing’ for ‘increasing’ and ‘of’ for ‘for’ in the final sentence, the present copy agrees in all essential respects with the official text of Lee’s eloquent farewell address . . .

“Based on the paper stock and clerical handwriting, this copy, unlike many others, was almost certainly signed at Appomattox.”

Furthermore, Behnke tells the Rappahannock News in a phone interview, this particular manuscript is “possibly the original” because of the changes Lee himself “made on the document. There was only one document that he changed,” with his own word deletion and punctuation correction.

The dignity of “Lee’s Valedictory Address,” as No. 9 is also called, “is worthy of the reverence with which generations of Southerners have regarded it,” the historic data states.

In the document, Lee remarks: “After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers. I need not tell the survivors of so many hard fought battles who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them. But feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that would compensate the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I determined to avoid the useless sacrifices of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.

“By the terms of the agreement Officers and men can return to their homes and remain until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection. With unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration of myself, I bid you all an affectionate farewell.”

As for General Orders No. 59, the rare manuscript surrounds the Battle of Chancellorsville, fought from April 30 to May 6, 1863, and widely considered to be Lee’s greatest victory during the Civil War.

According to another forwarded battle account, while facing an enemy force “nearly twice the size of his own, Lee daringly split his troops in two, confronting and surprising Union Gen. Joseph Hooker. Though Hooker still held numerical superiority, he did not press this advantage, instead falling back to defensive positions. When Lee once again split his forces and attacked, Hooker was forced to retreat across the Rappahannock River. Lee’s victory came at a high cost, however. Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, one of his most trusted generals, was mortally wounded by friendly fire during the battle.

“While Stonewall Jackson hovers between life and death, General Robert E. Lee, the day after the Confederate Army’s ‘glorious victory’ at Chancellorsville, congratulates his soldiers for their ‘heroic conduct,’ but laments ‘the absence for a time of one to whose bravery, energy, and skill they are so much indebted for success’ — General Stonewall Jackson had been shot on May 2nd; he was to die three days after this was issued, the final draft of Lee’s ‘General Orders No. 59’ — Lee also quotes from a congratulatory letter from President Jefferson Davis.”

The May 23, 1863 edition of Harper’s Weekly further observed: “Not only were Lee’s battlefield decisions near-perfect, but his vigorous and aggressive soldiers kept Union General Hooker’s larger army paralyzed throughout the battle. At one point, a Confederate cannonball hit Hooker’s tent knocking him unconscious; he subsequently ordered a retreat. The fighting during the battle was ugly, especially in places like the dense thicket known as the Wilderness (referred to as the ‘tangled wilderness’ in the document). When news of the Union defeat arrived at the War Department telegraph office in Washington, Lincoln lamented, ‘My God! My God! What will the country say?’ It was a costly battle for the Confederates, who lost 13,000, in addition to one of its greatest generals, Stonewall Jackson.

“Lee totally took Hooker by surprise,” Behnke tells this newspaper. “Hooker retreated right through the Rappahannock River, so you are right there.” Chancellorsville is east of Lake of the Woods between Culpeper and Fredericksburg.

There’s a very good chance that the collector’s copy of No. 59 is also the original.

“With heartfelt gratification the General Commanding expresses to the army his sense of the heroic conduct displayed by officers and men during the arduous operations in which they have just been engaged,” said Lee. “Under trying vicissitudes of heat and storm you attacked the enemy, strongly intrenched [sic] in the depths of a tangled wilderness, and again on the hills of Fredericksburg, fifteen miles distant, and, by the valor that has triumphed on so many fields, forced him once more to seek safety beyond the Rappahannock.”

In the last sentence, Behnke points out, Lee added, in his own hand, four words: “again” and “fifteen miles distant,” which are not only contained in the collector’s document but present in the final version printed in its entirety in the same May 23rd Harper’s Weekly, “indicating this most probably is Lee’s final draft of General Orders No. 59.”

Anybody interested in learning more about this rare pair of Civil War documents can reach Dolores Behnke at 906-483-0777 or by email at doloresbehnke@gmail.com.

About John McCaslin 466 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.