Just Weeks After Becoming Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee Writes the General Whose Disability Made That Appointment Possible

Lee rather unsympathetically tells General G.W. Smith that if he wants his medical leave extended, he will have to go through channels

An increasingly uncommon letter of Lee as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia

Gustavus Woodson Smith saw action in the Mexican War and was breveted for gallantry three times. He then taught at West Point when the Superintendent there was Robert E. Lee. The two became well acquainted at that time....

Read More

Just Weeks After Becoming Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee Writes the General Whose Disability Made That Appointment Possible

Lee rather unsympathetically tells General G.W. Smith that if he wants his medical leave extended, he will have to go through channels

An increasingly uncommon letter of Lee as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia

Gustavus Woodson Smith saw action in the Mexican War and was breveted for gallantry three times. He then taught at West Point when the Superintendent there was Robert E. Lee. The two became well acquainted at that time. Smith was Street Commissioner of the city of New York when the Civil War began, and he determined to join the Confederacy. But though only 39 years of age, he had a stroke just then and could not leave immediately, finally going South in September, 1861. Jefferson Davis thought highly of him and immediately commissioned him a major general. Smith was sent straight to the Army of Northern Virginia as a division commander under Joseph E. Johnston, and soon became second in command. Johnston placed him in command of one wing of the army, and he was one of the Confederacy’s brightest lights. But when the Army of Northern Virginia moved to the Peninsula to face Union General George B. McClellan’s advancing forces in the spring of 1862, Smith began to have strange medical conditions that may well have been psychological. The mental strain and responsibility of commanding large bodies of troops proved too much for him. Perhaps his problems resulted from the damage that had been caused by the stroke.

The Battle of Seven Pines occurred on May 31, 1862 and General Joseph E. Johnston was wounded there. Command of the army passed to Smith. President Davis and his military aide Robert E. Lee arrived at Smith’s headquarters the next morning to learn of his plans and found his general jabbering and unable to “endure the mental excitement.” The two men were shocked to see Smith’s seemingly obvious lack of senior command potential. Davis then made the most important decision of the war on the Confederate side by replacing Smith – after just one day in command of the Army of Northern Virginia – with his military adviser, Robert E. Lee. Lee, the new commander, whose previous service in western Virginia and with the coastal defense force had been lackluster, would rise to the occasion and become the very symbol of the Confederacy, He immediately used the month-long pause in McClellan’s advance to fortify the defenses of Richmond and extend them south to the James River. From June 25th to July 1st, the two great armies clashed in the Seven Days Battles, with the Confederates, led by Lee, victorious.

On June 2, Smith was forced to leave the army entirely because of his condition, and took a leave of absence to recuperate. He was taken to Richmond where his condition seemed to worsen. In July, in search of rehabilitation, Smith journeyed to White Sulphur Springs, the famous spa in western Virginia, the mineral waters of which were often prescribed by doctors to cure a variety of ills. Smith saw some improvement, but his recovery was slow. He said, “I do not get straight in brains and nerves as fast as I hoped.” He felt he would need more time than he had originally planned, and had been provided for by his leave from the army. He sent word to Lee through a friend.

Autograph letter signed, Headquarters, July 13, 1862, to Smith, telling him that if he wanted a longer leave of absence, he would have to apply for it through channels. “I am very glad to learn through the letter of St. Beckham that your general health has been improved by your visit to the Sulphur Springs. I hope a continuance of the application of the waters may effect a perfect restoration. Should you desire a longer sojourn than you first intended, I must ask you ask you to forward me the necessary application. With kindest regards to Mrs. Smith & best wishes for your health & happiness, I remain very truly yours, R.E. Lee.” This rather formal and perhaps unsympathetic response may have resulted from the negative view of Smith Lee and Davis had obtained on June 1.

Smith did not ask for more time. In late August, he returned and took command of the defenses around Richmond, a position that was well suited to his civil engineering skills. This post was expanded to become the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia in September. In addition, he acted as interim Confederate Secretary of War from November 17 through November 21, 1862. On February 17, 1863, Smith resigned his commission and and became a volunteer aide to General P.G.T. Beauregard for the rest of that year. Smith was also the superintendent of the Etowah Iron Works in 1863 until June 1, 1864, when he was commissioned a major general in the Georgia state militia and commanded its first division until the end of the war.

Frame, Display, Preserve

Each frame is custom constructed, using only proper museum archival materials. This includes:The finest frames, tailored to match the document you have chosen. These can period style, antiqued, gilded, wood, etc. Fabric mats, including silk and satin, as well as museum mat board with hand painted bevels. Attachment of the document to the matting to ensure its protection. This "hinging" is done according to archival standards. Protective "glass," or Tru Vue Optium Acrylic glazing, which is shatter resistant, 99% UV protective, and anti-reflective. You benefit from our decades of experience in designing and creating beautiful, compelling, and protective framed historical documents.

Learn more about our Framing Services