"Humane and Generous Enemy"

Correspondence from Robert E. Lee to William R. Lee, dated July 19, 1862

Gen. Robert E. Lee, Army of Northern Virginia

Col. William R. Lee, commanding 20th Mass.

There were two "Lees" who enrolled at West Point in 1825: Robert E. Lee of Virginia, and William R. Lee of Massachusetts (they were distant relatives). Only the "Southern Lee" graduated four years later with the Class of 1829. During the Civil War, the "Northern Lee" (William R. Lee) won respect for his early command of the famous "Harvard Regiment", but did not rise any further in the ranks. Needless to say, his Southern namesake became a household name and legend.  The two acquaintances nonetheless did have much in common. Both of these bearded patricians were West Pointers and Mexican War veterans, and both (in their fifties) were criticized as being too old to command (in William R. Lee's case, the charge had some validity). Both men also shared a great respect for the valor of their opponents.  They crossed paths in 1862.

During the intense fighting of the Peninsula Campaign in May and June of 1862, the 20th Massachusetts was engaged heavily, meeting the enemy on May 31, 1862 at the battle known as "Fair Oaks" or "Seven Pines". Accounts of this battle show that the 20th Mass. fought "Hampton's Legion", wounding and capturing General Pettigrew and Lt. Col. Augustus Bull of the 35th Georgia. Pettigrew survived, was exchanged and went on to greater fame at Gettysburg. The gallant Lt. Col. Bull died while in the custody of the 20th Massachusetts. Col. William Lee sent Bull's sword back to his family and also wrote an account of his death in a letter dated June 15, 1862. In response, General Robert E. Lee sent a short but elegant letter dated July 19, 1862.

ACCOUNTS OF THE "SEVEN PINES-FAIR OAKS" ENGAGEMENT FROM 20th MASS. PARTICIPANTS:

 

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