At the beginning of the Civil War most people on both sides were confident of a brief war and an early victory for the side they supported. Wiser heads, among them Lincoln and Davis, assumed that the war would be long and bloody. Robert E. Lee was firmly in the camp of Lincoln and Davis. I have always been struck by this statement that he purportedly made on May 5, 1861:
“If it came to a conflict of arms, the war will last at least four years. Northern politicians will not appreciate the determination and pluck of the South, and Southern politicians do not appreciate the numbers, resources and patient perseverance of the North. Both sides forget that we are all Americans. I foresee that our country will pass through a terrible ordeal, a necessary expiation, perhaps, for our national sins.”
If more people had possessed Lee’s insight into their fellow countrymen, the Civil War would never have been fought. However the quote, which one can find in many places on the internet, is probably spurious. The date of May 5, 1861 is frequently attached to it. Lee did write a letter to a young lady in the North on that day. Here is the text of that letter:
RICHMOND, May 5, 1861.
MY DEAR LITTLE H —–: I am very grateful for your kind letter, and the cordial expressions it contained. You are not only welcome to that severe representation of me, but anything else you may fancy. I pray you will not exhibit it however, as it will only serve to bring down denunciations on my head. You, I hope, will make allowances for my position and failings, and think as kindly of me as you can.
I shall never forget you, and require no work of art to keep you vividly before me. It is painful to think how many friends will be separated and estranged by our unhappy disunion. May God reunite our severed bonds of friendship, and turn our hearts to peace. I can say in sincerity that I hear animosity against no one. Wherever the blame may be, the fact is, that we are in the midst of a fratricidal war. I must side either with or against my section of country. I cannot raise my hand against my birth-place, my home, my children.
I should like, above all things, that our difficulties might be peaceably arranged, and still trust that a merciful God, whom I know will not unnecessarily afflict us, may yet allay the fury for war.
Whatever may be the result of the contest, I foresee that the country will have to pass through a terrible ordeal, a necessary expiation, perhaps, of our national sins.
May God direct all for our good, and shield and preserve you and yours.
Very truly and sincerely, R.E. LEE.
The letter contains the last sentence of the purported quotation but nothing else. At best, the “quote” is a conflation of things that Lee said and wrote on different occasions, combined together to give Lee a prophetic utterance at the beginning of the War. Lee was prescient enough without this type of fabrication.