Lee letter comes home to Dabbs House

In his very first week as full-time site manager of the Dabbs House Museum, Sam McKelvey hit the jackpot.

A California resident, Dr. Paul Whyte, had called last January after reading about the museum in Civil War Traveler magazine. He was planning a visit to the Dabbs House and wanted some information about other Richmond-area attractions.

Part way through the conversation, Whyte mentioned casually that he owned a letter written by General Robert E. Lee during the time that Dabbs House served as Lee's Civil War headquarters.

This Thursday, just in time for the Sesquicentennial Civil War Commemoration that is part of Henrico’s 400th anniversary observance, Henricoans will be able to celebrate the letter's homecoming.

A century and a half after it rode out of the county in the hands of a mounted messenger, the letter has returned from California to take up residence in a specially-made display case with UV protection and high-tech security features. The museum display will open to the public at 9 a.m. September 22.

'Your obedient servant'
Dated June 21, 1862 -- just three weeks after Lee had assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia -- the letter is six lines in length, written on a ruled sheet of light blue paper with embedded watermarks typical of Confederate correspondence.

McKelvey first laid eyes on the letter at a meeting he arranged with Whyte in March, during his first week in charge of the museum.

Having worked previously as a collection assistant at the American Civil War Center at HistoricTredegar, McKelvey had seen Lee correspondence before. As soon as Whyte opened the box that contained the letter, McKelvey could see that the piece was probably authentic.

Not only did it feature Lee's distinctive handwriting -- penmanship was a point of pride with the general -- but it also bore Lee's trademark closing: "your obedient servant." The letter's authenticity has since been confirmed by the Museum of the Confederacy.

Whyte had acquired the piece through a historical auction house a few years before, and told McKelvey that he was not interested in compensation; he just wanted the letter to come home. He has since agreed to loan the artifact to Henrico County for five years.
Sam McKelvey with the Lee letter

McKelvey notes that the letter paper, which is made of a cotton fiber product rather than wood pulp, is in remarkably good condition considering its age.

"They don't make paper like they used to," he says, "which is probably what saved the letter."

And while it apparently was glued to a backing at some point, the letter is intact and free of tears.

"Whoever took care of this for 150 years," says McKelvey, "did a good job."

One of a kind
Asked if anything else in the Dabbs House collection can compare to the Lee letter, McKelvey answers with an emphatic "no."

In addition to being well-preserved, the letter -- which McKelvey calls the "cornerstone piece" in the Dabbs House exhibit -- is also significant for what it tells us about Lee. The fact that Lee wrote the letter himself, for instance, rather than dictating it or delegating it to a staff officer, indicates that the general considered his message important.

In the letter, Lee writes to Confederate Secretary of War George W. Randolph regarding one of his division commanders, Gen. John B. Magruder. He expresses surprise that Gen. Magruder has received orders to remain in Virginia, and dismay that he learned about these orders from Magruder himself instead of from the War Department. Asking Randolph to confirm the orders, Lee indicates that future orders for Magruder (and, it is assumed, for other commanding officers) should be communicated directly to him.

Over the years, says McKelvey, many historians have assumed that Lee transferred generals as discipline or punishment. Because Magruder was reassigned out west following the Seven Days Battles, in which he fared badly, some have speculated that Lee wanted to get him out of the way.

"Mississippi -- [that's] no man's land!" exclaims McKelvey, describing the long-time assumptions made about Magruder's reassignment. "But in reality, when we did some digging, we [learned differently]."

As it turned out, Magruder had made preparations to transfer to the Department of the Trans-Mississippi weeks earlier -- before Lee became commander. But when the fighting in Virginia heated up, Magruder requested that his orders be delayed. The transfer order was reinstated on July 2, after the immediate Union threat to Richmond had been subdued, and Magruder headed west.

While the Dabbs House letter is not the only historical artifact to indicate that assumptions about "transfers as punishment" were off the mark, it does shed some new insight and could alter perceptions regarding Lee.

"It's great for the museum to have such a piece," says McKelvey, pointing out that the letter underscores the notion of history as a living, evolving organism, rather than an immutable object.

"[The letter] shows that even [about] a subject as highly studied as the Civil War, we're always learning new things," says McKelvey.

"We're changing the way we thought before."

The Dabbs House Museum and the Henrico County Tourist Information Center are located at 3812 Nine Mile Road, next to the Eastern Government Center. The museum is open for tours 10 a.m.- 4 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, and by appointment on Monday and Tuesday. The Tourist Information Center is open 9 a.m.- 5 p.m., Wed. through Sun. For information call 652-3406 or search keyword “Dabbs House Museum” at henricorecandparks.com.

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