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Fine Books and Manuscripts / THE LETTER THAT ARRIVED TOO LATE AN IMPORTANT LEE LETTER TO UNION COMMANDER U.S. GRANT AT COLD HARBOR. LEE, ROBERT E. 1807-1870. Letter Signed (R.E. Lee) to U.S. Grant from the battlefield at Cold Spring during the 3 day standoff negotiating attempts to tend to the wounded men who still lay in the field,

A Private Collection of Americana and World Manuscripts
Lot 167
THE LETTER THAT ARRIVED TOO LATE: AN IMPORTANT LEE LETTER TO UNION COMMANDER U.S. GRANT AT COLD HARBOR.
LEE, ROBERT E. 1807-1870.
Letter Signed ("R.E. Lee") to U.S. Grant from the battlefield at Cold Spring during the 3 day standoff negotiating attempts to tend to the wounded men who still lay in the field,
28 June 2022, 10:00 EDT
New York

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THE LETTER THAT ARRIVED TOO LATE: AN IMPORTANT LEE LETTER TO UNION COMMANDER U.S. GRANT AT COLD HARBOR.

LEE, ROBERT E. 1807-1870. Letter Signed ("R.E. Lee") to U.S. Grant from the battlefield at Cold Spring during the 3 day standoff negotiating attempts to tend to the wounded men who still lay in the field, 2 pp, 210 x 103 mm, Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, [Cold Harbor,] June 6, 1864, folds.

ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT BATTLEFIELD LETTERS OF THE CIVIL WAR: LEE'S JUNE 6 LETTER TO FROM COLD HARBOR DURING THE SECOND DAY OF THEIR STANDOFF. One of the most important battles of the Civil War, and perhaps Lee's most brilliant tactical display, Cold Harbor was one of the most brutal as well. On May 3rd, Grant launched an assault on Lee's well-fortified positions along the line, resulting in devastating Union losses in just hours. When the smoke cleared and night began to fall, the two armies found themselves, in the words of an aide to General Meade, "almost within an easy stone's throw of each other; and the separating space ploughed by cannon shot and dotted with the dead bodies that neither side dared to bury" (Meade's Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman,
2007, p 190).

As the two armies squared off across a field of wounded soldiers, mostly Union, they exchanged volleys throughout June 4th, neither side able to tend to their wounded. Between the lines, "bodies of the dead were festering in the sun, while the wounded were dying a torturing death from starvation, thirst, and loss of blood" (Porter, Campaigning With Grant, 1897, p 184).

The stage was set for one of the most brutal battles of the war: a series of letters over the course of 3 days between Lee and Grant to determine aid to the wounded soldiers who still lay between the lines. On the 5th, Grant wrote to Lee, requesting allowance for "men bearing litters to pick up their dead or wounded without being fired upon by the other party" (Grant to Lee, June 5, 1864). Lee agrees to the necessity, but citing fear of "misunderstanding and difficulty," tries to extract a formal flag of truce from Grant in order to tend to the men. On the morning of the 6th, Grant, ignoring Lee's condition and judiciously avoiding the word truce, suggests he will send men out "between the hours of 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. today" under "a white flag." Lee responds on the same, clarifying, "when either party desire such permission [to tend to the suffering men] it shall be asked for by flag of truce in the usual way." Grant pushes back again, "The knowledge that wounded men are now suffering from want of attention, between the two armies, compels me to ask a suspension of hostilities for sufficient time to collect them in, say two hours."

Lee's reply, the present letter, begins by acknowledging Grant's specific request for a truce (although not employing that word), "I regret that your letter of this date asking a suspension of hostilities to enable you to remove your wounded from between the two armies was received at so late an hour as to make it impossible to give the necessary directions so as to enable you to effect your purpose by daylight." He continues to offer Grant a window to tend to his men, "... any parties you may send out for the purpose between the hours of 8 and 10 p.m. to-day shall not be molested, and will avail myself of the privilege extended to those from this army to collect any of its wounded that may remain upon the field."

In one of the great tragedies of the war, Grant did not receive this reply from Lee until after 11 pm, after Lee's proposed window. In fact, Lee did send out a party to collect his soldiers, and it was captured by Grant's men, unaware of Lee's proposal. Grant responded on the morning of the 7th, explaining the missed opportunity and apologizing for the captured men, the confusion extending the suffering of the wounded (many of whom were now counted as dead) an entire day. Lee now offered a respite from 6 to 8 pm, and Grant accepted at 5:30 pm on the evening of June 7th, allowing however that he could not communicate "to his men, the fact of the truce by the hour named by you (6 p. m.), but I will avail myself of your offer at the earliest possible moment...."

Cold Harbor was a clear victory for Lee, but in effect both his last and his most brilliant. Grant soon led his armies across the James River without Lee's detection and headed toward Petersburg. Lee, distracted by his own flawed attempt to send an army to Washington, could not react in time. Grant and his armies were able to threaten Petersburg and eventually cut off Lee's supply lines to Petersburg and Richmond, setting up the Siege of Petersburg. With Grant's superior numbers and position, it was only a matter of time before Lee would be forced to surrender on April 9, 1865, putting an end to the bloodiest conflict in American history.

The present letter is one of two surviving from the exchange known in private hands. Lee's formal reply to Grant's June 5 request sold for $85,000 at Christie's, New York, in 1997; this one sold for $113,000 in 2001. Lee's April 9, 1865 note to Grant suggesting a cessation of hostilities sold in 1988 for $200,000. Battlefield letters between the two most important generals of the war are exceedingly rare, and this poignant exchange documents one of the most important moments in the Civil War.

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