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Theological Seminary of Va.

April 22, 1861


My dear Sir,


            I am sure of your sympathy with me in the motive of what I now write, even though you may think me presumptuous & lacking in judgment. Two considerations prompt me, one, an Editorial in the National Intelligencer of to day placed by yourself in Dr. Sparrow’s hands & read by him to me a few minutes ago, the other a suggestion that Col. Lee, now to be put in command of the Virginia troops might, by God’s blessing, bring peace to our distracted country. O how my heart leaped at the thought! How many thousands, yea millions would rise up to bless the man that should bring this to pass! I may be stepping out of my line in offering a word on the subject. But my heart is full & I know you at least are willing to give me your attention. Who knows but your cousin may be raised up by God for such a time as this? Could he bring about, at least, an armistice, preparatory to a National Assembly for peaceful settlement of our troubles, how many hearts would he relieve & how large his share in the Blessedness of peacemaker! I do not enter into the political considerations of the matter. That is not my province. It may suffice to say that, so far as became me, whether in the North or in the South, I always gave my opinion against the organisation & the proposed measures of the party now controuling the General Administration. I always held that organization to be not only needless, but mischievous. When it became sectionally dominant, I hoped still that the more thoughtful members of it would shape its course. They seem to have been overborne. The unfortunate Proclamation of the President & the measures which were its immediate antecedents have utterly disappointed me & saddened me. But as I said I do not enter into the political aspect of the great question now before us. I would regard it as a Christian should, & especially a Christian minister. My feeble voice I lift for peace. I have often turned my thoughts to Col. Lee. The world knows his services in the Mexican war. Years ago, I asked my brother-in-law, Maj. A. H. Bowman (now of West Point)[1] what army officers thought of him as a soldier. I remember well his emphatic answer. If those who were with him (Col. Lee) in Mexico should answer, they would unanimously declare him to be, in all military qualification, without a rival in the service.  But my interest in him was quickened by hearing of his Christian character. During his absence in Mexico, I visited his family at Arlington & heard from Mrs. Lee allusions to his private letters. I received then my opinion of him as a Christian & have had my eye on him ever since. May we not hope that God has put him in his present position to be an instrument of abating the storm which now threatens shipwreck to the whole country?  It is sad that so few of our public men are Christians. Col. Lee is a grand exception. I know, in an official post, which is not that of head of the government, he would find it difficult to follow the private promptings of his own Christian mind, for a soldier’s business is not to advise his superiors but to obey. But great respect would be shown to the judgment & Christian spirit of one so distinguished as he. Virginia gave us our original Independence through her Washington. She gave us in our National Constitution through Jefferson[2] & Madison & others. Can she not now, while we are threatened with the immeasurable evils of Civil War, give us through Colonel Lee, peace? In common with other States she may justly complain of wrongs. But will Civil War repair them? Christianity teaches not only the duty, but the wisdom of patience & forgiveness. Virginia, from her geographical position, from her glorious share in the past & from her great political weight, has it in her power (am I presumptuous in saying it?) to come in as mediator, rather as an umpire & settle the question not only for the happiness of the whole country, but for her own special prosperity. Should Col. Lee be a leader in this matter & place his native state in this grand position (which I must think she can hold) he will have an honor never reached by Napoleon or Wellington. If Virginia may not call back the people of the continent to Union, she yet may, to peace. Standing apart from others, she would not, could not be invaded. She could be a healer or peacemaker & have all the blessedness of such an office. The wisdom of seniors has not been allowed its part in our great questions. Young, impetuous spirits seem to be leading the mind of the country. Especially has not the Christian mind, the church, been heard. Its voice must be for peace. Our sins may be too great to allow us to have again the blessings of a united country, but may we not have peace? Is there not moral power in the Christian mind of the country to stay the hand of fraternal strife? How many wives, mothers, widows, sisters, how many quiet, peaceable citizens of all classes sigh for peace. How many families now separated by wide geographical distances, would be divided in a way far more painful & dreadful by civil war! No quiet citizens, no Christian can think of it without a fainting heart. During the civil wars of England, in the times of the Commonwealth, Lord Falkland was known in all Britain as one of the bravest men ever born in that land. After he had seen the indescribable wretchedness of the people of his native country in the strife of brothers, he would sit abstracted among his friends &, sighing from the depths of his heart, exclaim, “Peace, Peace.” I dare not say Col. Lee may bring us peace. The Lord only can do that. We may have so sinned that the wrath of God must be upon us & make us suffer the awful judgment now threatening. But we may at least pray & strive for the mercy which shall give us peace. How do all Christian sentiments, how do all the interests of the Christian Church, how do all our interests cry for peace!

James May[3]


2nd Sheet


I do not say the gospel forbids war absolutely. Its direct, primary call is to peace.  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” From my inmost soul, I pray that in this our day of trial, that blessedness may be enjoyed by Col. Lee. In their writing do I seem to be a meddler? I am not so in purpose & motive.  Perhaps I mistake my calling. I think as a Christian & a Christian minister I cannot err in wishing & praying for peace. Our great national questions cannot be settled except in time of peace. O may that peace come now, at the beginning, instead of the end of a fearful conflict. So praying I am sure of your sympathy, & subscribe myself.


Most sincerely your friend,

James May


Source: Source: The Archives of the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation, Papers of the Lee Family, Box 6, M2009.251, Jessie Ball duPont Library, Stratford Hall


Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2015 October 13





[1] Alexander Hamilton Bowman (1803-1865) was a native of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He was an engineer, who helped construct the defenses at Fort Sumter. He served as superintendent of the United States Military academy during the Civil War.

[2] Thomas Jefferson did not assist in the writing of the United States Constitution, nor was he a signer. He was in France at the time of the debates concerning the Constitution’s creation.

[3] Rev. James May, D.D., was born 1805 October 1 in Coventry, Chester County, Pennsylvania. He was the son of Robert May (1750-1812), an ironmaster, and Ruth Potts (1768-1820). He attended Jefferson College (now Washington and Jefferson College) in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. He received his bachelor’s degree in September of 1823. He further studied at a theological seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, and at another seminary in Philadelphia. After obtaining his doctorate of divinity, he set up his first ministry in Wilkes Barre, Penn. Two years after becoming pastor at St. Stephens, he married Ellen Stuart Bowman (1805-1861). Dr. May later moved to Philadelphia and spent considerable time in Europe. In 1842, he became a professor at the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary of Virginia in Alexandria. He died in Philadelphia on 1863 December 18 and is buried in Saint Mary’s Episcopal Churchyard in Philadelphia. For more on May’s life, see Alexander Shiras, Life and Letters of Rev. James May, D.D. (Philadelphia: Protestant Episcopal Book Society, 1865).