The William Lee papers contain 57 items spanning from 1862 to 1955, including 49 letters and 8 documents. The earliest items in the collection are 16 letters written by Lee to family members during his service in the 8th Missouri Cavalry and the 3rd Arkansas Cavalry. In his letters of this period, Lee gave detailed accounts of marches, battles, and skirmishes and shared his opinions on several political subjects. His letter of September 11, 1862, contains an account of the Battle of Prairie Grove: “…we marched up on the right wing of our army & in two hours after our artillery commenced firing the day was ours. This is given up by all to be the hardest fought battle of the west & the most decisive.” Lee’s descriptions were frequently accompanied by numerical counts of forces and casualties.
Also of interest is Lee’s perspective on the conflict between North and South, which he expressed in several letters to his mother. Despite residing in Arkansas at the outbreak of the war, Lee strongly identified with the North, and his sentiments seemed to deepen over the course of the war. He expressed deep anger at Southerners (April 22, 1863) stating, “…if every one of them were today occupying a tract of land 6 by 3 feet under the sod I think they would have their Southern Rights…” He also cheered the changes to the Arkansas Constitution forbidding slavery and Confederate “brushwacking” (January 30, 1864). After his February 4, 1865, honorable discharge, the theme of Lee’s letters quickly turned to the courtship of his future wife, Mary, whom he calls “Mollie.” Included in the collection are six invitations to from Lee to “Miss Mollie,” and a letter written on the morning of their wedding day, April 18, 1865, expressing his wish for “a quiet family thing of it.”
Later letters document Lee’s business travels and family life. A letter from Mary to her mother (January 26, 1876) gives substantial information on the Lee children, the adjustment to living in Tennessee (“the society is not of the best”), and the difficulty of finding a school. The 20th-century letters mainly document efforts to put up a new gravestone for Abner Lee, William Lee’s grandfather.
The “Documents” series contains a variety of materials, including Lee’s army discharge papers, a brief autobiography with clippings on William and Mary Lee, and three photos, one of which may portray Lee as an elderly man.