Friday, January 19, 2007

Happy 200th Birthday, Robert E. Lee

This is an article that I wrote on R. E. Lee last week that appeared in a couple of local newspapers.

At the mention of "great Americans," a relatively small list of people comes to mind; George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Franklin D. Roosevelt are just a few.

January 19 marks the 200th birthday of another individual whom many of us consider a great American. Robert Edward Lee was born in Virginia on January 19, 1807. While born into an old Virginia family, he was not born into wealth. His mother was charged with raising the family after his father, "Light Horse Harry" Lee, died in 1818.

Robert’s older brother Smith had joined the Navy. Robert sought and obtained a appointment to the United States Army Military Academy at West Point. He graduated in 1829, second in his class, with no marks against his record. The summer after he graduated, his mother died.
Lee went on to serve in the prestigious Engineer Corps, designing and building coastal fortifications. Lee was in North Carolina, touring Forts Macon and Caswell, in 1840. Lee married Mary Ann Custis in 1831, and they went on to have seven children. All of his sons would become soldiers.

At the death of his father-in-law, Lee’s wife Mary inherited the family home at Arlington outside Washington, D. C. They also inherited the slaves from the plantation. Lee spent the next five years working toward fulfilling the requests of his father-in-law’s will, including the emancipation of the inherited slaves.

In 1860, Lee found himself in Texas, serving with the Second United States Cavalry. His country was falling apart around him. Lee did not believe in secession, and he believed that the election of a man as president from a radical party did not warrant revolution. "But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union." Lee wrote in January 1861. To another friend he wrote "God alone can save us from our folly, selfishness and short sightedness... we have barely escaped anarchy to be plunged into civil war." Yet, he would not take up arms against his home state.

Lee resigned from the army in April 1861 and was immediately commissioned a brigadier general in the state of Virginia. His commission in the newly formed Confederate army soon followed.

For four years, Lee led one of the greatest armies in history. His victories over armies at times twice as large as his own are studied and taught throughout the world. When mentioning great generals of history, like Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and McArthur, Lee’s name is always included.

Many local men from the Toe River Valley served under Lee in his Army of Northern Virginia. Some of those men survived the war; others were killed on the fields of Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and the Wilderness. Others died of disease in hospitals and prison camps.

The Confederate States of America failed to gain its independence, and in April 1865, Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Lee declined several lucrative job offers after the war, only to become an educator at Washington College. He again visited North Carolina, in March 1870, spending time at the grave of his daughter Agnes, near Warrenton. Lee died in October 1870, in Lexington, Virginia, and is buried in the chapel of what is now known as Washington and Lee University.

Robert E. Lee deserves to be remembered. His character, his Christian faith, his military tactics--- his entire life is an example that should be emulated. In a day and age when we need heroes, when we need people to look up to, Lee should be one of those men who command our attention.


Anonymous said...

Michael:I enjoyed your Lee article and join you in recognizing the birthday of this great American. I just returned from Stratford Hall where our battery fired artillery salutes as a part of the Lee birthday remembrance. A highlight of the program was watching Robert E. Lee IV cut a birthday cake with General Lee's sword. Lee's role in promoting reconciliation has always struck me as nearly as impressive as his military career which preceeded that act.

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