Two Alexandria heroes were born in January: “Light-Horse” Harry Lee and his son, Robert E. Lee. The elder was a Revolutionary War hero, a delegate to the Confederation Congress, a member of the Virginia Convention that adopted the Constitution, governor of Virginia three times, a representative to Congress, author of an outstanding history of the American Revolution in the Southern department where he served and whose victories eventually led to Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, a superb orator and speech writer who penned and delivered Congress’ farewell to Washington after his death, coining the immortal phrase “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”.
The father became one of George Washington’s few intimate friends. At age 19 he announced to the General he intended to raise a cavalry company funded out of his own pocket to support the Revolution. In one of his first victories, he delivered a British wagon train of supplies to the starving patriot army. Those who denigrate him for losing a fortune should be mindful that the expenses he incurred fighting for our freedom were not reimbursed by Congress. Lee and a number of others, including Washington’s brother-in-law Fielding Lewis and Carter Braxton, were financially ruined as a result of their patriotism.
Robert E. Lee has also been unjustly criticized as a traitor and slaveholder who fought to preserve slavery and overthrow the union. A traitor is one who betrays his country, working to overthrow its government. Lee’s country was Virginia, not the United States. The Constitution was a compact between the states; it had limited and carefully enumerated powers. States adopted the Constitution with the provisos that a Bill of Rights be added (thanks to Alexandrian George Mason) and a state could secede if it wished (that information seems not to be in most history books). “State” and “country” were synonyms. Talk of secession began as early as 1803 by Northern representatives, again in 1814 at the Hartford (Conn.) Convention and even former President John Quincy Adams, while serving in Congress, urged secession and the formation of a Northern Confederacy.
Lee did not own slaves. His father died when he was 11. His mother could not afford to send him to college, so he applied for a free education at West Point. He married a Custis heiress. When her father died in 1857, he left all his property to her, and at her death, the property was assigned to her children. Robert was the executor, not a beneficiary. The will provided that the slaves be freed in lots for the next five years. Because the estate was indebted, no slaves could be freed until the debts were paid. Taking leave from his military career, Lee managed the estate so the slaves could be freed as intended. Even during the war, he ensured the slaves were freed on schedule. Lee opposed slavery, as did the Custises and Washingtons. Ironically, he also opposed secession but when his country seceded, he followed it.
Lee fought a defensive war. His excursion north was to relieve Virginians worn out by battle on their lands and supply his army from the breadbaskets of Maryland and Pennsylvania. He wanted an end to the invasion of the CSA by the Union armies; he did not fight to overthrow the Union. After the war, he was the most esteemed Southerner to promote reconciliation. Congress recognized his contribution by establishing Arlington as a national historic site.
Ellen Latane Tabb