One of Alexandria's most illustrious citizens, Robert E. Lee, was born on Jan. 19, 1807, at Stratford Hall. When he was three, his father moved the family to Alexandria. His death when Robert was 11 left the family with few resources.
As a schoolboy, Robert cared for his invalid mother and did household chores, including shopping in Market Square. The Lee family pew at Christ Church has a silver marker with a replica of his signature. His impoverished mother could not afford college tuition so he sought a free education at West Point, where he excelled. He had a distinguished career as an engineer, even changing the Mississippi River’s course to keep St. Louis a port, after others had failed to do so. He was the hero of Veracruz in the Mexican War. As West Point superintendent, he modernized the curriculum and introduced the honor system used today.
He married the heiress of Arlington, Mary Anna Randolph Custis. When her father died in 1857, his will left the entire estate to her for her lifetime and then to their eldest son. Lee did not inherit any slaves. He was named an executor of the heavily indebted estate whose slaves were to be freed within five years. Without selling anyone, he cleared the debts and freed them by 1862 despite other heavy war responsibilities.
Lee owned no slaves. However, Gen. Grant’s wife owned slaves until 1865. Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was carefully crafted to free no slaves in Union states or Union controlled areas of the South.
At its outset Lincoln declared the war was about saving the Union, not about slavery. Virginians had voted to remain in the Union, but after Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops to invade the South, they voted for secession. In 1861 the state was the primary unit of government and focus of citizens’ allegiance, including Lee’s, although he opposed slavery and secession.
In 1861 Mrs. Lee left Arlington in (slave) Selina Gray’s capable charge. She vigorously protected it from occupying Union forces.
Despite serving admirably in the US army for 36 years, Lee is best known as a general in the Confederate army. Because secession was legal, he was not a traitor any more than Washington who also fought for independence. Because Lee is an Alexandrian, it is especially regrettable that public officials, clergy, teachers and citizens misstate the facts about him. We all should know and disseminate the truth.
Lee’s name is synonymous with integrity. One example is his refusal to accept $10,000 from the New York Life Insurance Co. merely for use of his name; at the time he was destitute and the sole support of his invalid wife and three adult daughters. American and European military academies still study his innovative battle strategies. He is one of only two men in recorded Western history to have been offered a top command by opposing sides in the same war. Read a biography to celebrate his birthday!
Ellen Latane Tabb