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Today, January 19, is a memorable date, the birthday of one of the greatest of all Americans. Robert E. Lee was born in Tidewater Virginia in 1807. Two uncles signed the Declaration of Independence and his father was a notable cavalry officer in the War for Independence. He was later to wed the granddaughter of Martha Washington.
He was graduated second in his class at West Point, an institution of which he was later a distinguished superintendent. As an army officer he worked on many useful engineering projects and was distinguished under fire in the Mexican War and later on the Texas frontier. Unlike the greatest figure on the other side of the great sectional conflict of 1861—1865, who was an inveterate office-seeker but never performed any service for his fellow citizens.
In 1861 he was offered command of all the armies of the United States, the height of a soldier’s ambition. But the path of honour commanded him to choose to defend his own people from invasion rather than do the bidding of the politicians who controlled the federal machinery in Washington.
His command of the Army of Northern Virginia is one of the greatest military epics of human history. By genius, daring, and the valour of his men he again and again defeated immensely larger and better supplied armies. He was aided by a lieutenant whose birthday is only two days later: “Stonewall,” born of January 21 in 1824. In the last days of the war his army inflicted casualties on the enemy that were greater than its own numbers, but he succumbed finally to an enemy commander willing to make any sacrifice of his men to exhaust the dwindling numbers of Confederates.
His actions after the war illustrate his nobility. He refused invitations to lend his name to business ventures that would have made him a rich man. Instead, he became head of a struggling college and devoted himself to setting an example for his people of quiet rebuilding. His opponent in the last period of the war was President of the United States for eight years and presided over the greatest political corruption in American history.
Lee was admired not only by his own people, but by all the world, including his opponents. For a long time he was celebrated by nearly all as a great American. The attacks on his name and fame in recent years coincide exactly with the progressive deterioration of all the higher values of American tradition.
Stratford Hall offers free admission today. Last year my kids enjoyed the birthday cake and displays.
We didn't get down to the grist mill, however. I had hoped to do so this year but there's this flu thing sweeping the country.
Oh well. Happy Birthday, General Lee!
Were Lee's descendants active in post-war politics? Are they active today?
When my camp of the SCV hosted the Lee-Jackson Banquet for the Northwest Brigade in January a few years ago, we drank out of shot glasses a butter-milk toast to General Lee and out of others lemonade-toast to General Jackson. Some of the compatriots likely had vest flasks with other libations. This is also our 44th wedding anniversary. So, to the good wife for her longsuffering and love and to General Lee for his service and sense of duty!
Thank you for the timely reminder, Dr. Wilson. I had forgotten--IF I ever knew it firmly--General Lee's birthday. When I was a kid in the '50s, Minnesotans were taught that he was a brilliant general and a noble man--the greatest Southerner next to Washington and one of the greatest Americans. Nothing I've learned since then has shaken his status in my eyes. Let me add that two years after his birth, another great Southerner was born on January 19--Edgar Allan Poe. Though hardly in Lee's league as a hero and a gentleman, Poe was the first great American poet and literary critic, the foremost progenitor of three strains of modern genre fiction (the detective story, the horror story, and science fiction), and probably the most influential American writer of all time.
We are in the final year of the ballyhooed sesquicentennial and I am preparing my mental armor for the onslaught of histrionic tripe and comic book history of the Union saved and emancipation. May I suggest for reading Dr. Richard McCaslin’s “Lee in the Shadow of Washington”, Scott Bowden’s eight part series “Robert E. Lee at War” and Walter H. Taylor’s “Four Years with General Lee”. Bowden tells me one can only speculate if Lee had been given command of the Confederate forces in Virginia from the onset of the Federal Centralist invasion. Certainly there would have been very different outcomes in 1861-62. It deeply saddens me such a fine man, great American General is impugned by the Goebbels like cabal of Centralist Statist pundits and court historians.
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