By Caitlin Connelly
Yesterday the staff of the duPont Library at Stratford Hall took a field trip to Shirley Plantation, about two hours southwest of Stratford, near Richmond. The connection? Anne Hill Carter Lee, the wife of Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee and the mother of General Robert E. Lee, was born and lived at Shirley.
Shirley Plantation is the oldest plantation in Virginia. It was first settled in 1613 as part of a royal land grant by Sir Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, who called it West and Sherley Hundred (named after himself and his wife). It changed hands several times until 1638, when Edward Hill obtained possession of a portion of the original 4,000 acres. In 1723 Hill’s great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Hill, married John Carter, son of Robert “King” Carter, bringing two powerful Virginia families together. Their descendants have resided at the plantation ever since. During the Civil War, the plantation was protected by a Federal Order of Safeguard issued by General McClellan after learning that the women at Shirley provided food and medical attention to wounded Union soldiers.
The house and the visitors’ parking lot is approached by a road lined with tall shade trees that bring to mind all of the classic images of Southern plantations that you’ve seen on television or in books. At the end of the drive and past a hedgerow is the house. It is a red-brick colonial building, and on a sunny day it looks cheerful and welcoming. Two cats, Tuna and Sugar, have command of the yard.
After exploring the various outbuildings, including the kitchen, ice house, and stables, we went on a tour of the house.
We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside of the house, but a Google search of “Shirley Plantation interior” can give you an idea of what we saw (just be cautious; not all of the images are from Shirley). One of the highlights was the staircase. They certainly seem proud of it, and it is definitely an interesting piece of architecture. It’s an example of a “floating staircase,” named for its apparent lack of supports. Our guide informed us that two iron bars, hidden within the staircase and running parallel to each other underneath the stairs, hold it up. I don’t know if two iron bars sound like enough support, but the stairs have been used every day for almost 300 years without any problems, so I guess the architects knew what they were doing.
But I think the most amazing part of Shirley is the family that lives there. The descendants of Edward Hill have lived on the site for almost 400 years; the 11th generation (and, with the recent birth of twins, the 12th) currently occupy the house, and are generous enough to allow visitors to come inside and look around, even if only on the first floor. Considering how often most Americans move and change residences, this seems all the more incredible.
I came back to Stratford that afternoon with some new thoughts about plantations in general, and the role that personal aspect that is so important at Shirley plays in how we present history. (In my opinion, I think the first step in emphasizing it at Stratford is more cats.)
Come back next Tuesday for another thrilling chapter in my summer internship!
Favorite Lee Family Letter so far: This 1882 letter from Mildred Lee, Robert E. Lee’s youngest daughter. There’s something very modern (and maybe a little sad) about her voice that I find interesting. So far this is the only letter we have from her uploaded on the LFDA.