Was Robert E. Lee Born on His Birthday?

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By Colin Woodward

Every serious student of Robert E. Lee knows that the general was born on January 19, 1807, right? Or was he? Check out Robert E. Lee’s entry at the Encyclopedia Virginia and you will find that the general’s birth date is given as “ca. 1806.” According to Elizabeth Pryor, who wrote the article, “Lee’s writings indicate he may have been born the previous year.” Should Stratford Hall, which commemorates Lee’s birthday every January, change its plans?

Before Stratford rewrites history, we should ask: what “writings” might Pryor have been referring to? Elizabeth Pryor, sadly, died in April 2015. Any historian interested in documenting Lee’s birthday will have to follow a rather sketchy paper trail. One of the documents uploaded to the Lee Family Digital Archive is an 1829 West Point roster of students, one of whom was R. E. Lee. On the roster, Lee gave his age as being 19 years and 4 months at the time of his admission to West Point on July 5, 1829. That would put Lee’s birthday at sometime around March of 1806.

Van after Davies vignette CDV 600Pryor herself gave Lee’s birthday as January 19, 1807 on page 14 of her 2007 book Reading the Man. Despite this, in a footnote of her book (page 498), she cast doubt on the accepted birthday, and her 2009 Encyclopedia Virginia entry says as much. Was Pryor right to have questioned the veracity of Lee’s accepted birthday? If so, why have historians thought that Lee was born on January 19th?

Lee lived in the era before state-issued birth certificates, which were not common practice until the mid-20th century, when being born in a hospital with an attending physician was more common. In looking for more information, I consulted Douglas Southall Freeman’s R. E. Lee, the most thorough biography of the general. Freeman included an image of the Lee family Bible in the first volume of his 1930s biography of Lee. The Bible entry shows a date of January 19, 1807 for Robert E. Lee, but a “6” is crossed out and a “7” written over the original number. The Bible entry contains the autograph of Ann Hill Carter Lee, who gave birth to Robert. She would obviously be a good authority on when Bobby Lee was born.

And yet, to confuse matters, Lee wrote in a letter of February 28, 1824 that he had “completed my eighteenth year on the 29th of last January.” Assuming what Lee said was true, it would have put his birthday at January 29, 1805, the day and year of which differs from what historians have commonly accepted. And to add even more confusion, January 29th was the birthday of Lee’s father, “Light Horse” Harry Lee.

What’s going on here? Using documents in the Lee Family Digital Archive and elsewhere, hoping to confirm or refute what Pryor said. I’ve tried to find evidence (beyond what Freeman and others have made popular) that Lee was born before 1807. I have yet to find anything. One letter, however, is tantalizing. In a letter written in 1868 by Charles Carter Lee, Robert’s brother, he discusses a recent book about the Lee family, written by Edward Mead and published earlier that year. Charles noted the book “contains most extraordinary mistakes . . . & that you, Mrs. Lee’s 4th child were born in 1807.” I have not found Lee’s reply to his brother (if it exists).

Was Charles suggesting the general was born in 1806, or some other year? Perhaps not. Another good authority on Robert E. Lee was his wife, Mary. In a letter to an unknown correspondent, dated 1870 December 23, Mary gives the accepted date of 1807 January 19 as the general’s birthday.

Until more definitive evidence comes to light, Lee biographers, Civil War scholars, and fans of the general should continue to believe that Robert E. Lee’s birthday is on January 19. The subject of the general’s birthday, nevertheless, reveals that very often, even the most concrete and accepted facts about a person’s life are subject to scrutiny and interpretation. History is constantly being rewritten.

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What Happened to Stratford during the Civil War?

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Image from Appleton’s Journal, 1870s

By Colin Woodward

Ethel Armes’s 1936 book, Stratford Hall: The Great House of the Lees, is the most comprehensive history of Stratford. It still stands up well, eighty years after it was published. In it, Armes says, “During the War between the States, Stratford had a narrow escape from destruction.” To back up her claim, Armes includes testimony from Susie Reed, daughter of Captain Samuel Baker Folke. Reed told Armes: “My father got orders to burn Stratford to the ground and burn every other house on the lower Potomac.” Armes assets that this happened “at the outbreak of hostilities.”

The fact that Stratford still stands is proof that no one burned it during the Civil War. In fact, the house was never seriously harmed, though Union troops apparently vandalized the site later in the war. Reed’s claim that Stratford would have been burned but for her father’s good will, while dramatic, is dubious. It is unlikely that anyone ordered Stratford burned during the Civil War. Yet, Reed’s claim warrants discussion of what happened at Stratford as Federal and Confederate forces, including those of John Singleton Mosby, were operating in the area.

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John S. Mosby, the “Gray Ghost”

Reed’s testimony raises a number of questions. First, who was Capt. Folke, and why would he have been in a position to burn Stratford and other houses in the Northern Neck?

Captain Folke was never an officer in the United States military. And in doing research to write this blog entry, I’ve been unable to find much information about him. According to Susie Reed, he father was captain of the Wawasett, which traveled along the Potomac before the war. Since Folke apparently was never an officer in the U.S. military, he would not have been given orders to burn Stratford, or anything else.

Even if Folke were given such an order, who would have given it? The U.S. navy was never in the house burning business during the Civil War in Virginia as a matter of policy. Such a policy would have been met with outrage early in the war, when officers such as George McClellan were conducting operations in Virginia according to the rules of “civilized warfare,” which meant leaving civilian houses alone. And in McClellan’s case, “civilized” meant returning slaves to disloyal masters.

Early in the war, it is highly unlikely that any commander, let alone one as obscure as Folke, would have been ordered to burn houses in Virginia, especially the ancestral home of the Lee family, which was still occupied. After all, the federal government did not order Arlington burned. Later in the war, men such as James Montgomery and William Sherman burned homes in Georgia. But in 1863 and 1864, such actions were met with revulsion even among northerners, let alone southerners. In fact, in June 1864, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had to remind an officer, “in future no furniture be taken from private houses under any circumstances.”

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Gideon Welles

The Northern Neck was the scene of raids by the Union army during the war. The Federals did not burn houses, though looting and the seizing of crops, slaves, and animals did occur. Stratford avoided major destruction. What actually happened in or around the house is uncertain. Little has been written about wartime Stratford.

In the 1920s, Evelyn Ward began writing a memoir, which was published in 1941 as The Children of Bladensfield. Ward was born in 1853 and lived at Bladensfield plantation in Richmond County, which borders Westmoreland County. She wrote about one Union raid at Stratford.

The lady of the house at Stratford during the war was Elizabeth McCarty Storke. She had a controversial past. As a young woman, Elizabeth had an affair with the married Henry Lee, IV. Henry was her brother in law and legal guardian. The scandal ruined Henry’s reputation and contributed to the financial troubles that forced him to sell Stratford shortly after. Elizabeth returned to Stratford in the late 1820s after her husband Henry D. Storke bought it.

In her memoir, Ward wrote that during the Civil War, Union troops rummaged around, scaring old Mrs. Stork [sic] almost to death. They found her bonnet in its bandbox and seemed to get a great amount of fun by tossing it about on their bayonets.

She said to them, “What good can destroying my best bonnet do you?”

“Is this old thing your best bonnet?” they jeered. “Mrs. General Lee ought to be ashamed to call such a thing her best bonnet.” Because General Lee was born at Stratford, they thought Mrs. Stork must be his wife.

Armes also relates the driving off of the Stratford slaves.

At Stratford when Mrs. Storke lay ill in bed the Northern troops came and drove away the slaves. They even took Mrs. Storke’s house servant, Uncle Billy Payne. Mrs. Storke, sick as she was, was left alone in the house. Uncle Billy begged and pleased to be allowed to go back to Stratford. Finally the soldiers let him go and he walked back a long, long distance. He never left the place again.

How accurate was Ward’s account of the event? Evelyn Ward was not living at Stratford at the time of the Union raids. Nor was she kin to Elizabeth Storke. Ward was a child during the war, and whatever she heard concerning wartime Stratford was second or third hand information, at best. She did not pen her recollections of the war until 60 or 70 years later.

The story of the driving off of the slaves has elements of Lost Cause history: brutal Yankees take advantage of a lone, ill old woman, and despite the disappearance of most of the slaves, one remained loyal to his mistress. Such stories were told countless times in accounts of the Civil War.

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Billy Payne at the Great House, 1926

Regardless of what occurred at Stratford in the 1860s, residents of the Great House or the surrounding neighborhoods had reason to fear Union troops. As teenager Nannie Simpson Bowie (pronounced “Booie”) wrote to her brother in December 1862, “There are so many rumors in circulation relative to the Yankees in the Northern Neck that it keeps me constantly uneasy for fear they may go down in our neighborhood and treat the citizens badly.”

Elizabeth Storke might have encountered some rude Yankees during the war, but the house survived the struggle. Elizabeth Storke might have been ill when Yankees trespassed on her property, but she was not at death’s door. She survived the war and died in 1879 and was buried in the garden at Stratford.

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Despite the unwanted presence of Union forces in Westmoreland County, Stratford was lucky. Many homes throughout the Confederacy were destroyed by marauding Union forces. Sherman never passed through Westmoreland County, but citizens in the Northern Neck had a right to be fearful. The most notorious event to happen in the Northern Neck was the Draper Raid of 1864, which will be the subject of a future blog post.

Robert E. Lee and the Gettysburg Wars

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The 50th anniversary gathering of veterans at Gettysburg

By Colin Woodward

Gettysburg is Robert E. Lee’s most controversial battle, and for good reason. It was the one where Lee lost the most troops of any commander at any single Civil War fight. Historians have estimated the Army of Northern Virginia’s losses at 28,000 men. The three day battle, which ended  on 1863 July 3, occurred at the same time as the South’s surrender at Vicksburg. Lee’s defeat, coupled with the Confederacy’s loss of Vicksburg, has been called the “turning point of the Civil War.” Never again would Lee’s army invade the North. For the rest of the war, Lee would remain on the defensive in Virginia.

Early and Longstreet

Historians have debated whether or not Lee’s defeat in Pennsylvania was the turning point of the war. But no battle has been written about more than Gettysburg, which has been the subject of thousands of books. After the war, the battle of Gettysburg was hotly debated by former Confederates, especially two of Lee’s most important generals: Jubal Early and James Longstreet, both of whom were at Gettysburg.

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Jubal Early

The debate over strategy and tactics at Gettysburg lasted long after the war. Robert E. Lee never weighed in on these controversies. He never wrote a memoir, and he avoided discussing the war in public (though he did get political in private letters). Such was not the case with either Longstreet or Early, both of whom outlived General Lee, and who wrote recollections of the war. Early published A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in 1867. Longstreet’s memoir, From Manassas to Appomattox, which was ghost-written, appeared in 1896, two years after Early’s death. Longstreet lived until 1904.

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James Longstreet

Early was one of the first major generals to publish a memoir, but well into the postwar period, he wrote and argued about the war. He became one of the major architects of the Lost Cause, which celebrated the Confederacy in print, song, and monuments. Robert E. Lee relieved Early of command in 1865 because of Early’s failures in the Shenandoah Valley. But Early defended Lee later in life.

Longstreet, in contrast, became a pariah in the South because of his choice to become a Republican and supporter of Ulysses S. Grant. Longstreet also endured criticism for second-guessing Lee’s tactics at Gettysburg, more specifically, Lee’s decision to launch the fateful assault known as “Pickett’s Charge” on the third day.

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Col. Walter H. Taylor

The Gettysburg wars involved not just Early and Longstreet, but Lee’s staff officers, such as Charles Marshall, Charles Venable, and Walter H. Taylor (who lived until 1916). Jefferson Davis and Wade Hampton also were involved in the debate concerning Gettysburg.

Excerpts from the Letters

Here are some excerpts from the recent uploads to the LFDA:

“I am not invited to Gettysburg but will give you my opinion about going in giving my thoughts when I saw that they were pestering Mars Bob with an invitation. . . . I am opposed to the whole thing as a piece of Yankee vanity & impudence but think at the same time all chances of keeping these Army men our friends should be taken. . . . I cannot think [Lee] will go. I know one thing, if Heth & Longstreet go there, they will know noth[in]g beyond a division & a corps & they are not smart. ”

Charles S. Venable to Walter H. Taylor, 1869 August 21

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Charles S. Venable

“There is an article in the Galaxy for April by Imboden, entitled ‘Lee at Gettysburg,’ which glorifies Imboden much and Lee but little. Imboden has taken occasion to say a good deal for himself, while professing to give some important facts in regard to General Lee, and the conditions of things after Gettysburg.”

Jubal Early to Walter H. Taylor, 1871 April 9

“He is a mere wreck of his former self, & I felt truly sorry for him [when I visited him]. . . . He has lately written to me asking for the same facts, & I fear his mind is affected, as he does not seem to remember the interview.”

D. H. Hill to Jubal Early, 1874 April 10


 

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Daniel Harvey Hill

“I have not had time to follow closely the controversy to which the article refers, but I remember perfectly my conversation with General Lee on this subject. He said plainly to me, that the battle would have been gained, if Gen. Longstreet had obeyed orders given him, and had made the attack early instead of late.”

John Lee Carroll to Fitzhugh Lee, 1874 April 15

 

“I told you Longstreet had better let me alone. He has taken nothing by his false claims.”

Early to Taylor, 1874 April 29

 

“It occurs to me that if Gen Lee had any such idea as an attack sunrise you must surely be advised of it. Right sure am I that such an order was never delivered to me, and it is not possible for me to believe that he ever entertained an idea that I was to attack at that hour [sunrise].”

Longstreet to Taylor, 1875 April 20

 

Conclusion

These letters are just a sampling of the vast literature on Gettysburg. Today, many historians don’t view it as the turning point that scholars once did. The battle, nevertheless, will always be the biggest and bloodiest event of the war. And the men that fought there certainly understood that.