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.
Pryor 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.