Yorktown and the Lees

Yorktown monument, builtin the late 19th century

By Colin Woodward

A couple weeks ago, I visited Yorktown for the first time. As a military historian, the site offers a two for one. Yorktown was the site of the last major battle of the American Revolution. It was also the scene of major operations during the Civil War. The site also has major connections to the Lees.

Light Horse Harry at Yorktown

The most obvious connection to the Lees was the presence at Yorktown of Henry Lee, III, better known as Light Horse Harry Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee. Light Horse Harry, a cavalryman, didn’t see much action at Yorktown, but then again, it was a siege, not a battle on the scale of other struggles. At Yorktown, the Americans—helped by a large number of French infantry and a decisive naval presence—forced the surrender of Lord Cornwallis’s army.

To oversimplify the campaign, by October of 1781, Cornwallis was trapped with his back to the York River. When the French navy cut off any chance he had of evacuating his forces by ship, he surrendered to Washington and the thousands of French troops also there. The Revolution didn’t officially end until 1783 (and fighting certainly didn’t stop after the Americans took Yorktown), but the English never recovered after Cornwallis’s defeat.

Cannon at Yorktown

Victory and Memory

While he was in debtor’s prions in Westmoreland County in the early 1800s, Henry Lee wrote his memoirs. In it, he recounted feelings in the wake of the American victory at Yorktown. He said:

Thus concluded the important co-operation of the allied forces; concerted at the Court of Versailles, executed with precision on the part of the Count de Grasse, and conducted with judgment by the commander-in-chief. Great was the joy diffused through our infant empire. Bonfires, illuminations, feasts, and balls, proclaimed the universal delight; congratulatory addresses, warm from the heart, poured in from every quarter, hailing in fervid terms the patriot hero; the reverend ministers of our holy religion, the learned dignitaries of science, the grave rulers and governors of the land, all tendered their homage; and the fair whose smiles best reward the brave, added, too, their tender gratitude and sweet applause.

“I send not the rays of the sun but the thunderbolts of Jupiter.” From a 17th century mortar at the Yorktown battlefield


Then, Lee turned his attention to General Washington, for whom he had great admiration:

This wide acclaim of joy and of confidence, as rare as sincere, sprung not only from the conviction that our signal success would bring in its train the blessings of peace, so wanted by our wasted country, and from the splendor with which it encircled our national name, but from the endearing reflection that the mighty exploit had been achieved by our faithful, beloved Washington. We had seen him struggling throughout the war with inferior force against the best troops of England, assisted by her powerful navy; surrounded with difficulties; oppressed by want; never dismayed, never appalled, never despairing of the commonwealth. We had seen him renouncing his own fame as a soldier, his safety as a man; in his unalloyed love of country, weakening his own immediate force to strengthen that of his lieutenants; submitting with equanimity to his own consequent inability to act, and rejoicing in their triumphs, because best calculated to uphold the great cause intrusted to his care; at length by one great and final exploit under the benign influence of Providence, lifted to the pinnacle of glory, the merited reward of his toils, his sufferings, his patience, his heroism, and his virtue. Wonderful man! Rendering it difficult by his conduct throughout life to decide whether he most excelled in goodness or in greatness.

In 1799, following the death of Washington, Lee eulogized him as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Yorktown memorial. Built 100 years after the fateful French-Anglo victory over the English.

John Parke Custis

Yorktown has other connections to the Lees. At the memorial to the Yorktown campaign there’s a marker that lists the American dead, state by state. Among the Virginians is John Parke Custis.

Born in 1754, he was the son of Daniel Parke Custis and Martha Dandridge Washington (who married George Washington following the death of her first husband, Daniel). After his mother married Washington, he moved to Mount Vernon.

John was father of George Washington Parke Custis, who built Arlington plantation. George was the father of Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, who became Robert E. Lee’s wife in 1831. George Washington Parke Custis was born in 1781, just a few months before the death of his father.

Charles Wilson Peale’s portrait of John Parke Custis. Source: Wikipedia

Was John killed in battle? No. As was true of most of the soldiers in the pre-20th century wars, he died from disease. John Parke Custis succumbed to “camp fever” in November of 1781, just a few weeks after the American victory at Yorktown. He was only 26. He is buried at Mount Vernon.

Life’s a Beach

For the visitor to Yorktown interested in military history, the entrenchments are still visible.

Cannon and mortar at Yorktown

As I drove in, the first part of the battlefield I saw were the recreated American/French fortifications.

Confederates in 1862, trying to hold back the advance of George McClellan and his Yankee troops, reused the old earthworks at Yorktown. The Rebels were no more successful than the British had been. Yorktown fell to Federal forces, who occupied the town for the rest of the war. Yorktown now is a small, adorable place with restaurants, bookstores, and a nice looking beach. I would love to go back soon.


The view along the water at Yorktown


Robert E. Lee wasn’t at Yorktown. At the time of the Federal capture, he was in Richmond, advising the president on military strategy. But on 1862 June 1, he took command of the Army of Northern Virginia.


The cemetery at Yorktown contains the graves of hundreds of Union soldiers, most of them unknown. One includes the grave of the “Sleeping Soldier,” who was given the death sentence for falling asleep at his post in 1861. President Lincoln commuted his sentence, and the man returned to the army. He was later killed in action.

I was at Yorktown the day after Memorial Day. And it seemed a fitting way to honor the soldiers who died fighting in Virginia so long ago.


Week 3 at Stratford!


By Katie Hall

Hi everyone!

Katie again. I can’t believe I am starting my third week already with the Lee Family Digital Archive; I feel like I just arrived at Stratford the other day. Time often seems to move peculiarly in the summer, though.

The work continues transcribing Lee family letters, but I find it engaging and enjoyable, if only occasionally tedious when I get stuck on a word. I liken it to puzzle-work; sometimes you have to stare at a word a really long time until it makes sense—or ask for help. Mostly at this point I am still going through correspondence from Robert E. Lee, although this is by no means a complaint. One recent and notable departure, however, was a letter from Lavinia Randolph Deas Mason to Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee on the matter of the unexpected death of Charlotte Wickham Lee—the first wife of William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee—in December 1863. Fitzhugh was being held as a prisoner of war by Union soldiers during the time.

Two months after his wife’s death, in February 1864, Fitzhugh was finally released through a prisoner exchange. He had spent eight months imprisoned in New York, having been captured in Hickory Hill, Virginia while recovering from an injury sustained at the Battle of Brandy Station.

Among the documents I have looked at so far, I have found the letterbook photocopies of the Lee Family Papers from the Virginia Historical Society to be some of the more interesting in terms of diversity of content. The letterbook chronicles weekly, sometimes daily, letters written by Robert E. Lee and copied by his secretary. Their content ranges from rather innocuous subjects, such as responding to requests for opinions on literature, to speaking of tragedies among families and acquaintances, or the impoverishment “borne in silence” in Virginia and the Southern States after the war.

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In other news, over the weekend, I attended Dr. Robert Weems’ lecture “Stratford under our Feet” on the rich paleontology one finds at Stratford Cliffs by visitors and geologists alike. I had read about the uniqueness of Stratford Cliffs for its geologic cache of marine and land animals dating from the Miocene era, but I had no idea over 90 species have so far been discovered!

After the lecture, everyone headed to the beach for the field portion of the event. We were incredibly fortunate with the weather, as it only began storming mid-afternoon; just enough time for everyone to come away with neat treasures. I had a blast, and I am happy to say I finally fulfilled my childhood mission of finding sharks’ teeth on a beach. I also came away with highlights of a scallop shell-imprinted rock and fossilized shark vertebra. Not bad for a first time.

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Meet Our Summer Intern!

katie flower

Hello everyone!

My name is Katie and I’m this summer’s Lee Family Digital Archive (LFDA) intern at Stratford Hall. I’m excited to be spending part of my summer in such a beautiful, historic place and in my home state. I graduated in May from Simmons College in Boston, where I received my MS concentrating in Archival Management. Boston was a neat city to live in (never a shortage of things to do and explore), but I am happy to be back home in Virginia and get into local history again. I hope to one day work in a museum, but am open to any position related to archives!

As the LFDA Intern, I contribute to the Lee Family Digital Archive’s ongoing work of providing digital access to Lee family documents. Since starting last week, I have already transcribed and published a handful of Robert E. Lee’s military and personal letters on the LFDA website, including one interesting letter pertaining to portraits of George Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart. I expect there will be no shortage of fascinating history to uncover as I continue my internship and decipher 18th and 19th century cursive.

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The bank barn at Stratford Hall

Since arriving, I have settled myself in the Bank Barn, where I am rooming with a lovely group of archaeology field students from the University of Mary Washington. I have already started exploring the estate grounds and have taken a tour of the Great House, which I will do again soon (my belief is there’s always something new to notice or find out). I hope to continue my adventuring on the weekends in good weather, including trying my luck at the Stratford Cliffs beach looking for fossils.

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I’m looking forward to the rest of my internship here at Stratford Hall and getting to learn more about the Lees. Having heard about Robert E. Lee all my life, it’s wonderful to be so immersed in the family history. I plan on writing a few blog updates during my time here, relating to more of my intern activities on Lee family research. Stay tuned!

“A Standing Protest”: A Brief History of the Robert E. Lee Statue in Richmond

The Lee monument in Richmond. Lee’s is the only statue on the avenue that faces south. Photos by Colin Woodward

By Colin Woodward

If you’ve been on Mars for the past few years, you might not have heard: Robert E. Lee monuments have been in the news. Things have been quiet lately on the monument front, at least when it comes to Richmond. But the Lee statue on Monument Avenue will continue to be Richmond’s most embattled landmark.

In the wake of the tragic events in Charlottesville last summer, some commentators have remarked upon how Civil War monuments did not appear until long after the war. That’s true, but they were in the planning stages for years. Robert E. Lee died in October of 1870. Days afterward, Confederate veterans and others who sought to preserve the general’s memory organized efforts to immortalize him in Richmond.

Early Organization Efforts

In 1870s, two rival groups of Richmond men and women fought over the general’s legacy. In 1870, local ladies created the Hollywood Memorial Association–named after a Richmond cemetery that would become the largest Confederate cemetery in the South. The ladies hoped that they could build a Lee monument in Hollywood Cemetery, where Jefferson Davis, Fitzhugh Lee, Jeb Stuart, and other southern luminaries are buried.

Not long after the ladies of Hollywood organized, the male-run Lee Monument Association was formed, which included former generals Jubal Early and Fitzhugh Lee. Fitzhugh was the nephew of Robert E. Lee and later became the governor of Virginia. Early was a veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia. Robert E. Lee had fired Early in March of 1865, but Early always held his old boss in high regard.

Lee statue, March 2018

At a meeting in Richmond in November 1870, Early spoke about the need for a Lee monument. Early was not only an admirer of Lee, he became one of the most important architects of what became known as the Lost Cause, which glorified the Confederacy in print and marble.

A “Standing Protest”

Early said at the 1870 meeting that former Confederates owed it to themselves to “vindicate our manhood and purge ourselves of the foul stain [of defeat] by erecting an enduring monument to [Lee] that will be a standing protest, for all time to come.” Jefferson Davis also spoke at the meeting, saying that Lee fought not only for Virginia but the entire South. “He was ready to go anywhere, on any service for the good of the country,” Davis noted, “and his heart was as broad” as the southern states.

Jubal Early. Lost Cause architect and Lee booster

Fundraising went well. By early 1877, R. M. T. Hunter, the treasurer for the Monument Association and a former Confederate politician, reported the organization had raised $15,000 for the Lee statue. By October of 1877, artists submitted models for consideration, but it was not until much later that a plan was chosen for the Lee monument.

The Niehaus Model

In February 1886, The Ladies Association offered two prizes for the best Lee model. First prize ($2,000) went to Charles Henry Niehaus of Cincinnati. Second prize ($1,000) went to Moses Ezekiel, a Jewish sculptor and Richmond native, who had fought with his fellow VMI cadets at the battle of New Market.

Neither model was used. One critic complained that the horses in the models were wrong. The artists had chosen to represent Traveller as a Percheron, a steed originating in France, when Traveller was in fact an American Saddlebred. Jubal Early was so angered over the sloppiness concerning Traveller’s likeness that he threatened to blow up the statue with dynamite were it built wrong.

Niehaus’s model had other flaws. First, it was enormous. The structure, had it been built, would have involved not only a Lee statue but also a wide terrace and long stairways leading up to it. Greek revival columns would have greeted visitors at the base of the structure. The proposed monument was like something from the Roman empire, and it might have taken up a whole city block. His design was fantastic, literally and figuratively. And while Lee’s admirers were legion, a grand monument was not in keeping with the man who had no enthusiasm for monuments and preferred a tent (rather than sleeping indoors) when he was in the field. Also, the Niehaus model, as is, would likely have cost fundraisers more money than they ever could have raised.

The Niehaus plan for the proposed Lee monument. The enormous design was never used

Lee’s old employer got the jump on Richmond’s efforts to immortalize the general. In 1883, Washington and Lee University unveiled its Lee statue in the campus chapel. The sculptor of “Recumbent Lee” was Edward Valentine, a Richmonder. Some suggested Valentine would be a good choice for designing the Richmond monument, but it was not to be.

It took four more years before Richmond had made tangible progress on Monument Avenue. In May of 1886, the rival Ladies and the Lee Monument associations joined forces to form the Ladies’ Lee Monument Association. Members began debating where exactly to put the statue. Gamble Hill, Libby Hill, Monroe Park, the Soldiers’ Home and Chimborazo were considered. At the time, of course, the was no Monument Avenue to put monuments on.

Merci, Mercie

In June of 1887, the French sculptor Jean Antoine Mercie was hired to make the Lee statue (but not the pedestal; that was designed by another Frenchman, Paul Pujol). Four months later, the cornerstone of the monument was laid with the help of the Grand Lodge of Masons of Virginia. General Wade Hampton, a former general in Lee’s army and the hero of the vicious Crater battle, served as marshal at the ceremony.

With Reconstruction over and the United States having entered a “Gilded Age” of laissez faire capitalism, some southern cities were thriving. Richmonders were making concerted efforts to remake the city by supporting both preservation and progress. In 1888, the city opened its trolley line, the first in the country.

Richmond was epitomizing the New South, where new technology and industrial progress were emerging alongside enormous monuments to the past. The Lost Cause was taking on religious qualities. In 1889, Richmond legislators declared the Lee statue would be “perpetually sacred.” The city would become a mecca for those hoping to venerate the Confederacy.

Mercie’s sculpture arrived in Richmond from Paris on 1890 May 4. The sculpture took up four large boxes on two flat train cars. Three days after the statue arrived, a crowd estimated at 10,000 men, women, and children gathered at Laurel and Broad to pull it into place. People cut the ropes and kept them as souvenirs. By the 24th, the statue was on the pedestal.

Lee statue on Monument (2)
The Lee monument has long been an icon of the Richmond landscape. Here is a postcard from 2016 by Richmond artist Jeff Hansen, which I bought at Mongrel in Carytown

The Unveiling, 1890

On the 29th, the monument was unveiled. The crowd of onlookers, estimated at 150,000 people, was the largest ever seen in Richmond up to that time. The four mile long parade to the site included such Confederate luminaries as James Longstreet, John B. Gordon, Joseph E. Johnston, and Fitzhugh Lee.

Colonel Archer Anderson–a Virginian, veteran of major battles in the eastern and western theatres of war, and the son of Joseph R. Anderson, who operated the Tredegar Iron Works–gave a speech. Not surprisingly, Anderson lauded Lee as a stainless model, a hero, and a man of honor who fought for a righteous cause.

When it came to slavery, according to Archer, Lee saw the institution “as an evil which the South had inherited and must be left to mitigate and, if possible, extirpate by wise and gradual measures.” Abolitionists, Anderson said, were “fanatical and unconstitutional” in their pursuits. Anderson’s speech fit the Lost Cause template, which praised such men as Lee as defending a noble cause, but said such men had no interest in defending slavery.

Robert E Lee monument 1890

During the dedication, a crowd made a giant Rebel flag of red, white, and blue colors. A mock battle was held. The Rebel yell rang out on the avenue.

African American Response

Amid the pageantry, the African American community was not amused. The Richmond Planet was disturbed by the large and open embrace of the Confederacy, 25 years after the guns of Appomattox had fallen silent. The paper worried about the passing down of a Confederate legacy of “treason and blood.” The Planet was shocked at the lack of United States flags at the event and saw the erection of the Lee monument as a means (despite what General Lee himself had warned against) of reopening the wounds of war.

The human Confederate battle flag, made at the Lee monument dedication, 1890 May

The 1890s would not be a good one for African Americans. In 1896, the Plessy v. Ferguson sanctified legal segregation through its “separate but equal” doctrine. By the early 1900s, Virginia had solidified Jim Crow laws in its state constitution, which denied most qualifying African Americans the right to vote and assured facilities such as street cars were segregated.

By then, the Lost Cause reigned supreme and would dominate Civil War studies for decades. Monument Avenue saw the erection of a statue to Jefferson Davis (1907), Jeb Stuart (1907), Stonewall Jackson (1919), and Matthew Fontaine Maury (1929). When it came to marble sculptures, Monument Avenue was for whites only until the 1990s, when Arthur Ashe’s statue was unveiled–and not without acrimonious debate.

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Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman salutes for Life magazine in the 1940s. Freeman apparently did this every day on his way to work. Note the fence around the monument


“Stoic and Unmoved”

Until recently, the Lee statue has avoided major controversies. In 1949, Richmonders debated whether public money should be used to illuminate the Lee statue at night (which it is). By the late 1980s, Richmond officials decided to remove a wrought-iron fence around the monument due to repeated damage from traffic accidents. In 2004, traffic patterns were adjusted so that vehicles circling the statue did not have to yield to those entering the roundabout. Through it all, the Lee statue remained, as the Richmond Times-Dispatch noted, “stoic and unmoved throughout the change.”

General Early’s “standing protest” endures.



View of downtown Fredericksburg from Chatham. Source: Colin Woodward

By Colin Woodward

On a surprisingly warm day in early December, I visited Chatham again. I had gone there a few months ago to talk with John Hennessy of the National Park Service. During my first visit, I didn’t have a chance to take any pictures of the house and the grounds. This time, I made sure I got plenty of photographs, especially as I was taking them around the time of the anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg.

Chatham, as is true of Stratford, is a colonial house with strong connections to the Lee family and the Civil War. Burnside used the house as his headquarters in December 1862, which offered (and still does) a terrific view of downtown Fredericksburg. Today, visitors have a chance to imagine the opening days of the battle from the Union perspective. When you are on the Rappahannock side of the house, you can see church spires and buildings, where Confederate sharpshooters hid in order to fire at the Yankees crossing the river.

Guns at Chatham, pointed toward downtown Fredericksburg. Photo by Colin Woodward

Over the years, Chatham has seen many people come and go. Some of them have been presidents. Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson set foot in the house, as did Eisenhower, William Henry Harrison, and James Monroe.

The 180 foot long mansion was built by William Fitzhugh (1741-1809) a planter, politician, and friend of Washington and the Lee family. Fitzhugh not only owned Chatham, he also bought the Lee family home in Alexandria that had served as the boyhood home of Robert E. Lee.

William Fitzhugh, the builder of Chatham

Not content to stop there, Fitzhugh also built Ravensworth, which was used by the Lee family during the Civil War and beyond. William’s daughter, Mary Lee Fitzhugh (1788-1853), married George Washington Parke Custis, whose daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, became Mrs. Robert E. Lee.

Rear view of Chatham in 2017. Photo: Colin Woodward

At the time of the war, the master of Chatham was James Horace Lacy. Lacy, a Missouri-born minister’s son, bought the house in 1857 from his sister-in-law. During the war, the mansion was known as the Lacy House. He would serve as the owner for nearly fifty years, though the house was wrecked during the war.

Lacy, as was true of so many planters, owned slaves and had land in various locations. He owned not only Chatham, but the Ellwood house in Orange County on the Wilderness battlefield site, where Stonewall Jackson’s arm was (supposedly) buried. Lacy’s brother, Beverley Tucker Lacy, was Jackson’s chaplain, who apparently buried the arm on the property. James Power Smith, who later married Lacy’s daughter Agnes, put the marker up where Jackson’s arm is reputed to have been laid to rest.

Major Lacy’s wartime experiences brought him far from Chatham.  He was captured and imprisoned in 1861 but released. He initially served in Virginia under General Gustavus Smith but later moved to the western theatre, where he helped supply the Rebel armies.

The Lacy family was forced to flee once Federal troops arrived at Chatham. The Yankees occupied the house for 13 months. At the battle of Fredericksburg, Burnside’s men suffered 12,600 casualties. Chatham became a Union hospital. The Continental Monthly wrote in 1863: “Every wall and floor is saturated with blood, and the whole house . . . seems to have been suddenly transformed into a butcher’s shamble.” The Monthly noted that “all that is elegant is wretched; all that was noble is shabby; all that once told of civilized elegance now speaks of ruthless barbarism.” The slaughter brought even more famous names to the house. Walt Whitman and Clara Barton went to Chatham to nurse the wounded.


Chatham in December 2017. Photo: Colin Woodward


After the war, James Horace Lacy returned to find thousands of smashed panes of glass, blood-stained floors, and graffiti on the walls. Federal troops had chopped down trees, and scores of men had been buried on the grounds. As a planter, furthermore, Lacy saw the war free his slaves. Chatham still stood, but it would take decades before the mansion returned to its former glory.

chatham 1920s
A restored Chatham, 1920s. Source: Library of Congress.


Lacy and his wife Bettie lived into the 20th century. Lacy died in 1906 and his wife died the next year. In the twentieth century, as was true of Stratford, Chatham was restored. By the 1920s, the house was again photogenic. Chatham went through various owners until the 1970s. In 1975, it was willed to the National Park Service, where it is now the headquarters of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania military park system.



Some Thesis and Dissertation Ideas on the Lees and American History

By Colin Woodward, Editor of the Lee Family Digital Archive

Are you a student looking for a thesis or dissertation topic? Look no further! The LFDA has you covered!

Thesis Ideas

The hanging of Williams Orton Williams. William Orton Williams was a strange and tragic character. He was a friend of the Lee family and even dated one of General Lee’s daughters for a short time. But it appears Williams was unstable and/or had a drinking problem. Whatever the cause of his erratic behavior, he had no future with the Lees. And in the summer of 1863, Union forces hanged him after capturing him as a spy in Tennessee.

The hanging of William Orton Williams. Source: Harper’s Weekly

Was Williams really a spy? His story was shrouded in mystery and controversy. Williams never admitted to being a Confederate spy. In any event, the hanging saddened and infuriated Robert E. Lee, who was still angry about the incident after the war.

The Strange Career of Henry Lee, IV. Light Horse Harry Lee’s son (Robert E. Lee’s half brother) Henry Lee, IV, was an interesting, intelligent, and controversial figure in Lee family history. It was Henry (sometimes referred to by scholars as Henry, Jr.) who lost Stratford Hall after he sold it to a friend to cover his debts. As was true of his father, Henry was horrible with money and ended up in exile (though Light Horse Harry returned to the U.S. shortly before his death).

Ann MccartyLee
Ann McCarty Lee, the long suffering wife of Henry Lee, IV. Source: Stratford Hall

While Henry’s wife was recovering from the death of their child, Henry had an affair with his sister in law, Betsy McCarty. The scandal rocked the Lee family and forced Lee and his wife out of Virginia. Henry later befriended Andrew Jackson and obtained, albeit briefly, a post as ambassador in Algiers. However, Henry’s position was never approved by the Senate, and Harry eventually settled in Paris, where he died in the 1830s.

Henry was an able writer, who penned a biography (never finished, though one volume was published) on Napoleon as well as a book length political screed against Thomas Jefferson. He also issued a reprint of his father’s wartime memoirs. Henry was of a gifted intellect and was known as a great conversationalist. His wife never disowned him, even though she had every right to (and given the social norms of the time, she probably had to make the best of a bad situation). Henry became known as “Black Horse Harry” or “Black Harry” because of his personal transgressions. But he remains one of the more compelling of nineteenth century Virginians. Harry: American scoundrel or fallen Romantic? A little of both? Whatever he was, he needs a biographer.

Image source: Stratford Hall

Traveller: A Social History. As was true of his master, Robert E. Lee’s horse Traveller reached iconic status after the war. For years, his bones were kept on display at Washington and Lee University, and it became the custom for students to autograph the skeleton. Eventually, the practice was stopped and Traveller’s bones were put to rest.

Lee was a Virginian. Virginians love horses. And Lee loved his trusted mount. Given all the Civil War biographies out there, it seems unfair that some hard working and celebrated animals should get one, too.

Sidney Smith Lee: Robert E. Lee only had one brother who served in the Confederate military: Sidney Smith Lee, better known as Smith. Smith wasn’t much of a writer, so he doesn’t have many papers in the archives. However, Smith served in the U.S. and C.S.A. navy, survived the war, and worked a modest farm near Fredericksburg afterward. Smith’s son Fitzhugh served as a cavalryman and later as governor of Virginia.

Sidney Smith Lee. Source: Stratford Hall

A study of Smith could hopefully answer some questions: what did he think of secession? How good of a commander was he? Was a staunch Confederate or was he just “along for the ride?” Any biographer of Smith, however, will have to endure reading his horrendous handwriting.

Dissertation Topics

Robert E. Lee, Slavery, and Race. General Lee is the most famous of the Lees and the most controversial. He has been in the news much lately, and scholars and the general public continue to debate, often hotly, Lee’s racial views. How many slaves did Lee ever own? What were his feelings toward slavery and African Americans? Did his views change: if so, how? Historians have answered these kinds of questions before, but the subject of Lee and race deserves book length treatment.

The Lee Boys: A Tale of Three Brothers: All of Robert E. Lee’s sons were in the Confederate army. One of them, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee (aka Fitzhugh, aka Rooney), saw major combat and was wounded in 1863 and sent to a POW camp in New York. Lee’s other sons also served, though they did not see as much action as Rooney.

As is true of their uncle Smith, an exploration of the Lee brothers could shed much light on the story of the Lees during the Civil War. What did these men think of secession and slavery? How did their views change over the course of the war?

The Civil War is often cast as a conflict that was brother vs. brother. But more common were the brothers who fought together on the same side. Think of the Earp brothers on the Union side or the James brothers on the Confederate.

Ravensworth plantation. Source: wikipedia

The Homes of the Lees: A Story of a 19th Family on the Move. Robert E. Lee moved around. A lot. Stratford and Arlington. Alexandria. Richmond. West Point. Baltimore. New York City. St. Louis. Fort Monroe. And last of all, Lexington. When reading the Lee family letters, one will come across references to the White House, Romancoke, Ravensworth, and other homes that the Lees lived in or visited. When, where, and why were the lees in certain homes at any given time? What does it tell us about their history and circumstances?

General Garibaldi and the American Civil War: Giuseppe Garibaldi was an Italian general who made a name for himself in the period before the Civil War. To use a trite metaphor, he is the George Washington of Italy. Watch the film Life is Beautiful and there’s a passing mention of Garibaldi having slept somewhere, much like people claim Washington slept everywhere. In the early 1860s, Garibaldi’s exploits were fresh in the minds of Civil War era Americans. Indeed, his career as a commander was not over yet.

Garibaldi, who was firmly anti-slavery, considered fighting on the northern side as one of Lincoln’s commanders, but this never happened. During the War, Robert E. Lee drew comparisons to Garibaldi (who looked a bit like Lee) in the northern press. Garibaldi’s campaigns were not on the scale as Lee’s. But the two had some famous battles where they defeated much large opponents. As is true of many famous generals, Garibaldi was interesting not only for his world famous skills on the battlefield, but his fashions–more specifically, his red shirts. One 1863 letter, written by Mrs. Robert E. Lee, mentions the “Garibaldi fashion.” After the war, the Lees apparently had a bird named after him.

Giuseppe Garibaldi on Caprera
General Garibaldi

Garibaldi kept fighting throughout the 1860s, with his last days in command taking place during the Franco-Prussian War. He lived a fairly long life, dying in 1882 at the age of 74. His generalship plays into a large story of the Civil War era, namely, the wars of consolidation that were occurring in America and Europe.

This is just a sampling of some of the topics that might interest anyone thinking about writing on the Lees–one of the most important and fascinating families in American history.


What Historians Keep Getting Wrong about Robert E. Lee

The Lee monument in Richmond. Source: Colin Woodward

By Colin Woodward

Last month, historian Jay Winik, author of April 1865 and other history books, wrote a piece in the Washington Post on Robert E. Lee. The article attempted to extinguish the historical fire that began after White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly spoke about Robert E. Lee and his legacy. Many historians and pundits were critical of Kelly, who said that the Civil War happened because of a “lack of compromise,” and he praised Lee as an “honorable man.”

Rather than examine Kelly’s statements (the man is not a historian after all), I would like to address some aspects of the Lee debate and what people seem to keep getting wrong about Lee, despite all that has been written about him since his death in 1870. I will also address the incorrect statements Winik made in his article.

Lee the Aristocrat?

Winik states that Lee’s “lineage was impeccable” and that he “descended from two signers of the Declaration of Independence.” In fact, Robert E. Lee was not a blood relation of any of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was born at Stratford Hall, which was the home of Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, both of whom signed the Declaration. But Lee’s father was Light Horse Harry Lee, who descended not from the Stratford line but the Leesylvania (located in northern Virginia) line of Lees. Light Horse Harry’s connection to Stratford was through his first wife, Matilda Ludwell Lee, the niece of Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee.

Matilda died in 1790. Light Horse Harry remarried. His second wife was Ann Hill Carter of Shirley plantation. She was Robert E. Lee’s mother. Did Lee have connections to the wealthiest and most prominent families of Virginia? Yes.

And no. It was Lee’s connections to his wife, Mary Custis, whom he married in 1831, that kept him relevant in Virginia’s social circles. By the time Robert E. Lee was ready for West Point, the Lee family was in tatters. His father, Light Horse Harry, a gifted commander during the Revolution, was dead and had lived the last ten years of his life in disgrace.

Light Horse Harry served several terms as governor of Virginia, but by the time Jefferson became president, Light Horse Harry was the kind of person you wouldn’t trust with money. Nor was he much of a father. We will never really know the psychological impact of this, but Light Horse Harry never knew Robert. Rather than act like a responsible father and husband, he frittered away the family fortune on bad land deals, spent time in debtor’s prison, and was disfigured and left for dead by a Baltimore mob during the War of 1812. Such disasters not only ruined him, they made sure he was virtually invisible to his family.

While Robert completed his schooling in northern Virginia, Harry went to the West Indies in a futile effort to restore his health. Harry died in 1818 in Georgia. Three years later, Robert E. Lee’s half brother, Henry Lee, IV, wrecked by a personal scandal and financial ineptitude, sold Stratford to a friend. The Lees never got the house back.

People often refer to Robert E. Lee as an “aristocrat,” but as a young man, Lee had no wealth or status to fall back on. He was on his own. What he made of himself was more in the mold of the “self-made man” than the result of an “impeccable” lineage.

General Robert E. Lee. Source: Stratford Hall

Lee’s Politics

Winik says that by 1861, Lee was “an avowed Federalist.” First, let’s put aside Winik’s confusing conflation of the Federalist party of Lee’s youth and the supporters of the federal government during the secession crisis. Lee’s father, Light Horse Harry, was a Federalist: the party of Washington, Adams, and Hamilton. But the Federalists were all but dead by the end of the War of 1812. During and after the Mexican War, Robert’s political leanings were with the big government, pro-business Whigs until the Whigs dissolved in the mid-1850s.

After the Whigs dissolved, Lee threw his lot in with the Democrats, who dominated antebellum southern politics. As was true of most southerners, Lee feared the rising Republican Party, which was firmly opposed to the extension of slavery. Lee was no ideologue. He was never a politician, not a planter (not for long, anyway), and he disliked talk of secession. Lee was no Fire-eater, but he ultimately he threw his lot in with the Confederacy.

Lee and the Enemy

The war tested Lee’s political moderation. Winik claims that Lee was “never much of a hater” and that he referred to the Yankees as “those people” rather than the enemy. He also cites Lee’s often quoted line, uttered at Fredericksburg in 1862 December about it being well that war was so terrible, “lest we grow too fond of it.”

The idea of Lee not referring to his enemy as “the enemy” gained currency in Ken Burns’s 1990 Civil War documentary. But as the late Alan Nolan and others have pointed out since then, Lee often referred to the Yankees as “the enemy.” Lee called them that as early as April 1861. Over time, the war became far worse than most Americans could have imagined it, and the conflict horrified and embittered Lee. As I have noted in a previous blog post, Lee expressed disgust at the slaughter at Fredericksburg. Lee was not a callous monster, but more often he expressed disdain for the Yankees than sympathy. “The Federal Army should have been destroyed” Lee noted in his report of the Seven Days campaign. Lee’s job was to kill, wound, or capture as many Union troops as he could.

Lee was shocked at the destruction of his beloved Virginia, and in response, he sometimes sounded much like his most aggressive general, Stonewall Jackson. In a March 1863 letter, Lee wrote to his brother Carter and quoted the verse from Psalms: “Through God we shall do great acts; & it is He that shall tread down our enemies.” As was true of Jackson, there was a lot of the Old Testament in Lee. And by November 1864, he was worried about the “Philistines”–the Yankees–further destroying his beloved Virginia.

Stonewall jackson
Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were perhaps more alike than most people think. Both were advocates of hard war and repelled by Yankee behavior. Source: Library of Congress

A letter written by Lee in August 1864 ably reflects his attitude toward the Federals later in the war. “I have been kept from church to day by the enemy’s crossing to the north side of the James river & the necessity of moving troops to meet him,” the general wrote to his wife. He described the destruction of churches in the Culpeper area, and his reaction was worthy of Stonewall Jackson. “All are razed to the ground,” he said of the churches, “& the materials used, often for the vilest purposes.” What those purposes were exactly, he did not say. But what is clear is that by then, Lee had become embittered against the “cowardly persecutors the Yankees.”

Lee and Emancipation

Winik also is misleading when it comes to the details of Lee emancipating the Custis family slaves. Lee was executor of the estate of George Washington Parke Custis, the man who built Arlington and had owned its many slaves. When Custis died in 1857, Lee, his son-in-law, sorted out the estate. Custis wanted his slaves freed once his debts were paid, but the emancipation of the slaves was not to take more than five years.

arlington slaves freed
Arlington slaves freed during wartime

By December 1862, Lee was prepared to free the Arlington slaves, per the Custis will. However, the Arlington slaves had in effect already been freed by the Union army, which occupied the plantation, located on the high ground just outside Washington. Executing Custis’s estate gave Lee fits, and he was glad when it was finally accomplished. The freeing of the Arlington slaves was not an act of philanthropy, but an instance of Lee executing a legal duty and freeing himself of a personal burden.

In the heated political climate of 2017, Lee’s defenders and detractors want Lee to be more committed on matters of race than he was. Lee never owned more than a few slaves himself. His attitude toward black people was mostly one of indifference or condescension. Lee was a soldier, not a planter. He also shunned politics. In an era when men like Jefferson and Lincoln wrestled with the slavery issue, Lee rarely wrote on the subject. When Lee tried his hand at running Arlington in the 1850s, he hated it. Were it up to Lee, he would’ve been happy to see black people disappear from the South.

Lee had problems with slavery, but he was in the gradual emancipation school of thought: slaves should be freed some day, but not soon. In the context of his time, Lee took a mostly practical view of slavery: the institution should survive so long as it worked to white people’s advantage.

Robert E. Lee was no racial ideologue, but he was no abolitionist either. Winik cites Lee’s December 1856 letter as an example of his anti-slavery attitudes. But it is far from an abolitionist document. Lee never diverged from an attitude of white supremacy, and he had nothing original to say about slavery. What he did say was done infrequently and with reluctance.

Lee’s reasons for joining the Confederacy were not based on the perpetuation of slavery for all time, but neither did he want emancipation. Defenders of Lee like to say that the general was a “man of his times.” But it is a meaningless statement. Everyone is a man or woman of his or her times. Lee’s times were filled with abolitionists and others opposed to slavery, both black and white. More relevant to the discussion is to acknowledge that Lee was at neither extreme of the slavery debate.

Later in the war, Lee supported the enlistment of black troops into the Confederate army. Before March 1865, African Americans were only allowed to serve in the Rebel ranks in support roles: diggers, teamsters, and body servants. With Lee’s backing, the Confederacy passed a bill in mid-March 1865 that allowed black men to serve as soldiers. The bill did not emancipate black men who wanted to fight. Seeing the problems of such a bill, Jefferson Davis changed the law so that black Confederate troops would not have to fight as slaves. But they could not serve without their masters’ permission. The war ended before any African American recruits fought in battle.

Lee’s attitude toward black men in the Rebel army followed the pragmatic course he had taken toward the subject of slavery all of his life. So long as he thought the Confederacy could win the war without the help of black labor, he did so. Lee, however, eventually saw that the Confederacy needed tens of thousands of black workers in order to survive. As the Union succeeded in freeing tens of hundreds of thousands of slaves and arming many of them, Lee realized that every slave that left his master for the Union lines added one more fighter to the Union as it subtracted one from the Confederacy. However, only until the last few months of the war did Lee publicly ask for black troops, because the Confederacy was unraveling and desperate for manpower.

Lee and Guerilla Warfare

Just as Winik gives Lee too much credit as an emancipator, he also gives him too much credit concerning his ability to prevent a large scale guerrilla conflict. The Army of Northern Virginia certainly did not dissolve into small bands dedicated to shooting at any Yankee that showed his head. But Lee never had any intention of fighting a guerilla war.

The Confederacy’s hopes rested on winning a conventional conflict. Lee did not know how to fight any other kind of war, and diplomatic recognition depended on major Confederate victories against the Union’s largest armies. By April 1865, Lee eschewed a guerrilla war because it would further wreck Virginia and southern society. Guerrilla warfare was also uncertain. Lee had no assurance that an irregular war would succeed.

That said, Winik wrongly suggests that southerners went home in 1865 and never again disturbed the peace. Thanks to Lee’s efforts, Virginia did not suffer the kind of bloodshed and chaos after the war that beset Louisiana or South Carolina. Despite Lee’s acceptance of defeat at Appomattox, however, many southerners fought on and waged a bloody campaign to overthrow Reconstruction. Lee advocated reconciliation, but his word alone was not enough to make peace in the South after the war. And his talk probably had little resonance outside of Virginia.

Lee and Reconciliation

Winik sees Lee as a symbol of reconciliation. And Lee certainly was that in many ways. Winik, however, accepts without criticism the early 20th century story of Lee kneeling beside a black church attendant at St. Paul’s in downtown Richmond in June of 1865. Richmond historian Philip J. Schwarz has written about the event–if it indeed happened at all–as open to interpretation concerning Lee’s supposed selfless, egalitarian attitude toward African Americans.

Lee’s loyalties after the war are also a problem for those who see him as a humbled, honorable American. “Now he spoke as a U.S. citizen,” Winik writes in his Post article concerning Lee’s postwar status. But in fact, Lee was no longer a citizen, and he never had his citizenship rights restored. Despite Lee’s advocacy of reconciliation, he eventually came to see himself as a southerner first. “As a citizen of the South,” he wrote in December 1866, “I feel deeply indebted to you for the sympathy you have evinced in its cause,” he wrote Sir John Acton.

In 1868, Lee signed his name to the White Sulphur Statement, which spoke of the “deep seated conviction that at present the negroes have neither the intelligence nor other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power.” Lee might have advocated for national reconciliation, but it was on the condition that the supposed “bottom rail” stayed on the bottom.

White sulphur springs
Lee, sitting second from left, at White Sulphur Springs in 1868 August. Source: University of Virginia


Much remains to be said about the controversial figure of Robert E. Lee. For historians to move scholarship forward, however, they must dispense with the Lee of the Lost Cause and “Marble Man” myths. Rather than recycle old ideas about the general, historians must put Lee in a context that is both historical and relevant to the heated political climate of the 2010s.