Every year for the past 15 years on January 19, I find my way to Stratford Hall. As many of you know, January 19, 1807 was Robert E. Lee’s birthday and Stratford Hall commemorates the occasion with free admission and sometimes cake. It has become an annual ritual for me, one that many of my history and non-history friends get a kick out of.
But why do I make the trek every year? Is it my childhood adulation for one of my heroes or a respect for a man that I have come to respect for his decisions at the end and after the Civil War? As a kid, I saw Lee as a hero of Virginia and led Virginians (and many of my ancestors) into war. Back then, I didn’t care about the causes or purposes of the war. I was too young to understand.
As I grew up, I understood that our “heroes” are all flawed, but that is ok…it makes them more like us. As a kid, I was not concerned with Lee’s views on slavery or racism, but as an adult I must take them into consideration when I remember the man. I can understand why some of my friends just shake their head when I make my visit every year on Lee’s birthday. They only see a man who fought to keep African Americans enslaved, and they have a valid point. But I dare anyone to not find a fatal flaw with anyone in history (a view point that is being missed currently in the discussions over Confederate monuments or our Founding Fathers). Lee’s views on race were complex, but so were the views of many of his contemporaries.
Also, many of us practice the unfair judgment of historical figures using our modern day morals. I would hate to see how we are judged in 200 years! The flaws of our heroes and historical figures help us learn more about us today and helps us build a better tomorrow. None of our heroes are perfect, but a world without childhood heroes is not a very uplifting world at all.
Lee was not perfect, nor should anyone portray him that way. Lee is remembered for his
battlefield accomplishments and how he inspired thousands. But Lee’s biggest impact on us today is that in April 1865, he made a bold decision. Lee set the standard for the rest of the Confederate military leaders and most would follow his lead. He decided that day to surrender and encourage his men to give up arms and go home. Let’s imagine if he disbanded the army and encouraged partisan warfare. All we have to do today is look to the Middle East, Serbia or West Africa if we want to see how long civil wars can last. Lee saw the future and knew it would be the worse decision for the south and the nation.
Not to say that Lee was not bitter about the loss of the war, many of his writings show that. But Lee knew for his children, grandchildren and future generations to have a chance at a peaceful future he needed to work for reconciliation, not retaliation. He sought solace as President of Washington College, helping educate future generations. Yes, Reconstruction was violent for many and saw the rise of Jim Crow and the segregation of African Americans. But just think of how worse those years would have been if organized, armed forces existed in large numbers across the south.
Lee worked hard in the five remaining years of his life encouraging his fellow veterans and southerners to abide by the law and move past the war. At his death, thousands across the nation, north and south, mourned his passing. Church bells rung and memorials were posted in towns from Maine to Texas. Most of the veterans, north and south, did not see him as a polarizing figure as many see him today. Many sent money to monuments to honor Lee, with some of the largest donors coming from northern states. If those who fought against him could offer respect, honor and reconciliation, why cant we do the same today?
This nation was (and sometimes still is) slow to recognize equality; I believe if Lee’s decision on April 9th was different, it would have been even slower. It is for all these reasons that I visit Stratford on January 19th every year – respect for the man I have learned so much about as an adult and a sentimental tie to my childhood past. As for having childhood heroes…it’s still ok, we just need to remember that no one real is perfect.