Robert E. Lee’s 209th Birthday – An Annual Visit to Stratford Hall

10929033_10152965645436343_3070191583178964605_nEvery 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

Myself and good friend Matt Atkinson in front of Stratford Hall, 2015

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.

The East Bedchamber, where Robert Lee was born to Anne Hill Carter Lee and “Lighthorse” Harry Lee

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.

7 Responses to Robert E. Lee’s 209th Birthday – An Annual Visit to Stratford Hall

  1. Great post Mr. Orrison. In answer to your question, “If those who fought against him could offer respect, honor and reconciliation, why cant we do the same today?” I recall something I once heard Bud Robertson say:

    “Robert E. Lee never existed [in the minds of some] because we don’t have a Robert E. Lee today.”

    And I believe that the opinion Lee’s former enemies held, as well as many citizens of the North, was genuine and not simply for the sake of reconciliation, though that was certainly part of the story. General Chamberlain’s words are but one illustration of that fact:

    “I turned about, and there behind me, riding between my two lines, appeared a commanding form, superbly mounted, richly accoutered, of imposing bearing, noble countenance, with expression of deep sadness overmastered by deeper strength. It is none other than Robert E. Lee! … I sat immovable, with a certain awe and admiration.” ~ Union General Joshua Chamberlain at Appomattox.

    No Lee was not perfect. Of course not. He was human and flawed like all of us which, in my mind, makes his life all the more remarkable.

  2. Thank you reading the post and thanks for quoting Bud Robertson, his comments on Lee have always been poignant and meaningful for me. He is someone that lived through the centennial and has seen a lot in the ways of how we view the Civil War and its personalities. I wish we all had the retrospect and perception he has.

  3. While Lee was not progressive in his views on race he was typical of most Americans, north and south. The fact is that if Virginia had not seceded neither would Lee. Which means he would have commanded the Union Army (as Lincoln himself authorized) and be acknowledged as the greatest military mind America ever produced, and perhaps its greatest President as well. If he would have run which I doubt as he felt military men made poor politicians. So if his home state stays in the Union so does Lee, who is no longer the racist fiend willing to die and kill to keep slavery. Instead he becomes the avenging angel who liberated every slave there was by defeating the southern army . I point this out only to show how much Lee’s decision to fight for the South was actually influenced by slavery.

  4. JAY WINIK’S “APRIL 1865” and EP Alexander’ “Fighting for the Confederacy” both underscore the extremely valuable points of Mr. Orrison.
    Thank you for your thoughtful analysis.

  5. Rob:

    Lee made many bold decisions as a war commander. But surrendering his surrounded and depleted army – it numbered only about 25,000 by Appomattox – was a not one of them. Continuing the bloodshed through guerilla warfare would have been insane and led to the complete and utter devastation of the South. Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas and Wilson’s destructive raid through Alabama would have been considered child’s play, if the war had continued.

    By 1865, Union political and military leaders had become convinced the only way to defeat the South was to utterly crush its will to fight. And Lincoln, Grant Sherman, etc. were willing to do that in the most ruthless ways possible. Lee understood this.

    Encouraging his army to scatter and continuing the fight through guerilla warfare would have ruined Lee’s legacy. Lee understood this, also.

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