January 19, 1807, was the birthday of Robert Edward Lee, one of America’s finest. Born in Stratford Hall Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia, Robert was the son of Revolutionary War hero, Henry Lee (“Light Horse Harry”) and Anne Hill (née Carter). Fine breeding it was. Of course, that was a time when character and social contribution potential were matters of carefully selected marriage partners. Marriage was more than some personal indulgence. Its quality comprised that of the society, indeed of the nation.
Robert E. Lee, 1807-1870
While Robert was born of a very privileged line, on both sides of the family, his personal life was not without challenges. His father died when he was only eleven. Robert earned his honor. Robert attended the Alexandria Academy, and distinguished himself early in mathematics. He entered the United Stated Military Academy in 1825 (at the age of eighteen), and was the first cadet to achieve the rank of sargeant by the end of his first term. He graduated in 1829 at the head of his class in artillery and tactics, second overall, out of forty-six. Robert never once received a demerit during his four years at the Academy.
With a commission of brevet second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, Lee spent years overseeing design and construction of major projects in the country. He was assistant to the Chief of Engineers in Washington, DC, 1834-37. By 1842 he was promoted to Captian.
In 1831 Lee married Mary Anna Randolph Custis (1808–1873), great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. (She was also the step-great-granddaughter of George Washington.) It was a fine marriage. They had seven children, three boys and four girls. They lived at Arlington House, just across from DC.
Lee was distinguished during the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), and was promoted to brevet major in 1847, then to Lieutenant Colonel, and Colonel, though he was still Captain of Engineers. In 1852, Lee became the Superintendent of West Point, and was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the US 2nd Cavalary regiment. (As a matter of fact, Lee was stationed at Camp Cooper, Texas, protecting the invading settlers from the defensive reactions of the Comanche and the Apache.)
In March, 1861, Abraham Lincoln appointed Lee as Colonel of the First Regiment of Cavalry. He was offered the position of Major General in the expanding Army to corral the Southern States that had seceded. Lee regarded the southern reaction as rebellion, actually, and something that betrayed the Founders’ vision for America. However, Lee’s love for statehood, particularly for Virginia, made his decision for him.
“I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia.”
An arduous, agonizing decision it was, but it stands as a piquant proverb for us all. Love the United States, but don’t let the government destroy your own state. That is our message for today, the day after Robert E. Lee’s birthday.
Lee denied himself the rank of Major General in the “Union” army, and resigned from the United States Army. He then became commander of the Virginia forces. He was named a full general when the Confederate States Army was formed, but, nobleman that he was, he refused to wear the insignia of the general. He intended to accept it only when the war was won.
When it was all said and done, the war, the surrender, the reconstruction, Rober E. Lee came off as one of the greatest men of America, universally praised and honored by all nations of the world. Something about him was so simple, grand, and noble, that it carried more weight than the war–of which he was such a critical part. The power of his person exceeded the force of arms, the content of his character the weight of politics. He was the finest of the breed, as Kipling might have said.
There are those who seek to associate with him, to compare themselves to him, to usurp his glory and inflate their otherwise empty suits–their lack of character content, shall we say. These juveniles think if they praise others, they are accounted praise-worthy themselves. If they laud the saints, they themselves are sanctified.
But enough. No holiday can honor a man such as Robert E. Lee. Let lesser lights bask in their own delusional effusions. And let the vapid souls of the press pour out their self-indulgent fantasies of greatness on meaningless place holders of common history. In their new world of “equality,” the worms are mighty. The throne is a folding chair.
Yet, we who have honor know honor. We who understand greatness know it is not free. We are not angry or discouraged that vanity reigns today. We patiently await its self-consumption, and prepare for restoration tomorrow.