I once had a small handbook titled “How to Speak Southern.” Under the heading Robert E. Lee, the book had the definition, “The finest gentlemen to ever walk the face of the earth and greatest example of what it means to be Southern.” I believe it was the only part of the book not written in jest.
Robert E. Lee was born in 1807 at Stratford Hall, only a few miles from where George Washington was born, on the Chesapeake Bay. Lee was the product of Colonial gentry and his father was a revolutionary hero (Light horse Harry). Built in the 1730’s, the home remains enviable to this day. It is everything you would expect for the original Governor of Virginia and the very definition of “landed gentry.”
There is a fee to enter the grounds and when you do so they take some general information for their visitor’s log. When I told the man in the little booth my zip code he paused, “that’s Philadelphia isn’t it?”
Turns out he grew up 3 blocks from where I now live. He asked if the area has gotten any better to which I had to reply, “not really.” He knocked ten dollars off my admission.
The place is closed for winter renovations and I could see carpenters at work through the frosted windows. The brochures talk of how the estate was a self sustained village and center for colonial life. That looked as if it was true, with the palace in the center and village shacks surrounding it. Upon closer inspection all the small shacks were labeled “slave quarters.” The larger shacks or buildings were the stables and barn, or the detached, large, kitchen that served the main house.
I have often read of the struggle Lee had at the outbreak of the war, as to which side he would join. He was invited to lead the Union forces but declined in order to serve Virginia and become the most storied General in the Civil War. Looking at the grandeur of his childhood I wonder how much of an internal struggle he may have really had. Here, before me was a level of comfort I would never aspire to gain, but it was his heritage. Here I saw a way of life that anyone would hope to one day gain, but he had it before he entered this world. It was who he was.
It would have taken a remarkable person to join and fight for a side in which victory meant the destruction of the world from which he came. If the North prevailed, places like Stratford Hall would be unsustainable.
Then again, Lee would have had a front row seat to the horrors of slavery. Lee would have seen what it looked like to degrade another person for your own benefit. He would have sat at the table being served by people who were good enough to raise your children, but then beaten when displaying independent thought. How could someone who saw this first hand pick up the sword in order to defend the right to kill and maim another person without punishment?
Many will think me unfair in my thought process and wondering here. Many will say I cannot judge a man in history by present standards. Many will tell me to relax and temper my zeal.
None of those leveling that criticism will be black people. The ones descended from those who truly had the most at stake in Lee’s decision.
5 thoughts on “Stratford Hall, VA”
Robert E Lee was most certainly raised by slaves but who knows if those sloves were abused or treated harshly. Slavery was a known fact of the day when Lee was growing up, an accepted fact but of course that did not make it right at all. Most of the the truly intelligent landed gentry did not abuse their slaves or have them beat until they died. A slave was a valuable “piece of property” to be taken care of–Lee was probably suckled by a Black wet nurse since it was so unbecoming and just not done for a well to do white woman to nurse her own children. He wasn’t exactly raised by slaves but I would wager many were his playmates as a child. It would surprise you just how many slave owners actually did educate their slaves and teach them how to read, although it was against the law. It would also surprise you how many Southerners did not own slaves at all. Lee accepted his command with much hesitation and regret, knowing full well he would be defeated. In the language of today, he fought for his country, right or wrong. Instead of reading a book that spoofs and degrades Southerners, read a biography of Lee. You might be surprised. I will not be critical of your zeal and thoughts on the matter. I understand and I am a white, female Southerner who happens to think Robert E. Lee was indeed a gentleman, that retired quietly, did not make a penny from any reminences of the war and was president of Washington & Lee College. He died not many years after the end of the war. He could not be buried at his home…the Yankee army had used it as a burial ground for Yankee and Confederate dead making the house uninhabitable. It stands today on a hill overlooking Arlington Military Memorial Cemetary.
I have more than one book on the south, serious ones. My wife is a Southern woman, I have lived three years in Atlanta, and two in Greenville, SC.
Just like any person I’m sure Lee was not all one thing, good or bad.
Would I be surprised that many slaves were treated well, being valued investments? Would I be as surprised as these slave owners were at how quickly these beloved friends and servants abandoned them when the northern army got near? Or how quickly many slaves abandoned home themoment master was away or when the war ended?
Slavery is inherently abusive no matter how oft the whip was or was not used. People of those days knew it, contemporary journals and writings confirm they knew it wrong. John Brown knew it was wrong ( just to throw a pre civil war Lee reff in there).
Lee was truly a gallant man. Unfortunately he was tainted by the side he chose and many a northern soldier died due to Lee’s superior generalship.
Thanks for sharing your information and the pictures. It really takes me back to the importance that history really is. It makes me really want my kids to understand that it’s not boring, it’s great information to take in.
Would you be surprised at how many slaves stayed with their masters and families and served the family all through reconstruction. I am not and never have been an advocate of slavery art all. I just believe to fully understand a person or incident, all views and opinions should be considered. I was not taught in school that slavery was acceptable. I know many soldiers died while the confederate army was in action. But just as Lee began losing the war, a man named Sherman scoured the South from Atlanta to the sea. The remnants of that tactic of war can be see today; one must look closely. Sherman was neither good or bad, but a soldier trying to end of war that was destroying his country. I do not find him abhorrent but a smart, clever and dedicated soldier. He has also been tainted by his ripping up of the south; the death and destruction he left behind and his seeming disregard for any life.
By the way, having lived 5 years in the South really does give you a “pass go” card–a Southern lady as a wife doesn’t really help either. Its funny how Yankees can come South and become experts of out history and heritage.
Don’t take things so to heart—it will break if you do 🙂
Sorry I didn’t check the boxes below the first time I wrote to you
Take Care, sir.
If we don’t take things to heart, we don’t learn from them. They are just stories rather than lessons.