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.