His birthday is celebrated by many Americans every year with events that include marches, parades, wreath-laying ceremonies and musket salutes. This year, Robert E. Lee’s birthday will be celebrated Jan. 15 as a state holiday in Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi. Some states combine it with the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr’s birth. It is a legal but not a paid holiday in Florida on Jan. 19, and on Nov. 23 in Georgia. Eight states — Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas — still celebrate some sort of Confederate holiday, although the nature of the celebration varies from state to state.
Lee, who lived from Jan. 19, 1807 until Oct. 12, 1870, was born in Stratford, Va. He was best known as one of the great generals of history as the commander of the Confederate forces during the Civil War. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1829 with high honors. In 1852, he served as superintendent of the academy for three years before becoming a lieutenant colonel.
After the war in 1865, he became president of Washington College in Lexington, Va. The school’s name was later changed to Washington and Lee University in his honor.
Lee opposed to slavery. He felt it had an evil effect on whites as well as those held in bondage. Some years before the war, his will freed the slaves who had been left to his family. He commanded the Army of Northern Virginia in the Civil War from 1862 until the surrender in 1865. It cost him his rights to U.S. citizenship.
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On August 5, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford signed a bill restoring Lee’s citizenship. Ford signed the bill at Arlington House in Arlington, Va. Arlington House, formerly known as the Curtis-Lee Mansion, was the Lee’s home until it was seized by Union forces during the war and turned into Arlington National Cemetery. The family was not compensated until more than a decade after his death, when in December 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court returned the property to Lee’s son because it had been confiscated without due process of law. In 1883, the government paid the Lee family $150,000 for the site.
Ford said “he was pleased to sign Senate Joint Resolution 23, restoring posthumously the long overdue, full rights of citizenship to General Robert E. Lee. This legislation corrects a 110-year oversight of American history.” He further remarked that it is significant that it was signed at Arlington House. Ford pointed out that “Lee’s dedication to his native state of Virginia chartered his course for the bitter Civil War years, causing him to reluctantly resign from a distinguished career in the United States Army and to serve as General of the Army of Northern Virginia. He, thus, forfeited his rights to United States Citizenship.”
Lee firmly believed the wounds of the North and South must be bound up. He sought to show by example that the citizens of the South must dedicate their efforts to rebuilding that region as a strong and vital part of the American Union. In 1865, he signed the Oath of Allegiance saying, “This war, being at end, the Southern states having laid down their arms, and the questions at issue between them and the Northern states having been decided, I believe it to be the duty of everyone to unite in the restoration of the country and the reestablishment of peace and harmony.”
He twice applied for the restoration of his citizenship, but because of mishaps during applications, the oath was apparently lost. It was found in the National Archives in 1970, 100 years after his death. An archivist discovered Lee’s oath among State department records. Apparently Secretary of State William H. Seward had given Lee’s application to a friend as a souvenir, and the State Department had pigeonholed the oath.
Ford also said: “As a soldier, General Lee left his mark on military strategy. As a man, he stood as the symbol of valor and of duty. As an educator, he appealed to reason and learning to achieve understanding and to build a stronger nation. The course he chose after the war became a symbol to all those who had marched with him in the bitter years towards Appomattox. General Lee’s character has been an example to succeeding generations, making the restoration of his citizenship an event in which every American can take pride.”
Lee has been commemorated on U.S. postage stamps at least five times, the last being a commemorative issued Sept. 19, 1970. He, along with Jefferson Davis and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, were depicted on horseback on the 6-cent Stone Mountain Memorial commemorative issue, modeled after the Stone Mountain Memorial carving in Georgia. The stamp was issued in conjunction with the dedication of the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial on May 9, 1970. The design of the stamp replicates the memorial, the largest high relief sculpture in the world. It is carved on the side of the mountain 400 feet above the ground. To raise money for the carving, a commemorative coin — the 1925 Stone Mountain Memorial half-dollar — was issued. Some 1,314,709 were minted.
Lee came to be more revered after his surrender than he had been during the war.
In 1874, in an address to the Southern Historical Society in Atlanta, Benjamin Harvey Hill described Lee in this way. “He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile. He was a Caesar, without his ambition; Frederick, without his tyranny; Napoleon, without his selfishness, and Washington, without his reward.”
Contributor Jean Tanner is a lifetime rural resident of the Bluffton area and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.