• The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia

The Lee Family Digital Archive is the largest online source for primary source materials concerning the Lee family of Virginia. It contains published and unpublished items, some well known to historians, others that are rare or have never before been put online. We are always looking for new letters, diaries, and books to add to our website. Do you have a rare item that you would like to donate or share with us? If so, please contact our editor, Colin Woodward, at  (804) 493-1940, about how you can contribute to this historic project.



The Myth That Lee's Mother Was "Buried Alive"

The Myth That Lee’s Mother Was “Buried Alive”


The absurd story that General Robert E. Lee’s mother was buried alive is again in the news. As printed, it is credited to Warfield Lee, of Catlettsburg, Ky., son of Samuel Lee, who is alleged to have been a brother of General Robert E. Lee. According to this yarn, as printed in the Shepherdstown (W. Va) Record, Mrs. Henry Lee was stricken in 1809 and apparently died. She was laid in state in the “great Lee mansion on Arlington Heights for four days,” and on the “sixth day” her body “was removed to the family mausoleum,” where a servant heard her cries for help and took her from the coffin. Carried to the house, “she soon recovered and lived to a ripe old age.” To add the final climax, it is stated that “fifteen months after the incident, Robert Edward Lee was born.”

There is not a single statement of fact in all this. General Lee had no brother named Samuel Lee, from whom a nephew might be descended to tell this strange tale. Mrs. Henry Lee did not die in the “great Lee mansion on Arlington Heights,” for the good and sufficient reason that her family never owned Arlington and never resided there. Arlington belonged to the Custis family and came into possession of Mrs. Robert E. Lee on the death of her father, G. W. P. Custis, in 1857. Mrs. Lee’s interest was for life: the property was willed to Custis Lee, grandson and name-sake of the former owner.  

Even if Mrs. Lee had died at Arlington in 1809, she could not have been placed in the “family mausoleum,” because there was none at Arlington. Nor could she have given birth to Robert Edward Lee fifteen months after this interment in 1809, inasmuch as Robert Edward Lee was born in January, 1807.

The story has been denied in its entirety by members of the Lee family and is ridiculous in all its parts. Mrs. Henry Lee, who was born Anne Carter, of Shirley, moved from Stratford to Alexandria in 1811 for the better education of her children, and slowly fell into a partial invalidism. She died in July, 1829, at Ravensworth and was buried there. Subsequently, her ashes were removed to Lexington, to rest close to those of her great son. 




Source: Richmond News Leader, 1927, vertical files, Valentine Museum, Richmond

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2018 October 17


"Lee," by Anne Hobson Freeman, 1979


A Personal Essay by Anne Hobson Freeman

Commonwealth Magazine, 1979 January


The other day I was waiting for a filling in my tooth to harden. I asked my dentist (who grew up with me in Richmond in a district we were not then chic enough to call “The Fan”) what associations came into his mind when I said, “Robert E. Lee.”

“Well,” he said. “I think about the statue that was right around the corner from my house. It had a beehive in it once. Do you remember that? Inside Traveller I think. Who has, by the way, all four feet down on the ground. That’s important, someone told me. Where the horse’s feet are on a statue. If they’re on the ground, it means the rider died a natural death. But if one foot’s in the air, as on Jeb Stuart’s statue, then the rider died in battle. Same thing if the horse is facing North . . .”

“But what about Lee the man?” I asked.

“The man . . ,” he said, pulling himself back from his mental stroll around the monuments. “Let me see. . . A great military hero?” He was stalling now, I noticed, working up his thoughts, “. . . kind of like, well . . . ,” then he blew the word out: “God!”

We both laughed then because there was a Truth there. Truth about the nimbus we as children growing up in Richmond in the late ‘30s and ‘40s perceived around the name of General Lee. Even his appearance in the pictures, which were everywhere around us, with his bright white hair and beard, suggested a trimmed Virginia version of the Hebrew God, or Moses, or maybe Santa Claus.

But if he was Santa Claus, his presents were meager ones. My grandfather still kept the dried-out peel from half an orange that General Lee had shared with his father once in camp. My great aunt, on the other side, stored in her top bureau drawer a purple velvet box containing a frayed piece of hemp (from the rope with which she’d helped pull Lee’s statue to its pedestal on Monument Avenue), two brass buttons from his coat, and a lock of his white hair.

To our immature minds these things seemed less like presents than religious relics. And our confusion was confounded if we went to St. Paul’s Church. There, year after year, one month after Christmas, they staged a second birthday celebration on whichever Sunday fell the closest to January 19th, he day that Lee was born.

First, they would fling out the Confederate Flag and let it float from the pillared portico. I guess I have to explain that this was back when the people at St. Paul’s were still proud of the fact that their church had served as the “cathedral of the Confederacy.” And long before tv and ad men had begun to promote the “logo” as a substitute for reading and independent thinking. And somewhere in that process, and the intervening years, the star-crossed, bright red battle flag of the Confederacy shrank, in some people’s minds, at least, into a simplistic symbol of redneck racism. And so the church today no longer displays it.

Back then, though, that flag was still full-sized in the popular mind, i.e., laden with complex and tragic historical associations, as it may be, let us hope, someday soon again. The people at St. Paul’s were, therefore, glad to fly it from the portico as a symbol of the Lost Cause of Southern Independence and a public invitation to the birthday celebration for the one widely acknowledged Southern saint.  

Inside, the congregation would join in the singing of Lee’s favorite hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.” And finally, the minister would climb into the bright brass pulpit and deliver a sermon on some Christian quality exemplified by General Lee—courage, gentleness, forgiveness (it was different every year), Submission of the Self to the Sense of duty, or maybe just plain coping with defeat.

There were still some people in that congregation then who remembered seeing Lee in church, in Pew Number One-Hundred-and-Eleven. My great-grandmother among them. She had been a teenager during the War and could tell you all about it, as she saw it from Pew Fifty, and would, too, even if you didn’t ask her. I can still see her sweeping in, like a fragile black bat, trailing veils of mourning for a husband, a Confederate, of course, who had died some 37 years before.

She, in turn, died at the age of 93 when I was only five, before she managed to communicate to me any concept of the cost that General Lee had come to represent for her and for her generation. Not just the cost in loss of property and all hope of prosperity, but the loss of almost one-third of the white male adult population in the South. (As well as the mutilation—physical and psychic—of God only knows how many others.)

It took another war and a bizarre incident in that same church to bring that concept home to me. Up until that point, I think I thought of General Lee and his War Between the States (or “W.B.T.S.” if you were in a tearing hurry on a history test, but were not brave enough to face what you would have to face if you wrote “Civil War”) as being just about as bloodless and symbolic as the statues that we saw all over town.

Then one Saturday night, during World War II, a shell shocked sailor wandered into St. Paul’s Church, went berserk, and drove his fists through the bottoms of the stained-glass windows facing Ninth Street. Next, apparently, he wiped his bleeding hands on some of the hymn books before somebody came and took him out.

The next morning when I came to church and saw those jagged, multicolored shards of glass hanging in those old familiar windows (windows I had studied every inch of through interminable sermons), I thought about the bombed-out cathedrals of Europe I had seen flickering in black-and-white newsreels without once ever feeling they were real. Now terror squeezed my heart, for it occurred to me suddenly that war, real war, could leap out of the newsreels, and cross the Atlantic, and get at me, a child of eight, supposedly safe at home in Richmond.

My knees still felt unsteady as we rose to sing the processional hymn. I smoothed the skirt of my velvet Sunday jumper and glanced across the aisle just as one of my father’s friends opened his hymnbook and discovered bright white pages soaked and stuck together with red blood.

As I stood there, horrified, staring at the hymnbook, I was struck with an almost unbearable knowledge—the knowledge that war—any war—means not just statues and hero-saints, or even broken glass. It means, mainly, bloodshed. Dark, red, human blood.

From that day on, I began to notice something I had missed before in General Lee’s ubiquitous postwar photographs and portraits, and even in the statues. An air of almost indefinable sorrow suggested by lips that are turned slightly downward and pressed together tightly as if holding something back. Could that something be the dreadful knowledge I had gained?

As I grew on through World War II and then Korea, then Vietnam, as an adult, I came to see Lee more and more not as a god or saint, but simply as a man, who would bleed if he were shot or cut and weep if he were hurt. A world-weary, prematurely old man at that.

Today, in portrait after portrait, if I take time to stop and look at them, I now see Lee, the man burdened with knowledge, but still doing his best to appear optimistic for the photographer, the painter, or the sculptor, and beyond them, of course, the ruined South that looked to him, almost alone, for leadership through their defeat.

But he couldn’t quite pull it off, it seems to me. Though he held his chest as high as he must have wished his hopes could be, the corners of his mouth still drifted downward. As if he simply could not keep that dreadful knowledge of the human cost of the Lost Cause from leaking through.

Maybe someday somebody will celebrate the birthday of the man, and not the hero-saint, Robert E. Lee, a man who bore inhuman burdens, not because he was inhuman, but because his peculiar, now archaic, sense of Duty to his home-state imposed on him its tragic, inescapable obligation.



Source: The archives of the Valentine Museum, Richmond, Virginia

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2018 August 24



1. Anne Hobson Freeman (1934-) is a historian and poet from Richmond, Virginia. She was married to George Clemon Freeman, Jr. (1929-2017), a senior partner at the Richmond law firm of Hunton & Williams. Anne is the daughter of Joseph Reid Anderson Hobson (1901-1986). She received a B.A. from Byrn Mawr in 1956 and an M.A. from the University of Virginia in 1973.

"Robert E. Lee: Neither Ordinary Nor Citizen," by George C. Scott

Mr. Scott, the Academy Award-winning actor, is a serious Robert E. Lee scholar. Scott developed his ‘Notes on a Visit to Robert E. Lee’ in preparation for an NBC-TV Today show segment aired April 9. Most of the filming was done on the campus of Washington and Lee University, where Lee served as president from 1865 until his death in 1870. Scott’s commentary is published here by permission of the university.



This is Main Street, Lexington, Virginia. On September 19, 1865, a big, sandy horse with a dark mane and tail strode effortlessly down this street. He carried a tall, stooped man with a pearl-white beard who might have been taken for a farmer – the muddy boots, the faded, literally colorless riding coat, the sweat-brown, broad-brimmed hat.

But he was not an ordinary citizen bent on some mundane domestic chore. Neither ordinary – nor a citizen.

On that pleasant fall morning, 11 years before America would celebrate her Centennial year, R. E. Lee was about to become president.

Obviously, and some say unhappily, the presidency was not that of the United States. Rather, it was as chief administrator of tiny, impoverished Washington College that Lee had come to serve.

He was a paroled prisoner of war under indictment for high treason. Reviled by many as the Prince of Rebellion, he was totally disenfranchised – unable either to vote or to hold any public office.

But he was also beloved to the point of mythology by millions of his countrymen – and among these were the trustees of Washington College. They borrowed the train fare and a suit of clothes to send Judge J. W. Brockenbrough to offer . . . the chair of president and an annual salary of $1,500.

Broken in health and fortune, looking a decade older than his 58 years, Lee was apprehensive to accept. He knew very well his years were waning. But he wanted desperately to be of use to what he always termed the “rising” generation of his country. And when Judge Brockenbrough insisted that his acceptance would “evince a mind superior to despair,” he gratefully agreed.

About the only recreation President Lee enjoyed during those last few years was taking daily rides through the surrounding countryside on that great grey horse, Traveller. One of the places he visited frequently was the hillside gravesite of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

Prior to the war, Jackson had been a professor at nearby Virginia Military Institute. Lee probably stood at that grave and spoke quietly to his eccentric, strait-laced old comrade. Jackson, even to this day internationally recognized as one of the profound tactical geniuses of all time, was known to some of his men as “School Marm.”

And Lee probably joked softly with him that they were both school marms now.

Undoubtedly, since they were religious men, Lee knelt here and prayed for both their souls. And he probably assured “Stonewall” that they would be united again before very long.

But bitterness and morbidity were foreign to Lee’s nature. And so was looking backwards. He worked diligently, even in rapidly failing health, and the college prospered – three days after his death becoming Washington and Lee University.

At breakfast with his son Robert on the morning of his murder, Abraham Lincoln looked at a portrait of Robert E. Lee and said, “It’s a good face. I am glad the war is over at last.”1

It was indeed a good face. Was it not – indeed, is it not still – the face of a good man?

Edward Valentine, who had sculpted a likeness of Lee from life, said: “An artist, above all other men, is quick to observe the faintest suggestion of posing. The slightest indication of movement or expression that smacks of vanity, he is sure to detect. Such weaknesses (which, as far as I know, are shared by many who are called great ones of the world) were totally lacking in General Lee.”

This is Bicentennial America.

This is Election-Year America.

This is 20th-Century, thermo-nuclear, porno-liberated, cokey-alky, oligarchy, in-order-to-get-mine-I gotta-grind-you-America.

What are you and I supposed to learn from or feel about the world and the character of a man like R. E. Lee?

He’s cold. We’re cool.

He’s passe. We’re avant.2

He’s out of it. We’re up to here in it.

Well, there are a few qualities this remarkable creature had which may serve us, too, if we consider them.

Patience – quiet, good humor – adoration of children – loyalty – respect for hard work – dedication to an ideal – love of animals –appreciation of duty constituted authority coupled with an abhorrence of authoritarianism – a devotion to history, for, as General Lee said, “It is history that teaches hope” – gentleness and the aspiration to achieve gentlemanliness – understanding of the state of being young – courtesy toward the conditional frailty of advanced age.

Acceptance of responsibility.

Personal integrity.




Source: Richmond News Leader, 1976 July 8

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2018 May 11


1. This quotation comes from Elizabeth Keckley, an African American woman who worked in the White House. Don E. Fehrenbacher doubts the validity of the quotation, giving it a “D” (of a school-like scale of A-F, with an F being the least reliable) in his book, The Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 275.

2. Literally meaning “before” in French.

Gen. B. D. Fry’s Description of Gen. Lee Asleep

Gen. B. D. Fry’s Description of Gen. Lee Asleep


The last time I saw General Lee


On the 3rd of June 1864 Gen. Grant’s army made an advance upon the Confederate forces covering the City of Richmond. The result was the sanguinary battle known as the Second Cold Harbor, in which the Federal troops were repulsed with terrible slaughter. During the action I occupied the extreme left of our line, and on the following day was ordered to move towards the right with my command which consisted of five Virginia, three Tennessee, and two Alabama regiments of Infantry – amounting in the aggregate to about three thousand men.

While riding at the head of my command along a road a short distance in rear of our line, I observed under a spreading oak – which stood a few paces from the road – a group of officers some of whom I knew as belonging to the staff of our great commander, and when nearer saw General Lee lying on the grass with his head resting on a saddle over which a cloth had been thrown. He was evidently sleeping soundly, and his attitude was exactly that represented in Mr. E. V. Valentines splendid recumbent statue. He lay upon his back with one arm across his breast and the other extended by his side.

My men were moving at rout step, and were talking, laughing, singing or whistling as was usual on a march. I turned and remarked to my staff

“There is General Lee asleep.”

Catching sight of him the men at the head of the column at once passed the word back along the line.    

“Hush boys – don’t make a noise – there is Marse Robert asleep under that tree.”

Instantly there was a perfect silence and the long line of bearded, bronzed, and battle begrimed veterans passed quietly by – all turning to look at their beloved commander in whom they felt such unbounded confidence.

During the whole war I witnessed no more striking manifestation of the affection felt by our men for General Lee.

Soon after the incident above described I was ordered to another part of the country and never saw him again.


B. D. Fry




Source: Valentine Museum archives, Richmond, Virginia

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2018 July 24


General Henry Lee: Lighthorse Harry by Blake Tyler Newton

Speech Delivered January 19, 1962


Blake Tyler Newton

In the Senate of Virginia


My friends, we are met today for the purpose of paying sincere tribute to the memory and fame of a great member of the great house of Lee—General Henry (Light Horse Harry) Lee—the Father of the peerless Robert E. Lee. Although in common with every other American, I feel the keenest pride in his brilliant career. I am not unmindful of my inability to do justice to a subject so well worthy of the loftiest praise and eulogy. Who was this man, this scholar, soldier statesman? He was the son of Henry Lee, of Leesylvania, and Lucy Grymes, the “lowland Beauty”, the first of George Washington’s unrequited loves. He was educated at Princeton College under the great Dr. Witherspoon. Here he made an enviable reputation as a student, his name appearing on both college literary debating societies, a distinction shared by only five others in the history of Princeton. With James Madison, Aaron Burr and John Witherspoon he shared the highest honors of his class. It had been his purpose when entering Princeton to finish there his classical education, and then pursue the study of law in the Middle Temple in London, but upon leaving Princeton at the age of eighteen he returned home to find that the fires of revolution which had for so long been smouldering had been fanned into full flame by continued tyrannies of the Mother Country. Born, raised and educated as he had been among a nest of devoted patriots, he heard with the greatest pleasure the decision of the Colonies to take up arms in the cause of freedom. Before reaching the age of nineteen we see him being commissioned a lieutenant in the company of dragoons commanded by Colonel Theodoric Bland. All thought of preparing for the Bar was now put aside and he embarked upon that career whose events were to follow such an ironic design.

In the early years of the war we se him in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and New York, acting as the eyes and ears of General Washington’s Army. At times he is scouting for information of the enemy’s movements, sometimes foraging for food in order that life might be sustained in the tired bodies of the struggling army; at other times destroying and capturing enemy supplies, and in other ways harassing the movements of the opposing soldiers. The war was hardly two years old when by his gallantly conspicuous service he had so attracted the attention of his superior officers, that General Washington, through Colonel Hamilton, tendered him an invitation to become one of his aides. No greater honor could be given to a young Captain in the American Army. It meant promotion to a Lieutenant Colonelcy at once. It meant being personally known to all the general officers. It was a tempting, comfortable position. Always there would be a bed at night, meals at some bright tavern, and no fear of death from a British musket or bayonet. He would be among lively, agreeable young men—Alexander Hamilton, Henry Laurens, Robert Harrison, James McHenry, Tench Tilghman, Richard Kidder Mead—bu the aide-de-camp’s sleek way to fame was not the way Lee purposed to earn renown. He preferred to remain in the cavalry, taking his chance with sword and pistol, exerting  his keen and active mind in raids, assaults and long excursions; sleeping in a feather bed one night and under the stars the next. After weighing the invitation from every angle, and after waiting as long as he dared to reply, he wrote General Washington under date of March 31st his refusal. Among other things he said: “Permit me to promise that I am wedded to my sword, and that my secondary object in the present war is military reputation. To have possessed a post about your Excellency’s person is certainly the first recommendation I can bear to posterity; it affords a field for military instruction; would lead me into an intimate acquaintance with politics of the State, and might present more immediate opportunities of manifesting my high respect and warm attachment for your Excellency’s character and person; I know it would also afford true and unexpected joy to my parents and friends. On the contrary, I possess a most affectionate friendship for my soldiers, a fraternal love for the officers who have served with  me, a zeal for the honor of the cavalry, and an opinion that I should render no real service to your Excellency’s arms.” Having thus stated the reasons for declining this flattering offer, he awaited anxiously word from his beloved commander. He had not long to wait. The next day he received a letter from General Washington in which, among other things, he said: “The undisguised manner in which you express yourself cannot but strengthen my good opinion of you. As the offer on my part was purely the result of a high sense of your merit, and as I would by no means divert you from a career in which you promise yourself greater happiness from its affording more and frequent opportunities of acquiring military fame, I entreat you to pursue your inclination as if nothing had passed on this subject, and be assured of the good wishes of Dear Sir, Yours, etc., George Washington.”

Meanwhile, Congress had been considering his promotion and in April President Reed notified him that he had been raised to the rank of Major, and might soon be given an additional company of men to be added to his own troop of dragoons, the whole to form an independent partizan [sic] corps under his leadership. While barely 21 years old, he had fought at Brandy Wine, Monmouth and Germantown. Acting as scout for the army in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and New York he had by sheer ability risen from Lieutenant to Major. Now he was called by General Washington to reconnoiter and find out the best and safest approach to the enemy stronghold at Stoney Point. For days Major Lee scouted this stronghold. While his share in the actual attack was small, yet his reconnaisance [sic] had shown the possibilities of the venture and his continued observance of the enemy contributed to its success. For fifteen days he was continually near the vicinity of Stoney Point. He killed all dogs in the neighborhood in order to insure silence on the night of attack. To General Washington’s mind, Lee’s operations were so important that he wrote General Wayne the day before the attack as follows: “As it is important to have every information we can procure, if you could manage to see Major Lee, it may be useful. He has been so long near the spot, and has taken so much pains to inform himself critically concerning the post, that I imagine he may able to make you acquainted with some further details.” He did. And on the night of the 15th, when Wayne’s Light Infantry Corps crossed the Donderburg on its way to Stoney Point, Lee, meeting Wayne with his latest information, was one of the officers who showed the way down the hill, over the flooded marsh and up the steep rocky side of the British stronghold, from which an American flag soon floated. Thus did General Lee contribute to the success of Mad Anthony Wayne’s brilliant victory.

While all America was singing the praises of Mad Anthony Wayne for capturing the almost unassailable and impregnable Stoney Point on the Hudson. Major Lee was revolving in his busy and active mind a plan whereby he was to perform a feat equally difficult of accomplishment as had been that of General Wayne; namely the capture of Paulus Hook, a fort occupied by the British on an isthmus between Hackensack and Hudson Rivers. This fort was protected in front by British ships lying in the Hudson and thousands of soldiers billeted in New York. Behind them flowed the Hackensack, with no way of crossing except by a bridge built 14 miles above the fort. To the South the land formed a hook, washed by deep water and patrolled by British troops. On the North, the isthmus was divided by a creek, the passage of which was guarded by a wide, deep trench and a double row of sharp stakes and underbrush extending along either bank. With such natural defenses, the garrison feared nothing. Yet it was this stronghold that Major Lee determined to capture. After carefully planning and reconnoitering, and after having secured the consent of General Washington, on a hot August day he set out at the head of his legion to capture this stronghold. We are told the march was long and weary; there were rivers to be crossed on hastily made bridges; there were creeks to wade and swim; there were marshes and bogs to be crossed, but after marching all day and all night, this gallant command, under their intrepid leader, rushed into the fort, whose guardians had been taken completely by surprise, and captured the entire garrison then present, save a few men who had taken refuge in the block house. After destroying stores and supplies, the garrison was safely taken back to the American Headquarters. For this brilliant exploit, Major Lee received the compliments of Lafayette and a personal letter from General Washington in which he said: “I have received your report, which I have forwarded to Congress. You will find my sense of your conduct, and that of the officers and men under your command, expressed in the general orders of the day, and in my letter to Congress. I congratulate you on your success.” Those congratulations were to Major Lee very gratifying, but there were to be repercussions not so pleasant, for through jealousy of some of the older officers, charges were preferred against Major Lee for his conduct of this campaign and he was, after having performed one of the most daring feats of the war, to be humiliated by being brought before a court martial for trial. At the trial, his defense was adequate, and the court could do no less than mark the charges against him as spurious. The opinion of the court was: “Major Lee’s conduct was uniform and regular, supporting his military character, magnanimity and judgment, and that he by no means acted derrogatory [sic] to the Gentleman and Soldier, which character he fills with honor to his country and credit to the Army.” Receiving the verdict of the court, General Washington wrote beneath it: “The Commander-in-Chief confirms the opinion of the Court,” and added, “Major Lee is released from arrest.”

On September 24th, Congress passed resolutions providing that $15,000.00 be distributed among the non-commissioned officers and men in such manner as the Commander-In-Chief should direct, “and Major Lee was complimented for the remarkable prudence, address and bravery displayed” in recognition of which “a gold medal, emblematical of the affair,” was ordered to be struck off and presented to him by the Government. For four years Major Lee had fought with Washington in the North. He is now promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the Legion and detached to the Army of the South. Late in 1780 he reported to General Nathaniel [sic] Greene in North Carolina. We could follow him in this dashing Southern campaign, but time does not permit. We see him as the strong arm of his beloved commander, General Greene, at Guilford, the Cow Pens, Kings Mountain and all the fighting incident to the capture of the British forts between Camden, Ninety Six and Charleston.

The war is over. Independence from the Mother Country has been achieved. Lee, at the age of 26, returns to Virginia. For some time he had been in love with the charming daughter of Stratford – and now that the clash of arms had ceased, he took time to press his suit and so shortly after his retrun [sic] from the battlefields of the South, he was united in marriage to “the Divine Matilda.” He then settled down here at Stratford to become a gentleman farmer, riding about the broad acres, supervising the planting of crops, the operation of the fisheries and mills of his large estate. But to one of his temperament, this secluded and quiet life did not appeal. He longed for a larger field of operation, the field of statecraft with the clash of sharp, keen minds. So it was inevitable that he should be drawn into politics. In the fall of 1785 he was elected to Congress. Taking Matilda with him, he journeyed to New York for the Session, where, with Colonel Carrington, Colonel Grayson and James Monroe, he represented Virginia. His service there was short, he remaining only one term and being supplanted by James Madison, his old schoolmate at Princeton. Again he returned to Stratford, but he had tasted the flattery of political importance and was not content to remain on his plantation, acting as one of the Gentlemen Justices of Westmoreland. His mind was occupied with national matters and he continually thought of the state of the nation, bound together with only a loose confederation, and continually being threatened with dissolution; because of the jealousies of the states toward each other and the impotence of the Government in settling civil disturbances and rebuking foreign insults. He wanted a strong central government that would be able to protect its citizens and encourage shipping and trade with foreign countries. Accordingly, when the Constitution was proposed, as a member of the convention called for ratification, we find Colonel Lee, a delegate from Westmoreland, one of the leaders who championed the cause of ratification. This was no light task, for arrayed upon the side opposed to ratification were some of the brainiest and most masterful leaders and patriots in Virginia. At the head of this array of talent was Patrick Henry, the Grand Sachem of the people of the West; with him were allied such leaders of opinion as George Mason, the great lawyer; Colonel Theodoric Bland, who led the first regiment of dragoons to the war; Colonel Grayson, long a leading member of Congress; Richard Henry Lee, the mover of the Declaration of Independence. With these and many others against ratification, the contest promised to be long and stormy. But Lee was rarely embarrassed by finding the majority against him, and never daunted by the stature of his adversaries, even when they took on the proportions of Patrick Henry and George Mason. Upon entering the packed hall where the convention was to be held, he assumed that the business of the meeting was not for argument, but for quick ratification of the Constitution, and so, with sharp brevity, suggested that the matter be taken up immediately. This at once brought objections from Colonel George Mason, who said, “Precious as time is, we ought not to run into discussions before we have the proper means.” Lee knew that that speech was designed to delay ratification until the document was amended to give power to the states and less strength to the Federal Government. And it opened the way for the old and gaunt, but still powerful Patrick Henry to lead off with his powerful argument against ratification. The issue was joined; these giants held each other in close battle for days. Although James Madison, Governor Randolph and all the other leaders of ratification were in the hall, it was Lee who took up the gauge of battle thrown down by Patrick Henry and who directly met Henry’s arguments. “Mr. President,” Lee said after acknowledging the “dignified and brilliant talents” of Mr. Henry, but declared that they had now been devoted to describing imaginary horrors, “was it proper to appeal to the fears of this House? I trust that he and every other gentleman of this House comes with a firm resolution, cooly [sic] and calmly, to examine, and fairly and impartially to determine.” He then proceeded in a powerful and brilliant argument to tear to shreds the contentions of Mr. Henry and to point out the great advantages which he felt that ratification would bring to the country. Nothing daunted, the powerful Henry returned to the attack and launched against the proposal all the logic and eloquence at his command; particularly against what he considered the dangers of a Federal Army. To this, on June 9th, Lee replied: ‘having led the forces of the American Army for six years, he was peculiarly fitted to defend the army and plead for a strong national defense.’ This he did in a brilliant speech which, if time permitted, I would read to you. And so the battle raged until June 24th, when the vote was taken, and by the barest majority, ten out of 168 votes, Virginia entered the Federal Government. Colonel Lee was jubilant. The ideal for which he had fought for six long years upon the field of battle, the campaigns in which he had participated from the Hudson in New York to the Pedee in the Carolinas, had not been in vain. The suffering and privation of himself and others through these weary years was yet to bear fruit in the blossoming of the strong national government which would have the power to protect its citizens against all enemies, both foreign and domestic, which had the power to promote commerce and prosperity among its people. And he, by the power of his strong sword and the eloquence of his tongue, had had no small part in its accomplishment. And so, my friends, at this time, 174 years after the ratification of our great Constitution, which eminent and impartial observers have said is the greatest document ever struck off by the hand of man at a given time, and under which the greatest nation in the modern world has grown and prospered, it is well for us to pause and pay our tribute of respect and admiration to the great patriot whose efforts contributed so largely in giving us this blessing.

Soon after his great triumph in helping to bring about the ratification of the Constitution, he suffered a cruel blow in the death of his first wife, Matilda. She was only 26 years old, was in her finest bloom, and her death left the distracted husband desolate. “Something always happens” he wrote years later, “to mar my happiness.” Never was this regarded by Henry as the maxim of his life, more true than in the loss of Matilda. He was only 34, and found relief by plunging into public life. His speeches in the Virginia Constitutional Convention had extended his fame; the greatest American of his day was his friend and backer; and thus Light Horse Harry’s election in 1791 as Governor of Virginia, an office that had been filled by Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and Edmund Randolph, and other great Virginians, seemed quite in keeping with the eminence he had attained. He served as Governor three years, being re-elected twice. It was in 1793, while he was Governor, that he paid court to Ann Hill Carter of Shirley, and married her. Of her little is known except that she was a woman of noble character and breeding. The only portrait of her hangs in the Crypt of the Lexington Church that contains the boy of her son, Robert E. Lee. She wears as her most conspicuous ornament, a miniature of George Washington inscribed “From Washington to his dear Ann.” This is a picture of a handsome lady, well poised, with slightly wistful eyes, and re-enforce the impressions handed down from Ann’s contemporaries. We have the estimate of her of William H. Fitzhugh in his letter to the Secretary of War, recommending Robert E. Lee as a candidate for West Point when he says that “Lee’s mother is one of the finest women that the State of Virginia has ever produced.” Then we have some of her letters—a dozen or so—preserved in the Library of Congress that tell the story of her character. The handwriting is as neat and as copy-plate a variety as that of Thomas Jefferson himself. The whole tenor of her thought is sincere and unaffected. The predominating trait of Ann, as of her son, was simplicity, old fashioned religion, old fashioned virtue; and old fashioned manners made her moral world. All she asked of her boys was that they be “honorable and correct”; that they “practice the most inflexible virtue”; and “indulge in such habits only as are consistent with religion and morality.” These insights into her character, and the fact that she bore and reared that peerless gentleman, Robert Edward Lee, leave no doubt in the minds of all of us that she was everything that a woman should be, and that she was indeed one of the finest women the State of Virginia—or any state, for that matter—ever produced.

In the short space allotted to me I shall not go into the details of Henry’s and Ann’s marital affairs. Suffice it to say that Harry Lee’s life is divided into two phases; the first, in which he plays the part of a soldier and statesman; the second, in which his failure in practical matters brought misery to himself and his family. It was Matilda’s fortune to share the era of fame and splendor; it was the fate of Ann to participate in the time of collapse. I would that I could stop right here in this account, for in the flush of his great triumphs, Lee was happy, but, “the moving finger writes—and having writ—moves on,” and we must follow him yet further. He is yet to win great honors and also, my friends, to drink the bitter dregs of disappointment and defeat. Three terms in the Governor’s chair of Virginia, his native state, await him. The leadership of the American forces in the campaign to subdue the Whiskey Rebellion, with all of its attendant woe, is yet before him. Membership in the Sixth Congress; that dramatic session which saw the disintegration of his party, the Federalist. The death of his idol and friend, George Washington, was yet to be borne. The great memorial address on Washington, in which he incorporated his immoral tribute, of which he was the author but for which another had received the credit, “First in War, First in Peace, First in the Hearts of his Countrymen,” was yet to be delivered. Penury and poverty had not yet overtaken him. There was yet to come that dastardly assault by the Baltimore mob, received in his protection of the house of a friend, the effect of which was to make him a cripple and a sufferer for the balance of his days. He had yet to experience the bitterness of separation from his wife and children and wander in a foreign land seeking the return of that health and strength which he had poured out so lavishly in the defense of his people and country. These and other anguishes he had to suffer. Failing in his search of health among the islands of the sea, he took ship for home, but enroute he was taken desperately ill and was put ashore, strange as it may seem, at the home of his former beloved commander, General N. Greene. The old general was no more, but Lee’s necessities were ministered to by Mrs. Shaw, a daughter of General Greene. But he was too far gone. The ravages of wounds, disease and mental anguish had wrought well their work and so he passed on to that great beyond on March 25, 1817.

Since young manhood, the events of Henry Lee’s life had followed a crazily ironic pattern. He had performed one of the most famous exploits of the Revolution, the capture of Paulus Hook, and had been court-martialed for his valor; he had fought hard for Virginia’s ratification of the Constitution, and, winning, had felt it turn like a too flexible sword in his hand, endangering his own and the prosperity of the South. As Governor of Virginia he had been tumbled from the summit of prosperity, to be persecuted for having taken command of the Federal Army with which President Washington had entrusted him against the Whiskey Insurrectionists; at Washington’s death, his brilliant mind had coined the phrase, “First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen,” which had been promptly credited to John Marshall, who introduced the resolution in Congress. Toward the end of his life he was to fall unwittingly into the hands of the mob in Baltimore, at whose hands he sustained such brutal treatment. He had a strange career, yet it was a colorful and brilliant one. No man of his time burned more ardently with the fires of true patriotism. None accomplished more for freedom. None labored harder and with more zeal to secure a strong Federal Government, the advantages of which had been so dearly won by the sword. He typifies to American youth, more nearly than does anyone else, the conception of the “Plumed Knight,” “The Happy Warrior.” “Who is the happy Warrior? ‘Who is he that every man in arms should wish to be?’ It is the generous spirit who doomed to go in company with pain and fear and bloodshed, turns his necessities to glorious gain.” “This is the Happy Warrior; this is he that every man in arms should wish to be.” Such a man was Light-horse Harry Lee, the father of the peerless Robert E. Lee.  




Whereas, for a century the people of Virginia have looked upon the sterling character of Robert Edward Lee with reverence and have used it as a point upon which to rally in times of stress; and

Whereas, Lighthorse Harry Lee, his Father, by blood and precept, passed to his son many of those qualities for which we revere the son; and

Whereas, Dr. Douglas Southall Freeman spent many tireless years in the biographical analysis and interpretation of Robert Edward Lee and all of his exemplary qualities for our guidance and for the direction of all posterity; now, therefore, be it

Resolved by the Senate of Virginia; That when the Senate adjourns today that it adjourn in honor of Lee, the man, Lee, the father, and Dr. Freeman, the biographer




Source: Vertical files, Valentine Museum, Richmond

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2018 February 6

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