INTO the great stone house at “Stratford” in Westmoreland, the Virginia county in which Washington was born, an infant came on the 19th of January, 1807. He appeared in no way different from nearly every other white baby boy born in the Old Dominion, but his antecedents and surroundings were unique—for an American child, at least.
“Stratford House,” in whose spacious chambers this boy, named Robert Edward Lee, first saw the light, was a combination of mansion, palace, castle and stockade. Built with the thick stone walls of a fortress, it served as a sort of palatial block-house to protect its inmates—and all the people for many miles around, if sufficient warning were given—in case of attack.
The first house, named for the ancestral estate of the Lees in England, and built by Richard, the first Lee who emigrated to Virginia, had been burned to the ground. His grandson Thomas determined to build a mansion which would “endure unto many generations.” To help in doing this, Queen Caroline of England sent him, as to an absent knight, a handsome largess from her private purse. The Lees had been friends at the English court for five or six centuries. Here are a few of the noble names in the annals of chivalry:
Launcelot fought under William the Conqueror at Hastings; Lionel went with Richard Lion-heart in the Third Crusade; and Sir Henry was made a Knight of the Garter by Queen Elizabeth.
So little Robert, when he was old enough to run about the mansion, then a century old, heard, along with ancient tales of the “Knights of the Table Round,” similar stories of the doughty deeds of his own forbears. A favorite place for such recitals was the flat arbored roof, where musicians had used to play while the “First Families of Virginia” promenaded and listened, and Colonial youths made love to ladies fair.
No wonder this diminutive scion of the purest and best of English chivalry—that of Walter Raleigh and Philip Sidney—grew up to consider all that sort of thing a family affair. Still, it needed even more than the flower of English knighthood to produce that consummate flower of the chivalry of the Old Dominion, Robert E. Lee.
The Lees were among the leaders who remained loyal to the House of Stuart through the Civil War of the “Roundheads” and “Cavaliers” of England. When Charles the First was beheaded, Colonel Richard Lee emigrated to the new province of Virginia, which Sir Walter Raleigh and other knightly adventurers had settled and named in honor of “Our Dread Souvereign Ladye, Good Queen Bess.”
His son Richard, the second of the name in America, was the friend and adviser of Governor Spots wood, the great-grandfather of Anne Carter, who became the wife of Henry Lee and the mother of Robert; and this little boy of “Stratford,” traced back, through her and this provincial governor, to Robert Bruce, the Scottish conqueror.
Under the roof-garden of “Stratford House” were born these heroes of Colonial days:
Richard Henry Lee, called “the Cicero of the Revolution,” who made the historic motion in the Continental Congress, that all the American colonies assert their independence; Francis Lightfoot, who, with his brother Richard Henry, signed the Declaration of Independence; and Arthur, a younger brother, who represented the struggling colonies at four courts of Europe, and, with Benjamin Franklin, helped bring about the French Alliance which enabled Washington, with his worn-out army, to win the independence of the United States.
These three brothers were cousins of Henry Lee, the “Light-horse Harry” of the Revolution, the father of Robert E. Lee. It was, therefore, a matter of course that the Lees were admitted to be leaders among “the First Families of Virginia“—that charmed circle which even the Washingtons entered through Major Lawrence Washington's marriage to a daughter of the Fairfaxes, and through Colonel George Washington's wedding the widow of the wealthiest of the Custises.
Through many intermarriages among the “F.F.V.'s,” Robert E. Lee was connected with nearly all the leading families of the Old Dominion and Maryland. If any one had a right to indulge in family pride it was he—but he seemed wholly indifferent to distinctions of birth. When he was a white-haired general, writing from the front to his wife, he expressed the following wish concerning a gentleman's proposal to trace out and publish a book showing his family tree:
I am very much obliged to Mr. Blank for the trouble he has taken in relation to the Lee genealogy. I have no desire to have it published, and do not think it would afford sufficient interest beyond the immediate family to compensate for the expense. I think the money had better be applied to relieving the poor.
He was passionately devoted to the memory of his father, and to every member of his own family, but he thought more of the good he could do for those around him than of the adventures of those who lived centuries ago. For a modern knight, pure and simple, like Robert E. Lee to boast of his ancestry is as unthinkable to those who knew him as of Sir Galahad prating of his pedigree!