By Jeffrey Carl
Working at the Westmoreland News in 1994 was the best summer job I ever had. I worked for peanuts and had a two hour drive each way from Richmond, but I got to do it all at a small county newspaper where I was a reporter, feature writer, copy editor, layout editor and photographer (because there was nobody else to do those things). Best of all the paper’s editor, Lynn Norris, gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted – way more journalistic and comedic freedom than anyone should rightly give a know-it-all 21-year-old writing for a weekly in the deeply rural Northern Neck of Virginia.
The dead still walk the earth in Westmoreland County.
Giants stood on this ground before and their spirits still haunt the land. And the largest spectre of all radiates from Stratford Hall Plantation.
Stratford was the home of the Lee family. Built in the late 1730s by Thomas Lee, a prominent planter, the plantation was home to Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, the only brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence. For twenty years it was home to “Light Horse Harry” Lee, the dashing cavalry general of the Revolutionary War. Born in the large bedroom on the upper floor of the Great House of the plantation was Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and General in Chief of the Armies of the Confederate States of America. And it is this General Lee’s undeniable presence which hangs over the plantation, as it does over much of the South.
Stratford Hall Plantation exists today as not only a monument but as a farm on 1600 of its original acres; corn, wheat, and barley are ground in the wheel of the plantation’s mill and sold at the Stratford Store; there is a Stratford Hall Cabernet Sauvignon wine also sold there. There is a restaurant that serves lunch, and the Stratford, Va. Post Office and the Stratford Store are tucked between the visitor’s center and the Great House and the small garden. Children play with goats and chickens that poke their heads out of a pen near the servants’ and workers’ quarters.
The gift shop at the plantation – the Stratford Store – is a little piece of everything that is the heritage and the present of the old South. There are coffee mugs with ragged Rebel soldiers and children’s books on Martin Luther King, jr. There are numerous biographies of all the Lees, one called “The Lee Girls,” and there are Civil War coloring books and word puzzles. There are homestyle cookbooks and low-fat cookbooks. There are U.S. or Confederate flags. There is china and there are belt buckles. There are countless portraits of General R. E. Lee – casting him as anything from the stern, frowning Marble Saint to a smiling, friendly, bearded old man, looking much as if Santa Claus had lost weight and joined the army at Manassas. There is cider and Apple Chutney, there are videotapes and wooden postcards. If you have a Friend of Stratford card (non-transferable), you get a ten percent discount on items there (except books and Stratford-made pastries), as well as free admission to the plantation (for one year).
Stratford Hall Plantation is beautiful, but it is not remarkable for its trees or its fields or its view overlooking the Potomac River. It is remarkable because of the feeling of ever-present history that hangs over the site. And it is one presence in particular that reaches out from this plantation to cast a shadow over the old Confederacy. Many people are fully in love with the memory of General Robert E. Lee. Many think of him as the servant of an evil cause. Many just wonder what all the fuss is about.
It is difficult to talk seriously about General Lee, because he is no longer a person. For many people, he became a legendary figure, a super hero. So many adored him that it seems that he had never actually been made of flesh and blood, but was a pure idea on horseback in a gray uniform, everything that the South had been or imagined itself to be.
When the South lost the Civil War, it lost everything. It endured a painful reconstruction and never again held as great political or economic influence as it had before it gave up its position in the Union. The South needed something to keep the last embers of its old spirit alive. It needed a hero. And it chose General Robert Edward Lee, C.S.A.
It seems that everyone knows bits and pieces of the Lee legend. He graduated at the top of his class at West Point. He thought of secession from the Union as the worst catastrophe that could befall the South. He was a hero in the Mexican-American War, where he may have briefly, as a Captain, met a young Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant. He was asked to lead the armies of both the Union and the Confederacy, but felt honor-bound to his home soil of Virginia. He felt a personal revulsion toward slavery. He was a brilliant military strategist, tactician, and leader, perhaps the finest old soldier of the war on either side. He told his generals who wished to continue guerilla warfare after the Appomattox surrender that the war was finished, and the nation must begin to heal. He envisioned a new breed of Southern education in his years as President of Washington College, renamed Washington and Lee after his death.
Lee was also twelve feet tall, foretold the death of John F. Kennedy, and healed the sick, the blind, and the lepers. Lee became the “Marble Man” – a character too perfect for flesh and blood, dehumanized and made into the stuff of monuments. The North has never had – perhaps it never needed – heroes like this, and certainly not superheroes like Lee. Heroes in the North are inescapably human: they have wooden teeth; they intentionally lost baseball games; they drank too much, smoked too much, or slept with Marilyn Monroe. Yet Lee was none of this – he was perfect. Not necessarily a perfect man, but perfect for the role of the lionized, canonized, all-but-deified Patron Saint of the Lost Cause. Streets, churches, schools – anything that could be named took Lee’s. My college fraternity, the Kappa Alpha Order, was founded on Lee. The road to Stratford bears a large sign for a Farm Bureau agent named Lee Jackson.
And in becoming more than human, Lee lost his humanity to the following generations. Nobody knew or really cared about what he was like as a man; they only knew that he was everything they should be. And so, with his statues multiplying like shrines and temples, the ghost of General Lee spread over the South in the decades after the Civil War.
Of course, Robert E. Lee is not the only Lee of note. The Lees of Virginia held great influence in their time. When Virginia was foremost among the states of the Union, the Lees were among the foremost families in Virginia. Richard Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, R. E. Lee’s father, was one of George Washington’s favorites in the high command of the Army of the Continental Congress. A rebellious lot, it would seem, these General Lees. “Light Horse Harry” later went on to become Governor of Virginia after Thomas Jefferson, but ended up in debtor’s prison. Most reports indicate that the younger General Lee never visited his father’s grave in Georgia.
But it all seems to come back to one man, known as “R. E. Lee” to reverent historians, “Ole Mas’ Rob’t” in song, “Saint Bob” jokingly to others, but just “General Lee” to most. But does anyone really know what Lee was like as a human being?
It would seem, after extensive research, numerous biographies, waves of revisionist history, and thorough debate, that the fabled General Lee was actually – a pretty nice guy.
Lee was a devoted family man, quick-witted and possessed of a dry but not particularly sarcastic sense of humor, gentlemanly to a fault, politically aware but not notably ambitious, amicable, inspiring, down-to-earth, responsible, and levelheaded.
Praise for Lee is not unanimous by any means. Although R. E. Lee had always treated the Lee family slaves kindly, he was not an avowed abolitionist. He was brilliant militarily, but was a general of a bygone era: his orders for the Napoleonic-style Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg probably cost the South the largest battle of the war. And when Union General Sherman inaugurated his plan of “Total War” in his march through Georgia, Lee couldn’t conceive of fighting that way. Some charge Lee with guilt by association with the racism and closed-mindedness of the Civil War-era South. The act of congress restoring Lee to American citizenship hangs in the Stratford Hall Visitor Center – passed only as recently as 1975, retroactive to June 1865.
But what is important about Lee is not his shortcomings or disappointments. Super heroes don’t have human shortcomings. The presence of General Lee that hangs over Stratford Hall Plantation is not the ghost of the man Robert Edward Lee; it is the Ghost of the Last Hope of the Lost Cause, General Lee. And everything that was fallible and human about Lee disappeared when he became what the South needed – a great man to call their own. The plantation is haunted by the idea of Lee, by the ideas of all the famous Lees.
Perhaps, then, the best thing we can do when we visit Stratford Hall Plantation – as anyone seriously interested in history or architecture or even just looking for a fun way to spend a quaint afternoon should – is to discard the image of the Marble Man who stands on Monument Avenue in Richmond and whose visage wallpapers the Stratford Store. And then we can imagine a handsome young man in a pressed West Point Cadet uniform or a boy playing in the fields or swimming. Perhaps we can imagine R. E. Lee – or the rest of the Lee family – as just people, as real and as human as you or me. No one knows if the Marble Man will remain the symbol of the fading elements of the old South. But we can imagine Robert E. Lee as a human being, living on the Stratford Hall Plantation, and being someone we’d very much like to meet.