In Honor of a Great American General
As I mentioned last week, one of my favorite people from the Civil War is General Robert E. Lee. Here is an article about his experience at Fredericksburg, as well as an interesting trivia list about his life. Today marks his birthday. He was born on January 19, 1807.
THE NORTHERN LIGHTS – FREDERICKSBURG
DECEMBER 14, 1862
“General Robert E. Lee had a reason for hope at the end of 1862. The Battle of Fredericksburg had given the Confederacy a greatly needed victory. On December 13th, General Ambrose Burnside had thrown repeated attacks against Lee’s impenetrable line on Mayre’s Heights. In ponderous, deliberate waves, the Union troops had charged across a plain and into Southern shot and shell. Casualties were so heavy that the dead lay in heaps in front of the stone wall at the base of the heights. Burnside’s troops had limited success against Stonewall Jackson’s Corps, but were quickly repulsed. Clear days and freezing nights followed, and the field echoed with the pitiful cries of the wounded stranded between the lines. By nightfall on December 14, General Burnside had decided to withdraw his army from the plain and back to Fredericksburg. It was an evening few on either side would soon forget. As Lee’s soldiers worked on improving their defenses, Union troops slowly carried the wounded and dying from the field. At nightfall, the toil of both armies was suddenly illuminated by a celestial phenomenon – the Northern Lights – which cast the Virginia countryside in an unearthly glow. Few men from the deep South had ever seen the Northern Lights, and most stared in wonderment. Was this fantastic display a sign of Confederate triumph?
General Lee and his staff rode along Telegraph Road past Howison’s Mill, where his reserves had gathered before going to Marye’s Heights. The frigid water of Hazel Run cooled the riders while Lee, deep in thought, focused on tomorrow. The night’s chill and splendid display did not distract Lee form his preparation for another day of battle.”
(Plan for Victory, painting by John Paul Strain)
“In all my perplexities and distresses, the Bible has never failed to give me light and strength. Get correct views of life, and learn to see the world in its true light. It will enable you to live pleasantly, to do good, when summoned away, to leave without regret.” – General Robert E. Lee
On the night of December 14, the Aurora Borealis made an appearance unusual for that latitude, presumably caused by a large solar flare. One witness described that “the wonderful spectacle of the Aurora Borealis was seen in the Gulf States. The whole sky was a ruddy glow as if from an enormous conflagration, but marked by the darting rays peculiar to the Northern lights.” The event was noted in the diaries and letters of many soldiers at Fredericksburg, such as John W. Thompson, Jr., who wrote “Louisiana sent those famous cosmopolitan Zouaves called the Louisiana Tigers, and there were Florida troops who, undismayed in fire, stampeded the night after Fredericksburg, when the Aurora Borealis snapped and crackled over that field of the frozen dead hard by the Rappahannock …”
- Robert E. Lee was 5′ 11″ tall and wore a size 4-1/2 boot, equivalent to a modern 6-1/2 boot.
- Two relatives of Lee were naval officers on opposing sides in the Civil War: Richard Lucian Page (Confederate States Navy and later a brigadier general in the Confederate States Army) and Samuel Phillips Lee (U.S. Navy Captain).
- Confederate Brig. Gen. Edwin Gray Lee, a son-in-law of William N. Pendleton, was Robert E. Lee’s second cousin. Another relation was Confederate Brig. Gen. William Henry Fitzhugh Payne, an indirect relation of Mrs. Lee who was descended from George Washington’s father Augustine Washington and his first wife, Jane Butler.
- After the war Lee had financial difficulties. A Virginia insurance company offered Lee $10,000 to use his name, but he declined the offer, relying wholly on his university salary.Freeman 1934, Vol. IV, p. 244.
- Traveller, Lee’s favorite horse, accompanied Lee to Washington College after the war. He lost many hairs from his tail to admirers who wanted a souvenir of the famous horse and his general. In 1870, when Lee died, Traveller was led behind the General’s hearse. Not long after Lee’s death, Traveller stepped on a rusty nail and developed tetanus. There was no cure, and he was put down. He was buried next to the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University. In 1907, his remains were disinterred and displayed at the Chapel, before being reburied beside the Lee Chapel in 1971.
- Lee always said that his true calling should have been in education. Not only did he help bring about reconciliation through his work at Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) but he also promoted new subjects, such as Engineering and even the first Reserve Officers Training Corps (or ROTC). Up until then they were only held at the military service academies. Many students enrolled from both the North as well as the South. The German minister to Washington even enrolled his two sons there.
- The Lee family line continues today with the Lees in Virginia and the Longs in Tennessee. The Lee family inter-married with the Longs often enough that he named his other beloved horse “Lucy Long” after a young lady he almost married.
- Although they never became friends, Lee never forgot Grant’s magnanimity and generosity at Appomattox, and would not tolerate an unkind word to be said about Grant in his presence. When a Washington College faculty member dared to do just that when Grant ran for president, Lee’s face flushed. “Sir,” he said, “If you should ever propose to say something disparaging about General Grant again, either you or I will resign from this facility.”
- The General Lee, the souped-up 1969 Dodge Charger used in the television program in 1979 The Dukes of Hazzard and the 2005 Dukes of Hazzard movie adaptation was named after Robert E. Lee.
- In the movie Gods and Generals, Lee was played by actor Robert Duvall, who is related to Lee. After the Civil War, as Lee’s legacy grew, many people of Southern origin dug to find possible connection to Robert E. Lee, and such a connection was analogous to the frequent northern claim of being descended from Mayflower Pilgrims.
- Lee is a character in the Harry Turtledove alternate history novel The Guns of the South.
- Despite his presidential pardon by Gerald Ford and his continuing to being held in high regard by many Americans, Lee’s portrayal on a mural on Richmond’s Flood Wall on the James River was considered offensive by some, and was removed in the 1990s.
- A famous Mississippi River steamboat was named for Lee after the Civil War.
(Articles courtesy of The Southern Comfort, Samuel A. Hughey camp 1452 Sons of Confederate Veterans, vol. 43, issue no. 1, January 2019)