Three members of the illustrious Lee family with January birthdays include 18th century patriots who contributed to our freedom: statesman Richard Henry Lee (Jan. 20) and his first cousin “Light-Horse” Harry Lee (Jan. 29), father of Robert E. Lee (Jan. 19).
Richard Henry introduced the June 12, 1776, resolution declaring the colonies' independence. Its adoption led to the appointment of the committee that produced the Declaration of Independence. He signed that document and the Articles of Confederation which established our government until the Constitution was adopted. R.H. Lee served a one-year term as the president of the Congress of the Confederation, was 12th president of the Continental Congress, and represented Virginia as a U.S. senator from 1789 to 1792
Aged 19, “Light-Horse” Harry (Henry) Lee III, having graduated from the College of New Jersey and married his cousin the “Divine Matilda” Lee, heiress of Stratford Hall, presented himself to Gen. Washington as a cavalry officer. He soon captured a British supply train, brought food to the starving patriot army, and successfully continued his blitzkrieg strategy. He was one of the few Washington accepted into his inner circle of friends. After the war he served in the Confederation Congress, the Continental Congress and the Virginia General Assembly. Ninth governor of Virginia (elected three times), he was also a representative to the U.S. Congress.
Widower Harry married another heiress, Anne Hill Carter of Shirley; their fifth child was Robert Edward. Congress appointed this noted author and orator to deliver its farewell at Washington’s death; his speech included the immortal description of him as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Lee received wounds that caused his death while defending freedom of the press in Baltimore in 1812. Attacked by a mob and left for dead, he recovered enough to go to the West Indies, hoping the climate would promote his recovery. It did not. Knowing death was near, he hoped to reach Alexandria but died in Georgia at the home of his friend Gen. Nathaniel Greene. Today three generations of Lees, including Henry and Robert E., are buried in the Lee Chapel at Washington-Lee University in Lexington.
Robert E. Lee has been unjustly maligned by people believing that because he is identified with the Confederacy, he was a slave-owner who fought to preserve slavery. However, he did not own slaves and opposed slavery and secession. During a cruel Reconstruction when the entire South was under federal military occupation and impoverished by carpetbaggers, Lee, respected and loved by all, was the foremost spokesman for reconciliation with the North. He used kindness and spread community nationally, continuing his practice of never speaking ill of anyone. As president of Washington College, he promoted national unity among our country’s youth, including the many Northern students whose parents so respected his character that they wanted their sons to study there. Congress recognized his contributions by establishing the Custis-Lee estate as a national park; it is now America’s most honored burial site.
Ellen Latane Tabb