The Lees of Old Virginia: The Politician, The Lover, the Genius and the Mediator
Two centuries, three wars, how many generals? Better yet, how many great loves can one family put in the history book?
The Lees of Virginia were a proud family, part of the great landed aristocracy who believed in higher education (at least for their sons), public service, and lavish hospitality. They bought fine clothes by the barrel from London after a good tobacco harvest but argued vehemently against high taxes levied by the King’s ministers. Their world has always fascinated me and the legacy of public service that the Lees took forward amazes me. With all that, they even managed a fascinating private life that’s spilled onto Broadway and Hollywood more than once.
First off, Richard Henry Lee was an influential Virginia politician during the Revolutionary War. He’s best remembered for pulling off Virginia’s resolution calling for independence from Great Britain, which triggered the Declaration of Independence by the united colonies. The self-confident dude makes it clear in the Broadway musical 1776 that he can only do this, thanks to his superb political connections as a leading member of one of the great families in an aristocratic culture.
Here’s his political epiphany, together with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.
Next comes his second cousin, “Light-Horse” Harry Lee, one of George Washington’s best cavalry officers. He received a gold medal from Congress for his actions at a New Jersey battle but is far better known for his heroics during the Carolinas campaigns, where he fought alongside luminaries such as Nathan Greene and Francis Marion. Hollywood likes him, too: the character of Colonel Harry Burwell in The Patriot is thought to be loosely based on him.
Better still to my romance novelist’s eye, the tall, blond, blue-eyed stud made two spectacular marriages. First, he wooed and won his cousin, “the Divine Matilda,” only to see her die eight years later. One biographer says he was desperate with grief afterward but another says he’d squandered her dowry. I suspect both opinions are correct. A few years later, he married Anne Carter, granddaughter of the legendary “King” Carter, who came to him even richer.
Fourteen years later after miserably failing at land speculation, he spent a year in debtor’s prison. His fifth child by his second wife, Robert E. Lee, was only two years old. At the start of the War of 1812, he helped fight off a mob attack on a friend and wound up so badly injured that even his speech was affected. He left Virginia for his health and died in Georgia’s Sea Islands. His body was transferred almost a century later to the Lee Mausoleum, to lie beside his more famous descendants, starting with his sons.
What can I say about Robert Edward Lee? He was certainly a military genius, given the miracles he worked in defeating superior forces on behalf of the Confederacy. Many historians believe that the American Civil War would have ended much sooner, if he’d made the decision to stay with the Union Army rather than resign to join the Confederate Army.
He married well – one is tempted to say, of course! – even if he had to court the lady in secret. Martha Washington’s grandson and George Washington’s adopted son did not approve of the disgraced Light-Horse Harry Lee’s son as a potential spouse for Mary Custis, his darling daughter and heiress. The union proved to be an affectionate one, even if tested by his frequent absences and her slowness to adapt from living as a rich man’s daughter to a soldier’s wife on a strict budget. Her father made Arlington House, her family home, legendary for bravura fireworks celebrating George Washington. But the Union Army illegally seized it during the Civil War in retribution for Robert E. Lee’s service to the Confederacy, and turned it into a national cemetery. The family wasn’t recompensed for its loss until years later.
Of course, Hollywood has paid considerable attention to “Marse Robert.” My favorite performance is provided by Robert Duvall, his descendant, in Gods and Generals. Duvall made particular note in interviews that he got the accent right, unlike so many other actors.
After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee retired to the other career he enjoyed, teaching, and ended his days as a college president. Custis and Rooney, two of his three sons, were also generals in the Confederate, while the youngest was an artillery captain.
But his nephew, Fitzhugh Lee, provided his elders with many more challengers. He was nearly expelled from West Point and barely managed to graduate 45th in the class of 1856, all at a time when his uncle was superintendent of the academy. He resigned his commission in 1861 – and soared to a Confederate generalcy under the legendary J.E.B. Stuart in 1863. After the war, he became a farmer and married happily. He entered politics where he backed unpopular causes, including educating African-American children, and pulled together the solution for paying off Virginia’s massive wartime debt. (Oh, what a miracle worker!)
Not everyone liked the results, however. Being a successful Virginia governor usually means becoming a U.S. senator but not in his case. Instead, the president commissioned him a general when the Spanish-American War broke out but the fighting ended before he could finish training his troops. He wound up as the first consul-general under the occupation and a force for sanity, against pressure from Washington politicians. He retired as a brigadier-general and is remembered as a successful historian.
Aristocratic families fascinate me, whether they’re in Europe or here in America. The Lee family built an incredible set of legends, both in their public and private lives. What fodder for a novel.
Has an aristocratic family ever fascinated you? Did one generation do something special or was it a multi-generation kind of thing?