The birthday of Robert E. Lee will turn up this Friday on the 19th. I am always interested to learn how famous people spent their childhood and youth because those years seem to have such an impact on the rest of their lives.

Although Lee’s great-great-grandfather Richard Lee was a member of a prominent Virginia family and had been placed in a position of prominence as colonial secretary to the royal governor, and Lee’s father Henry Lee had tried to carry on in the same tradition, he did not have the great success which he would have wished. Yes, he had heroically declared Virginia to be his “country,” professed his loyalty to her and defended her gallantly by commanding the cavalry of none other than George Washington himself. And Henry Lee had even been elected several times as governor of the state of Virginia, had married Ann Hill Carter, daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, and had been noted as the master of Stratford, a symbol of Virginia high society.

What could possibly have caused a problem in this family history? Perhaps it was that no matter how well liked a person is, how intelligent or devoted to his family and friends, it can all be lost if one cannot resist speculating “in land and business.”

This was the misfortune of Henry Lee, and the shadow fell on his son Robert. Into this world of insecurity, Robert E. Lee was born. His father lost the beautiful Stratford, his ancestral home. Then his father was badly injured from an assault by a drunken mob and sailed off to Barbados in the West Indies, hoping to recuperate from his injuries, but died in Georgia while trying to return home.

Young Robert didn’t have much connection with this often absent and soon dead father, but he did have a very extraordinary mother who instilled in her youngest son “the values of respect, faith, self-control, responsibility, and careful management.” If the truth were known, she did without many personal luxuries in order for her son to have “an appearance of social grace.”

It is no wonder that he idolized her, and looking around for a father figure, lighted on the person of George Washington as a character well worth emulating. How ironic that Robert’s own father had been the one to describe Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen!” Who is to say but that this was a connection between the father and son which could be upheld with pride?

All too soon young Robert had to choose a profession. He chose the military life. This may seem at first a strange choice for a youngster who had been taking care of an invalid mother whose health had waned while Robert was yet a child. He even did the shopping and cooking all the while with a tender heart.

His mother had made sure, however, that his education did not suffer. He had attended the Alexandria Academy, a tip-top education as educations went in that day and time. She knew that, as the youngest son, he would not inherit anything, and the upper-class society would look askance at him if he went into the trades. He did not seem turned toward the clergy either. That left the military, and that seemed his natural choice because of the tradition of his father and Washington, his ideal. Of course, he turned his face toward the U.S. Military Academy.s

President James Monroe made his appointment. Robert had all the requirements. Not only did he have a noted family but he also had the important qualifications of a good preparatory education and a good mind for future use.

What would you expect the record would have been which he made at the military academy? Would he have gone wild after being so tied down to his invalid mother? No. He was “as close to a model cadet as the academy has ever had.” He was among the top students of his class for all four years of his time at the academy. And his last year he was a cadet adjutant. That was the best rank a cadet could receive. Look all through the records, and you cannot find where he received even one demerit. This is the record of someone who was dedicated to doing his best. All through his life, whatever came forth for him to face, he approached it with the desire to perform to the very best of his ability — which was indeed extraordinary.

(Dedicated to Edna Hodge and Col. Roger Q. Mills 2466, United Daughters of the Confederacy. Facts in this column are from “Robert E. Lee,” by James Robertson Jr.)

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Gelene Simpson is a Daily Sun columnist. Her column appears Tuesdays.

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