By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Monday, January 15, 2018, is celebrated across the state of Alabama as General Robert E. Lee’s birthday. Generations of Alabamians have revered the Virginian who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia in the War Between the States.
Lee was born on Jan. 19, 1807. His father, Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee was a Revolutionary War hero. The younger Lee attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and embarked on a lifetime of military service. Lee served on General Winfield Scott’s staff in the Mexican-American War, was the Commandant at West Point, fought Indians in the West and led the American response to crush John Brown’s attempted insurrection as a member of the U.S. Army. President Abraham Lincoln offered Lee command of all union forces, but after Virginia seceded from the Union, Lee sided with the Confederacy. His service leading the Confederate forces of the Army of Northern Virginia earned Lee a reputation as one of the best military tacticians in American history. The South had fewer people, fewer factories, no money and no navy. The Confederate States of America should have been easily crushed by the better equipped and supplied Union forces; but better leadership by people like Lee, Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, James Longstreet, A. P. Hill, etc. almost turned the tide. Their efforts combined with Pres. Lincoln’s resolve turned the Civil War into, by far, the most costly war in American history.
Lee’s battered army was finally surrounded on April 9, 1865, by General Ulysses Grant’s Army of the Potomac. General Lee chose to surrender rather than fighting to the death.
Lee broke the news to his troops with this address:
“After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.”
“I need not tell the brave survivors of so many hard fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them; but feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.”
“By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from a consciousness of duty faithfully performed; and I earnestly pray that a Merciful God will extend to you His blessings and protection.”
“With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your Country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you all an affectionate farewell.”
Lee returned home from the war on parole and eventually became the president of Washington College in Virginia – now known as Washington and Lee University. He died on Oct. 12, 1870 in Lexington, Virginia.
Lee’s birthday is a state holiday. It and Martin Luther King Day are celebrated on the same day.
Some in the civil rights community object to the state honoring Lee with a state holiday.