Why Did R.E. Lee Have to Be Born So Far Out of the Way?
As I mentioned earlier, Michaela and I stopped off at Stratford Hall for a quick tour of the plantation on our way home from vacation. We arrived at 3pm which gave us little time to stroll around the grounds before the start of the final tour of the day at 4pm. We were only able to spend a few minutes in the museum but I noticed a wide range of exhibits that covered both the Lee family and the history of the estate following its sale in the 1820s and through the establishment of the R.E. Lee Memorial Foundation and later the R.E. Lee Memorial Association. The grounds are quite beautiful and on a clear day you can see the Potomac River from the house. The tour itself, however, was a bit of a disappointment. Visitors are taken through the various rooms and vivid descriptions of various objects are shared as well as short overview of the more prominent members of the Lee family, but there is a minimum amount of information shared concerning life at the plantation. While our guide did a competent job there was very little analysis to give visitors a deeper understanding of how plantations functioned on the Northern Neck. At one point she commented that the building of the house was a team effort between the Lee’s and their slaves. I’m not sure this is the most accurate way of describing the relationship between slaves and the family that owned them. I should point out that there is an ongoing effort to piece together a more complete story of Stratford Hall which is somewhat hampered by a lack of documentary evidence.
That said, I liked the fact that the tour did not focus on R.E. Lee alone; after all, Stratford Hall served as his home only for a brief period of time. This makes for an interesting challenge. On the one hand most people, including yours truly, travel to the plantation because of R.E. Lee, yet the property has little to do with him. On a somewhat related note, I noticed in the gift shop that while you could purchase an America flag there were no Confederate flags for sale other than a few items such as the hat that I am pictured wearing. My wife suggested that it would have been inappropriate to sell such an item given that the house has nothing to do with Confederate history. What do you think?
Interestingly, at one point our guide commented on the changing face of the Stratford Hall staff. She jokingly said that a few years ago the directors all had white hair, while in recent years they are much younger. I had to laugh when I heard this as I just met the new Executive Director, Paul C. Reber, at the recent meeting of the Society for Civil War Historians. Paul discussed the challenges of doing public history in the 21st century. Later that day I had a chance to talk with Paul and it is clear to me that a number of changes concerning interpretation at Stratford Hall are forthcoming. Paul has some very interesting ideas about exhibits and interpretation. One of the more interesting opportunities for interpretation at Stratford concerns the infamous cradle, which until recently was thought to be the R.E. Lee’s. The object was reason enough for many to visit Stratford Hall given its supposed iconic value. When it was discovered that the cradle could not possibly be Lee’s the family that loaned it to Stratford requested to have it returned. Paul suggested that it would be interesting to do an exhibit on the history of the object throughout its different phases from sacred to ordinary object. I agree.
What I find most interesting about the history of the site is the story surrounding Mary Field Lanier who helped create the R.E. Lee Memorial Association in 1929. The organization assumed ownership of the property to turn it into an “ENDURING TESTIMONIAL TO THE STAINLESS LIFE AND GLORIOUS SERVICES OF OUR DEPARTED GENERAL.” Lanier was the President of the William Alexander, Jr. Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Greenwich, Connecticut, which I also find interesting. There is a library at Stratford Hall and I’ve already inquired into the possibility of doing some research on the subject, perhaps for next summer.