Robert E. Lee

Even before the Civil War ended, many Southerners began to lionize their military leader, looking to him as a mythological hero or even sometimes as a Christ-like figure. In my view, those who would romanticize the Confederate general in such a way were then — as they are today — misguided. Yet those who would demonize him are also mistaken. Robert E. Lee was not a villain.

Robert E. Lee

Reading this fascinating, 400-page biography of Lee, I came to like him in many ways. I also learned many jaw-dropping facts.

Robert E. Lee’s father was Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, who had fought under George Washington in the Revolutionary War. It was Robert E. Lee’s father who uttered the immortal phrase about the father of our country, at Washington’s funeral, that he was “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” But Robert E. Lee’s connections to George Washington do not end there. He married Mary Custis — who was the step-great-granddaughter of George Washington!

George Washington did not have any children of his own. But Martha was a widow who had children with her first husband, and two of Martha’s grandchildren, including George Washington Parke Custis (also known as “Washy,” who would become Robert E. Lee’s father-in-law) were adopted by George Washington and grew up at Mount Vernon.

Like many of our nation’s founding fathers, George Washington owned slaves. Approximately half were his, but the other half belonged to his wife’s estate. The Custis family estate. When he died, Washington freed all his own slaves in his will. Not only that, he also directed that they be provided with care if they were elderly, that they know or be taught a trade if they were of working age, and that they receive an education if they were children. But Martha’s slaves, which were legally part of the Custis family estate, were legally off limits to Washington and thus passed to George Washington Parke Custis (again remember he is Robert E. Lee’s father in-law) upon Martha’s death. When George Washington Parke Custis died in 1857, he named Robert E. Lee executor of his will and he directed that his slaves be freed within the next five years. It actually took Robert E. Lee six years to carry out this directive, and as it turned out it was somewhat of a moot point because the Civil War was going on and the slaves had all escaped to freedom.

From the Custis family estate, Robert E. and Mary Lee inherited a plantation in Arlington and moved into the mansion there, but when the Civil War started it was quickly occupied by the Union army, and Mary and the children had to leave. The Union army began using the property to bury their war dead, including on the front lawn of what had been Robert E. Lee’s house. This would become the site of Arlington National Cemetery, where Arlington House still stands.

Like many others of his day both from the North and the South, Robert E. Lee had what can only be called today racist views. He felt that blacks were inferior to whites. (He felt that Comanche Indians were even more inferior.) After the Civil War Lee was summoned to testify before a congressional committee and he was asked if blacks should be given the right to vote. Lee said no. Yet the author also recounts a story of Lee going to church after the war and sharing the communion rail with a black man, thus setting an example for other whites in attendance.

Here are some additional facts about Robert E. Lee:

  • He graduated from West Point and was second in his class. Not only that, but he did so without receiving a single demerit during the entire four years!
  • He was a U.S. Army engineer, and his early assignments included surveying work in Michigan and Ohio, building a fort in Georgia, and getting the Mississippi River to flow better around the port at St. Louis.
  • Later, Lee became superintendent of West Point. He hated to expel cadets but every once in a while there was one who just would not follow any rules no matter what he tried. One cadet Lee kicked out was James McNeill Whistler — who would go on to become the famous American painter, known for “Whistler’s Mother.”
  • Lee fought in the Mexican-American War under general Zachary Taylor, who would go on to become our nation’s 12th president. Lee’s future foe, Ulysses S. Grant, also served in the Mexican-American War under Taylor.
  • Lee was a really good letter-writer, and he carried on lifelong pen-pal relationships with a number of younger women.
  • He had a sense of humor.
  • He was shy, he hated to give speeches, and he avoided personal confrontations. This latter characteristic was a liability during the war, when he often had a difficult time getting his generals to do what he wanted.
  • As a military strategist, he was quite good in that he was able to carve out victories (or prevent losses) despite being vastly out-numbered in terms of resources and troop strength at almost every turn. I am certainly no expert, but in my view many of his battle plans were too complicated.
  • Philosophically, he was aligned with the Federalists, even though that political party had essentially ceased to exist by the time Lee came of age.
  • After the war, Lee became president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia.

As books about historical figures go, I thought that “Robert E. Lee: A Biography” by Emory M. Thomas was a good one. When I was trying to decide which book on Lee to read, I wanted to find one that neither lionized nor demonized the subject, something this author purported was his goal. I think for the most part he did a good job with this. I also wanted a one-volume, cradle-to-grave biography that was comprehensive, yet not too exhaustive. As I discovered recently at Barnes and Noble, there are multi-volume books on individual Civil War battles! I’m not that dedicated. For me, reading about the actual battles can be rather tedious and even confusing at times. A few criticisms of this book include its rather quick treatment of the battle of Petersburg, which was really a 10-month siege. I would have liked to learn more about Lee’s reaction to big events like the Emancipation Proclamation and the assassination of Lincoln. At times, especially in the closing chapters, I found the author repeating himself. But most importantly, I do think that Thomas presented a good portrait of Lee as a human being, including many of his complexities and contradictions. I am so glad I took the time to learn more about Robert E. Lee, and I am glad I picked this book in particular.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Fred Michmershuizen

It’s hard to believe this film came out in 1968, which is a year before the first moon landing and nine years before Star Wars. I had the great pleasure of seeing the special 50th anniversary screening yesterday with Alan Treiber in the original 70mm, down at Village East, in Auditorium 1. We got there 45 minutes early and the place was already starting to fill up with (mostly) nerds like ourselves. What an experience.

Before it started the projectionist appeared and made an announcement, that it would start with music, then the film would start, followed by an intermission, then more music and the conclusion of the film. This is the way audiences would have experienced it.

Again I cannot get over what seeing this when it first came out would have been like in a world before space travel had become a reality, before cellphones and iPads, before cable TV. I had never seen this before in a movie theater, and I am so glad I did. Thank you Alan!

The National Portrait Gallery

After returning from my two-day mini vacation to visit Monticello, Highland and Montpelier and before taking the train back to New York, I had time for a visit to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. D.C. I had never been before, and I was most interested in seeing the new portraits of President Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald.

I found myself wanting to take pictures of all the presidential portraits, but I had to constrain myself. Some, such as those of Obama, Clinton and Kennedy, are nontraditional, while many others are classic portraits. Interestingly, Nixon’s is by Norman Rockwell and is very small. Out of all the portraits, though, I was particularly moved those of the Obamas. Michelle’s portrait is in a different section of the museum.

Also in a different section was “Unseen: Our Past in a New Light,” a selection of “deconstructed portraits” by Titus Kaphar, who offers a completely shocking yet instantly understandable take on our country’s founding fathers. In one, an enslaved woman peeks out from behind a curtain that is a portrait of Thomas Jefferson. On another wall, two of George Washington’s slaves are seen in fancy clothes with their faces obscured.

The American Presidents exhibit at the National Portrait gallery in Washington, D.C.
Kehinde Wiley portrait of Barack Obama in the National Portrait gallery in Washington, D.C.
Amy Sherald portrait of Michelle Obama
Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington
Chester Harding portrait of James Madison
John Vanderlyn portrait of James Monroe
‘Behind the Myth of Benevolence’ by Titus Kaphar
‘Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar’ and ‘Ona Judge: Portrait in tar’ by Titus Kaphar

James Madison’s Montpelier

On Wednesday morning I drove the rental car about 45 minutes from Charlottesville to visit Montpelier, home of James Madison. It’s about a third of the way between Charlottesville and Washington, D.C. I took the very informative tour of the mansion, and I walked around and took pictures. Before the tour, I visited the family cemetery, which includes Madison’s burial site.

Just before I left to go back to Washington, I visited the very worthwhile slavery exhibit, which is in the basement of the main house. Upon driving away from the property I thought about Montpelier, as well as Highland and Monticello, and Mount Vernon (which I visited last year), and I was overcome with emotion as I reflected on the horrors of slavery. I am glad that these historic sites in Virginia feature exhibits and educational tours about slavery, which is such a sad part of our nation’s legacy.

James Monroe’s Highland

Just a few miles up the road from Monticello is James Monroe’s Highland, also known as Ash Lawn. I visited Tuesday afternoon after Monticello, taking a guided tour and walking around the property taking pictures.

The site is owned and operated by William & Mary University. Official website here. Monroe spent only part of his life here and the main house no longer stands, however the tour was immensely informative and it was well worth the trip.

Click any of the pictures to see them bigger:

James Monroe’s Highland

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

After completing my work commitment for the orthodontic conference in Washington, D.C., I took vacation time from work to visit several of the presidential homes in Virginia. I rented a car and stayed just outside Charlottesville.

First stop on Tuesday morning was Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. After taking the immensely informative mansion and slavery tours, I strolled the grounds and took some pictures. I also visited the gravesite of Jefferson and his family.

Of special note on Jefferson’s obelisk is the text he had written for his grave listing the accomplishments he was most proud of: his authorship of The Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and his founding of the University of Virginia. He considered these accomplishments even more important than having served as our nation’s third president.

Clicking on any of the pictures below will open them bigger:


‘The Wiz’ at Ford’s Theater

This coming weekend is the American Association Orthodontists annual event in Washington. D.C., and I’m in town to cover the event for Dental Tribune. I came down on the train to a day early so that I could see “The Wiz” on Thursday night at Ford’s Theater with my friend Craig. He and I very much enjoyed the musical.

Before the show, we looked around a bit. The presidential box is adorned as it was on the night of April 14, 1865, when Lincoln was shot, with flags and a portrait of George Washington. There’s a museum in the basement. A few days later, after our work commitment, I returned to the Theater with my co-worker Kristine, and we attended their one-act play, “One Destiny,” about the events surrounding the assassination and how it affected the theater owner, the actors and many others.

Here are a few pictures. Click on any to open larger:

Visiting Ford’s Theater