Memorial Association Preserves Stratford
Robert E. Lee Memorial Association
Mrs. Lanier and the Beginning
May Field Lanier personifies these words which were the driving force behind her efforts to purchase Stratford Hall Plantation as a memorial to General Robert E. Lee.
The story goes that Mrs. Lanier discovered a manuscript in the desk of her father-in-law, the well know Georgian poet Sidney Lanier. This was the handwritten and then unpublished text of Sidney Lanier’s address in Macon, Georgia on General Lee’s death, October 12, 1870.
After reading the manuscript, Mrs. Lanier felt that there must be a meaningful memorial to General Robert E. Lee. While pondering what might be a fitting tribute, Mrs. Lanier received, in an uncanny coincidence, a letter from her friend Ethel Armes, a research scholar working at George Washington’s Birthplace five miles upstream from Stratford.
Miss Armes had been to Stratford. She was saddened to find the Great House falling into ruin. If action were not taken to save it, the house and all that it meant would soon be lost.
Miss Armes asked why that wonderful building with some acreage could not be cared for “precisely as Mount Vernon is cared for, and given to our country for all time?”
Mrs. Lanier knew she had the memorial and lost no time in searching for a way to purchase Stratford.
Mrs. Lanier, President of the William Alexander, Jr. Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Greenwich, Connecticut, was encouraged to propose the acquisition of the property to the National Convention of the U.D.C. At a subsequent meeting of the local chapter, Mrs. Lanier laid out her plans which were adopted by the chapter and later by the regional meeting.
Mr. Charles Edward Stuart, Stratford’s owner, had steadfastly indicated his reluctance to sell. Mrs. Lanier, aided and abetted by Mrs. Granville G. Valentine, Mrs. Harry Lee Rust, Miss Armes, Mrs. John J. Naugle, Mrs. I. N. Lewis, and Mrs. Snowden Boyle worked a miracle in charming Mr. Stuart into agreeing to sell the Great House, outbuildings, and 1,100 acres for $240,000.
At that time the Greenwich U.D.C. Chapter had the magnificent sum of $9.13 in the treasury! Nonetheless, Mrs. Lanier secured a short term option from Mr. Stuart to buy. She headed to Houston confident that the U.D.C. national organization would jump into battle to support the memorial. Did all go well? Sadly, not, because although the national U.D.C. convention at Houston (November 1928) endorsed in principle the acquisition of Stratford, appeals for sums in excess of $5,000 required laborious procedures requiring much more time than allowed in her option with Mr. Stuart.
Mrs. Lanier sadly telegraphed her agent of the unhappy fact that her dream had failed. But—returning from the Western Union office, she met the U.D.C. President General who must have seen tragedy in May Lanier’s eyes. She pronounced that nothing could prevent the Greenwich U.D.C. Chapter from acting independently if it chose! Quick as a bullet, Mrs. Lanier again wired her agent that the Greenwich Chapter would take up the option. She would sign the papers in Washington, D.C. en route home if the agent would board the train there, and that she would secure the note somehow. At a stop in Union Railway Station, Washington, Mrs. Lanier gave a personal binder in the form of a check for $500.
The next task for the local Connecticut U.D.C. Chapter was to raise the funds. Somehow assisted by an unwavering faith and other delightful women, Mrs. Lanier obtained a loan of $190,000 with the balance paid “in cash through another loan by an interested party in January 1929.” Incidently, the ladies signed the note and agreement to buy Stratford months before the market crash of 1929.
“Mrs. Lanier’s faith in God guided her with enlightened wisdom in those early days to choose and enlist the servieces of many able and remarkable women.” She was most ably assisted by Miss. Ethel Armes who “wrote to Lady Astor in Great Britain, the former Nancy Langhorne of Virginia, one of four sisters known for their exquisite beauty, who replied that she would be happy to do anything she could to perpetuate the name of General Lee.
Mrs. Alfred I. duPont, of Delaware, responded in like manner, and thus prominent women became directors for their respective states in the United States, Great Britain and Hawaii” (then a territory).
“At a dinner pary in Washinton given by Senator and Mrs. Harry Hawes, Mrs. Lanier told of starting the project with $9.13. One man turned to Henry Ford and remarked, ‘That is either a wonderful actress or a consummate liar.'” The pure truth is that she was a most remarkable woman!
The “Chapter” soon found that it could not hold legal title to the property as an unincorporated entity. Therefore, the Chapter ladies incorporated the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation in New York on March 16, 1929 for the purpose of restoring and establishing Stratford as a national memorial in honor of General Lee and the other Lees of Stratford Hall. The Foundation was incorporated in Virginia in 1961 and in 1971 became the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association.
The first formal “Council” meeting was held at Stratford Hall Plantation October 14-15, 1929. Miss Ethel Armes, a paid employee as Executive Secretary, could not be made a board member but the board paid her a beautiful tribute.
Also at this first meeting – The Garden Club of Virginia through Mrs. Fairfax Harrison offered to restore the East Garden.
The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Virginia and the U.D.C. (Virginia) pledged $10,000 and $5,000 respectively.
The board elected Mrs. Lanier, over her objection, as President for life. Ethel Armes, after six years of intensive research, finished her book Stratford Hall, published by the Association in 1936.
Dr. Douglas Southall Freeman in his “Cornerstones of Stratford” eulogized the Lees while praising Mrs. Charles Lanier and Miss Ethel Armes for their courage and foresight. The current Board of Directors follows the steadfast determination of Mrs. Charles D. Lanier and other members of the original Board and has has its mission:
Stratford Hall preserves the legacy of the Lee family and its plantation community, inspires an appreciation of America’s past, and encourages commitment to the ideals of leadership, honor, independent thought and civic responsibility.