I am standing in the Visitor Center. Sidney Smith Lee is staring at me. Well, his portrait is. Before this summer I had never heard of “Smith,” as he was known in his life, but I had certainly heard of his brother. Robert Edward Lee is known across the globe, and in certain parts of the United States his name ranks equal to Washington. But how many of us know the rest of his family? Perhaps we know the lives of his wife and children and we surely know the fate of his beloved Arlington, but the other Lees in Robert’s life too often remain a mystery. The Lees, particularly Smith and Robert’s branch of the family tree, have fascinating stories to tell. The men and women who supported Robert throughout his life have been overshadowed by Robert’s woes and successes. Robert certainly deserves his heroic status; however, I have found that supporting characters can be equally enthralling points of study in themselves, as well as providing worthy foils for our heroes.
I love the study of history because of its gritty reality. When we look past the polished marble that we have come to identify with our heroes and heroines, we begin to see the real picture; the truth behind the dates and facts that we memorize in school. The foibles of our favorite historical figures make them accessible. The mistakes we uncover in their lives perhaps give us comfort that we too can achieve greatness, regardless of our own faults. Who better to complete the portrait of our idols (dirt and all) than those who lived and died with them? In researching the life of Robert, anecdotes involving his brothers can provide insights into the man rather than the legend.
In 1847 Smith and Robert fought together at the Battle of Vera Cruz. “No matter where I turned, my eyes reverted to [Smith],” wrote Robert, “I felt awfully, and am at a loss what I should have done had he been cut down before me.” Less than twenty years later Smith would follow Robert to the Confederacy, resigning his commission in the US Navy. Throughout his life, Robert depended on Smith to stand by him and guide him through the trials he faced. And what of older brother Charles Carter Lee? Though Carter would not fight in the war, Robert sought solace with him after Appomattox, often visiting his brother at Carter’s home of “Windsor Forest,” again seeking fraternal guidance.
Long before the cares of the war weighed on the Lees, the brothers enjoyed flirting with society belles and, as brothers will do, playfully plotting embarrassment for each other. Robert had the reputation for being the “handsomest man in the army,” and Smith was apparently so handsome he could “bring up the average [attractiveness]” of a room merely by entering it. Pictures of Smith were quite in demand. So much so that Carter, quite the entrepreneur, jokingly thought of selling Smith’s likeness to the lovesick girls who flocked around him.
When we study history it is natural to be drawn to the romantic champions, but too often we forget the characters that stood by them. Robert certainly relied on his family and yet we know so little about them. Next time you visit Stratford I hope you will think of the others (be they Lees, Paynes, or Storkes) who have added to our rich history. For each one of us, as with Robert, there is a whole army standing by, ready to support or do battle with us. As the life of Robert E. Lee shows us, none of us become who we are on our own.
-Lizzy Thomas, Marketing and Public Relations Intern