Robert E. Lee Birthday Ironically Celebrated Today

January 19, 2009 by
Robert Dougherty 

Today is widely regarded as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the day before Barack Obama’s inaugural. This is an historic coincidence that no one could have imagined, or even thought up of years back. But as ironic and fitting as that is, there is also something else today that adds to the irony even further. This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the day before Obama’s swearing in, just happens to take place on Robert E. Lee’s birthday.

Robert E. Lee would have celebrated his 202nd birthday today, if science was advanced enough to let him live that long. So while King and Obama are honored by most of the country today, the South will also take time out to remember the Civil War general who fought for the pro-slavery Confederacy.

Robert E. Lee had his birthday on January 19, 1807 in Virginia. Born into a military family, Lee was a career officer in the U.S. Army. But because Lee’s home state of Virginia was part of the Confederacy, Lee declined a chance to command the Union Army and serve under Jefferson Davis.

Lee was a senior military advisor for the Confederacy, but soon enough became commander of the entire Confederate Army. Lee racked up a series of victories over the Union early in the war, but may be best remembered for his defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1963.

Lee and Union General Ulysses S. Grant had their armies clash several times in the final years of the war. Lee’s forces were finally too depleted to go on, forcing Lee to surrender his sword to Grant at Appomattox in 1865. The Civil War slowed to an end soon after that.

Lee died five years later in 1870. In the post-War era, he supported Reconstruction and tried to get ex-Confederates reintegrated into the rebuilding nation, instead of being shut out.

Lee’s legacy is still heavily debated. Enemies hate Lee for leading the now-widely hated Confederacy, while his supporters urge that Lee only fought to protect his home, not in support of its racist policies. Lee himself released his slaves 10 years before the war, and his daughter went on to fight against Jim Crow laws in the South.

Figures like Winston Churchill, Booker T. Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke highly of Lee, with Eisenhower having a portrait of Lee in his office while in the White House.

Robert E. Lee’s birthday has always featured a divide between those who honor Lee and those who still vilify him. On this year, of all years, that divide on Lee’s birthday figures to be especially noteworthy.

Sources

Southeast Missourian- "Remembering Lee" www.semissourian.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article

The Vicksburg Post- "Robert E. Lee" www.vicksburgpost.com/articles/2009/01/18/features/doc496f9af15c25d130402412.txt

Wikipedia- "Robert E. Lee" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_E._Lee

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