On his birthday, remember the man, the history

By Gordon Cotton
Sunday, January 18, 2009

It was 1807 — 202 years ago — that the Lee family in Virginia welcomed a baby boy and named him Robert Edward. Monday is the birthday of that great American, Gen. Robert E. Lee, and is also a state holiday.

Robert E. Lee never came to Mississippi, but other than the many men from here who fought under his command during the War Between the States, he may have had an unusual Vicksburg connection.

Was he wearing boots, a gift from two Vicksburg sisters, when he met with Gen. U.S. Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865? That is a good possibility.

In January 1865, for his 58th birthday, the general received a package from two Vicksburg sisters, Sallie and Lucy Marshall, daughters of the Rev. and Mrs. Charles K. Marshall.

Lee wrote the following thank you: “I have rec’d the overboots sent me by your father and had the opportunity yesterday of testing their value. It was one of the most tempestuous days of the winter, hail, rain, and sleet. By their means through out all day I was comfortable. Please accept my grateful thanks for your birthday kindness and believe me with great respect, R.E. Lee.”

The boots had been paid for with money carefully saved by Sallie Marshall who had covered gold pieces with cloth and used them as buttons to keep them from being stolen. She had used some of those buttons to pay for the boots.

When Lee prepared to meet Grant to discuss surrender, he put on his best apparel — a handsome new uniform, his dress sword and his deep-red sash, for he expected to become a prisoner of war. He commented, “I must make my best appearance.”

His uniform immaculate, his boots well-polished — what a contrast he was to Grant when they met, for the Union commander wore a crumpled uniform and mud-spattered boots. A witness to the meeting described Lee as “6 feet tall, hair and beard of silver gray, a handsome uniform of Confederate gray buttoned to the throat with three stars on each side of the turned-down collar, fine topboots and handsome spurs and a splendid sword.”

Those fine boots — were they from the Vicksburg sisters? There’s probably no way of knowing, but it is entirely possible. The girls, by the way, were the granddaughters of the Rev. Newit Vick, the city’s founder. Their mother was Amanda Vick.

Another Vicksburg connection with Lee was a very remote one: his brother, Sidney Smith Lee, was married to a sister of Elbeck Mason who, with his wife, Virginia, lived for a time in the Cobb House in the Southern Cultural Heritage Center complex and then bought the castle that stood on the hill behind Price’s Glass and Mirror and was demolished by the Union army of occupation.

There was always a portrait of Gen. Robert E. Lee in the office of Dwight D. Eisenhower, even when he was president of the United States, and in 1960 a New York dentist took him to task, citing the fact that Lee gave his best efforts to defeat the nation from 1861-1865.

In his reply on Aug. 1, 1960, Eisenhower pointed out that secession was at that time an unresolved question and had been debated for 70 years. Lee, the president said, believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of the Southern cause.

Of Lee personally, he wrote that “he was thoughtful yet demanding of his officers and men, forbearing with captured enemies but ingen-ious, unrelenting, and personally courageous in battle, and never disheartened by a reverse or obstacle. Through all his many trials he remained selfless almost to a fault and unfailing in his belief in God.”

Eisenhower saw Lee “noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history.”

He felt that the youth of America would do well to emulate his qualities, including his painstaking efforts to help heal the nation’s wounds once the war was over.

“From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s calibre would be unconquerable in spirit and soul,” Eisenhower stated and concluded, “I proudly display the picture of this great American on my office wall.”

The late Sen. Ben Hill of Georgia many years ago capsuled the qualities that make Lee loved and admired:

He was a foe without hate

A friend without treachery

A soldier without cruelty,

And a victim without murmuring.

He was a public official without vices

A private citizen without wrong

A neighbor without reproach

A Christian without hypocrisy,

and a man without guile.

He was Caesar without ambition

Frederick without tyranny,

Napoleon without selfishness,

and Washington without his reward.

There’s a concerted effort in our nation to erase the name of Robert E. Lee from schools named for him, an effort spearheaded by bigots more interested in rewriting history than in supporting education.

Those who seek to defame him aren’t worthy to polish his Vicksburg boots.

Copyright © 2009 The Vicksburg Post

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