A Visit to Stratford Hall
|Mary Wakefield Buxton|
by Mary Wakefield Buxton
Urbanna, Va.— It was blessedly cool, a mere 75, as we headed to Montross recently to visit Stratford Hall, birthplace of Robert E. Lee. I had already visited the Colonial Virginia mansion but my husband had never seen it. A rare day off from work offered us an opportunity for a long-awaited visit.
Built by Thomas Lee on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River with 1,900 acres of surrounding fields and woodlands, the handsome Georgian brick home is now almost 280 years old. A house with quite a history, it was home to four generations of the Lee family, encompassing a span of time from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War.
Two of the Lees, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, were the only two brothers to sign the American Declaration of Independence. Other famous Lees were “Light Horse” Harry Lee, who was a hero in the Revolutionary War, and his son, Robert E. Lee, general of the Northern Army of Virginia in the Civil War.
It’s never a good idea to get on the wrong side of history and I couldn’t help but notice I was only the fourth car in the parking lot. During my tour of the visitor’s center, gardens and great house, I saw only one other couple. This was in contrast to an earlier visit to Mt. Vernon, home of George Washington, which was teeming with thousands of visitors. I asked the guide about attendance and she said the next day a group of 70 was coming for a tour, which suggested we just happened to be there on a very light day.
The house had grand, huge rooms, richly-painted paneling, pine floorboards as wide as a spread palm, wainscoting, carved cornices and lovely fireplace mantels in every room. Little of the furniture was original, but the many fine Chippendale pieces, gilded mirrors so valuable they had been covered in gauze netting to protect them from humidity and insects, oriental rugs, English bone china, and original oil paintings, including a painting of General Lafayette by Thomas Sully and Lee by Gilbert Stuart, from many gifts from across the nation had turned the mansion into an elegant museum.
The Lees were a distinguished family and many descendants live in the Commonwealth and around the nation. Robert E. Lee is loved and revered for his gallant service to the South and his gentleman’s grace and grandeur in defeat. Yet no one can tour the home and not feel almost a haunted, sharp ache from memory of the Civil War that so tragically tore our young Republic asunder and left wounds that have not as yet healed, along with a disturbing and lingering confusion over definition of the 10th Amendment to our Constitution.
Robert E. Lee was born at Stratford but only lived there four years. As the story goes, the family could not find “young Robert” on moving day to Alexandria, but he was finally found in the nursery off the master bedroom “saying goodbye to the angels.” We were invited to gaze up into the chimney to spot a pair of twin angels molded into the flue.
Of interest were the constant creditors that plagued the Lee family for generations, which came as a surprise. Many Americans believe today that those who lived on plantations and supported slaves were “the rich,” but the family was continually in dire economic straits in a time when there was no government farm parity programs to keep them afloat.
We learned how risky it was getting the tobacco crop packed up and shipped to England each year. In bad storms, much of the crop had to be thrown overboard to save the ship. A planter was lucky to get any return on his crop during a time Colonists had to send everything to England before anything could be sold. This rule, along with unpopular taxes, kept colonists constantly strapped and dependent on England. The Lees finally had to board up their home, chain the doors, and leave for a more modest abode.
The home was sold to William C. Somerville and later to Henry D. Stroke, whose wife was related to a Lee. Now in private hands, Stratford was added to The National Registry of Historical Places in 1966 and restoration continues today.
Besides touring the great house one might hike the nature trails. Be sure to take the time to visit the outbuildings, which include stables, slave quarters, gardener’s shed, overseer’s quarters, kitchen and smokehouse. There also is a spring house, extensive gardens and burial vault. If we had had more time it would have also been fun to visit the beach and see the water-powered mill or even go fishing in the mill pond nearby. Maybe next time.