The study of Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln had been my life's favorite pastime. Elizabeth Brown Pryor has recently published Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters and this has offered me insights to Lee's character. Its great stuff and I am sure that I will offer more blogs on it as I continue to read from my current position on page 58. (The book is 476 pages of excitement)Every Lee book and encyclopedia entry will tell you that Lee was born on January 19, 1807. Back in the days before birth certificates were the norm people recorded birthdates in family bibles. Elizabeth Brown Pryor published a letter from Lee that tells the reader that he might have been born on a different date.In his application to West Point Lee wrote a cover letter introducing himself. A letter stating a cadets age, studies and background were required by West Point officials.
In this document Lee writes "I completed my eighteenth year on the 29th of last January." Before furthering my discussion of this letter I have to state that it is dated Feb. 28, 1824. I also have to state that the Lee bible (according to research conducted by Pryor) dates Lee's birth as Jan. 19th 1806 with the "6" crossed out and a "7" put in its place.Did the person who recorded the date make a mistake and write 1806 instead of 1807? Pryor makes an error because she fails to point this out as a possibility. Since Lee was born in January and the year had just changed the person recording his birthdate might have assumed it was still 1806. I highly doubt that Lee changed the date himself because West Point wasn't in the habit of asking families for their bibles in order to confirm birthdates.
Pryor's explanation for the change "the family changed the date for unknown reasons" and her research indicates that West Point records confirms a 1806 birthdate. However, isn't this what Lee's letter said in the first place? I am not criticizing Pryor's research but these are just my thoughts on this topic. Why would Lee make himself one year older than he actual was? I think Liz Pryor hits the nail on the head in her commentary. Lee wanted to boost his age to give his application an advantage by making him appear more mature and responsible. Many teenagers today lack responsible habits and 19th century teens were no exception to that rule. Making oneself appear older can have its advantages and going to West Point in the 19th century is no exception to that idea. Pryor notes another interesting fact about Lee's letter. The family bible, West Point records and history all agree that Lee was born on January 19th. If you reread Lee's quote that I used he incorrectly states his birthdate as Jan. 29th. Harry Lee (Lee's father), was born on Jan. 29th and Lee's mistake here is worth noting.
Why did Lee write down the wrong date? Was he so excited about the application process to West Point that he wrote a "2" instead of a "1"? I doubt that we will ever find out the answer but the fact that this question exists intrigues me.Elizabeth Brown Pryor's book is amazing and you have to get a copy to read. Personally, I am waiting for the softcover version but I did go to my local library and managed to get a copy. I am enjoying the book and her end notes are awesome as well. I will review the book as soon as I finish it. Until next time America!
Quote of the day:"So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that Slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interest of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this that I would have cheerfully lost all that I have lost by the war, and have suffered all that I have suffered to have this object attained."General Robert E. Lee, May 1, 1870