- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 22, 2006

Civil War descendants and history buffs yesterday celebrated the 199th birthday of Robert E. Lee in the U.S. Capitol, hailing the great Confederate general as “the quintessential American.”

A crowd of about 100 attended the annual ceremony, held in historic Statuary Hall by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). Participants laid wreaths at the foot of the Lee statue, keeping with a nearly century-old tradition.

Federal Claims Court Judge Richard Bender Abell, one of the speakers, called Lee a “true example to us all.”

“In my humble opinion, [he is] the finest man of his generation, of the 19th century, and one of the finest men of all time, anywhere,” Judge Abell said. “He practiced Christian forgiveness for what the North inflicted, then set an example to all of us for work and study to move forward.”

The ceremony celebrating Lee’s birthday — he was born Jan. 19, 1807, in Stratford, Va. — has been held every year since 1911. A member of the UDC has placed flowers at the foot of the Lee statue since it arrived at the Capitol from Virginia in 1909.

One of the most paradoxical figures in American history, Lee is lionized by some, vilified by others.

“It is difficult to define this great man,” Judge Abell said. “That is why we study him so. We sense his greatness and wish to understand and emulate.”

A career officer in the U.S. Army, Lee became one of the most successful Confederate generals after the outbreak of the Civil War, eventually commanding all of the South’s armies.

He is revered for gallantly leading troops to victory against the stronger Union Army and for advocating postwar reconciliation between the North and South.

Though Lee is regarded as one of the nation’s greatest soldiers, some black Virginians objected to his portrait being included in a riverfront mural in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Vandals burned the portrait in 2000.

Lee received business offers after the war, but rejected them to become president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Va.

“When the war ended, he was a promoter of reconciliation,” said Carroll Warner, 51, of Woodbridge, Va., the descendant of a Union soldier. “He was a great man and a great patriot.”

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