Sunday, January 20, 2008

Students of history and fellow Virginians gathered yesterday in Alexandria to celebrate the 201st anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee at an unlikely place — Fort Ward, a former Union Army base built to protect the District.

The celebration, attended by hundreds of local fans and curious tourists, featured 17th Virginia Infantry re-enactors, military-style gun salutes, and a birthday cake for the Confederate general.

Organizers of the event said the birthday soiree started last year to recognize one of Virginia’s favorite sons.

“One of the things that captivates people here is that history is all around us. Lee was one of our own, even though this place was occupied by Union soldiers during the war,” said Wally Owen, assistant director of Fort Ward and a lifelong Alexandrian.

Although most Virginians associate Lee with Arlington, Lee spent his formative years in Alexandria and was fond of his roots there.

“There is no community to which my affections more strongly cling than that of Alexandria, composed of my earliest and oldest friends, my kind school fellows and faithful neighbors,” he wrote in 1870.

Despite cold temperatures yesterday, re-enactors set up camp at the main entrance and greeted visitors dressed in 19th-century military uniforms. Organizers at the fort, which also includes a Civil War museum, had plenty of activities to help teach children about Lee and military rituals.

The event wasn’t the only one to honor Lee this weekend. On Friday, Virginia celebrated Lee-Jackson Day, a holiday that recognizes Lee and fellow Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, whose birthday is tomorrow.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy also held its annual wreath-laying ceremony at the statue of Lee in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. The hourlong ceremony, which featured participants in period dress, has been held every year since 1911.

Edward Dame, 11, attended the event at Fort Ward with his aunt because he wanted to learn more about his ancestors who fought for the Confederacy.

John Hunsaker, one of the re-enactors who stood for hours in the cold, said he has always admired Lee for his leadership qualities.

“He was a natural leader, and he knew how to lead his men by example,” he said. “He was also very loyal to his state, which the visitors here don’t always understand ” that connection to your state that people had back then.”

One of the most paradoxical figures in American history, Lee is lionized by some, vilified by others. Some do not see the importance of honoring his birth at all.

Joyce Woodson of Alexandria, a civil rights activist and former City Council member, had mixed feelings about the celebration.

“I am a student of history. As a black woman, I find it odd and uncomfortable that people have these celebrations, but I also understand that the war was about more than slavery,” said Mrs. Woodson, who did not attend the event

Susan Cumby, the director of Fort Ward, said negative feedback about the event has been scant.

“We are trying to acknowledge a great Virginian who claimed Alexandria as his home and teach people about local Civil War history,” she said.

Robert Edward Lee was born on Jan. 19, 1807, at Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County. But he was raised and educated in Alexandria until 1825, when he enrolled at West Point.

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.

Lee died in Lexington, Va., in 1870 while he was serving as president of Washington and Lee University in Lexington.

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