The Great House, built in the late 1730s by Thomas Lee, is the centerpiece of the 1,900-acre Stratford Hall Plantation. It took about seven years to build the home out of tulip poplars from the property and bricks from local clay fired in kilns dug in the ground. Except for manufactured goods, the plantation, where tobacco was the principal crop, was largely self-sufficient. Photo by Lisa Helfert, Special to Stephens Media.
STRATFORD, Va. — The stately Virginia plantation home Stratford Hall is silent on a Sunday morning. Unless you are listening to the spirits of history.
It’s the history of Robert E. Lee, who was born there, and of his distinguished ancestors, including the only two brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee
Marilyn Cottrell, a tour guide at the home for 31 years, can hear that history. She can hear the clicking and clacking of spinning wheels and weaving looms as slaves and servants gathered to make fabric and gossip.
In the library, she can hear the gathering of men convened to work on the Westmoreland Resolves, a protest against the English Stamp Act and one of the first acts of sedition by colonists. Light streams into the room from the pastoral setting in the Northern Neck of Virginia, which is bordered by the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
In the schoolmaster’s room, a visitor can almost hear the Scottish lilt of the teacher and the scratch of chalk on slates.
Lee, the Confederate general, moved away when he was three but kept the home dear, supposedly remembering the metal fireplace backstop in his nursery stamped with cherubs and the year 1745. As an adult he even mused wistfully about buying it back.
But Stratford Hall’s brush with history was much longer than the years he lived there. From the time his great-great uncle Thomas Lee built the house, it was witness to history and home to generations of governors, legislators, revolutionary war leaders and diplomats.
“They were so instrumental in developing the country to what it is today,” said Cottrell, 79.
The Lees were one of the nation’s most significant families, said Emory M. Thomas, retired history professor at the University of Georgia and a civil war scholar. The public connects Lee with slavery, and slavery with racism. But Lee was so much more than that, says Thomas, author of Robert E. Lee: A Biography. He was an innovative educator as a college president, a talented military commander, and someone who bounced back from numerous setbacks, including a bankrupt father, and losing much of his own fortune in war bonds.
“Lee went to war because his friends and neighbors were under attack,” Professor Thomas said. “He saw leaving the U.S. Army and joining the Confederate Army as the natural thing to do, because to do otherwise would be to abandon friends and neighbors and family.”
A Stratford Hall visit helps “confront the complexity of Robert E. Lee,” Professor Thomas said.
Visitors can tour the mansion as well as wander the outbuildings and the plantation’s 1,900 acres. A grist mill operates a giant wheel, churning through the Potomac and making cornmeal that is sold in a gift shop on the premises.
The “great house” itself has an expansive view of the Potomac, about a mile away over fields that once fueled the family’s wealth with tobacco crops. The cliffs are made of compacted seabed from the Miocene era - one of only four such places in the world. Those soft white cliffs drop into the river where bald eagles wheel about, ducks paddle and Canada Geese honk.
Visitors can enjoy a walk on the beach where fossils of sea creatures from the Miocene era can be found. The grounds also include seven miles of hiking trails which traverse beautiful hard wood forests. Also on the grounds is the Inn at Stratford Hall, which features two guest houses and cabins tucked into the woods like an adult version of summer camp.
The grandiosity of the “great house” and even the size of the visitor cabins stand in contrast to the cramped slave quarters on display. As the revolution began, there were 84 slaves over the age of 12, said curator Gretchen Goodell Pendleton. The fieldstone slave homes are reproductions and part of an effort to help visitors understand the plantation, which with slaves and servants outnumbering the family was in essence a black community.
Slaves helped build the home as well, which took about seven years and used tulip poplars from the property and bricks made from the clay earth.
Cottrell is the type of tour guide who enjoys being stumped by visitors’ questions and heads straight to the memorial association’s library to dig for answers. So she estimates that the builders churned out about 119,000 bricks a year on the site to erect the home, which features a distinctive Flemish bond pattern of masonry and a unique H-shaped configuration. It is one of the most architecturally distinguished surviving homes constructed in the colonial period. (No one knows the precise number of bricks for sure, and even the house’s completion date of 1745 is an educated guess. We do know the house was under construction in 1739.)
Stepping inside on a February day cold enough for snow, the welcome heat of the home seeps into your bones immediately. It’s just the sort of sensation visitors of the day would have had. The home was built with an unusually high number of 16 fireplaces, on interior walls, making it one of the warmest homes in Virginia, Cottrell says.
Now the wave of warmth is designed to protect the period antiques (accurate for the family’s time but most not the original Lee family pieces.)
The staff has paid great attention to detail with the interior. The paint colors were exhaustively researched, the dining room dessert service is laid out with forks turned down in the English style of the day, the boys’ bedroom has woolen socks left strewn on the floor and in the school room, a clothes pin sits out as a reminder of how the schoolmaster may have used it on the noses of overly chatty children.
And there were plenty of children, many of whom went on to carve important places in American history. Thomas Lee had eight surviving children and two of them became signers of the Declaration of Independence. Mark Twain called them “a family which was able to shed as much honor upon official station as it received from it.”
It was Richard Henry Lee who made the motion in Congress to declare independence in 1776 and signed the declaration along with his brother Francis Lightfoot Lee. Their younger brothers, William and Arthur, were in Europe serving among the first American diplomats during the Revolutionary War.
Robert E. Lee’s father was Henry Lee III, known as “Light Horse Harry” for his cavalry skills. He was a second cousin and husband of Matilda Lee, who inherited the plantation. George Washington contributed the Madeira for their wedding at Stratford Hall and soon Lee was elected governor of Virginia. But Matilda died and he remarried Ann Hill Carter. With her, he had five more children, including the boy who would go on to lead the Confederate army.
The room where Robert E. Lee was born in 1807 is part of the tour, with its wide planks of yellow heart pine flooring and red and cream bed and window dressings. The nursery also is on display, arrayed with a doll’s bed, a child’s tea set and tiny Windsor chairs.
Lee did not stay long enough to attend classes downstairs in the schoolmaster’s room. His father ran into financial troubles and because the house belonged to his first wife, it was inherited by Lighthorse Harry Lee’s eldest son when he came of age. Henry Lee IV was the last Lee family master of the plantation and his life sounded much like a soap opera (with a morphine-addicted wife, a child killed in an accident and a scandalously pregnant sister-in-law.)
After his marriage to Mary Custis, the great granddaughter of Martha Washington, Robert E. Lee lived at the Custis Plantation known as Arlington. (The plantation is now Arlington National Cemetery.)
Stratford Hall was converted to a memorial to the Lees in 1929 by a group of women from various states across the nation and cabins still provide lodging for their successors.
Stratford Hall has lodging and the area also offers other hotel options as well. Much of the terrain is flat cropland dotted with proud farmhouses and the occasional tumbledown dwelling. In nearby Montross, the Inn at Montross is a bed and breakfast. An upscale option is a drive farther down the Northern Neck peninsula to the Tides Inn in Irvington.
The Montross Inn sits not far from lunch spots like Angelo’s Pizza and the cheerful Art of Coffee. With your quiche or sandwich at Art of Coffee, you can buy work from artisans like stained glass, crocheted blankets, and pottery.
But it is outdoors that the Northern Neck offers the most fun during the warmer months. Westmoreland State Park has camping and a shoreline where the Potomac laps quietly. The area is prime real estate for bird watching.
Also nearby are wineries, bike paths, boating, camping and berry picking.
The Lees are not even the only historical figures from the area. James Madison, James Monroe and George Washington were each born near Stratford Hall. The National Park Service runs the George Washington Birthplace National Monument, though the house is a re-creation built in 1931. The visitor center offers a film, exhibits and a gift shop with a lovely collection of children’s and adult books about the nation’s first president. And a farm offers glimpses of heritage breeds of animals.
Squirrels dart about a stretch of land so much a part of the nation’s history but so little known in the present.
Pendleton calls the area “a hotbed of independent thinkers” during the colonial era. “You see the ebbs and flows of national and Virginia history in one location.
“It’s not just a one-person story.”
But what a story of that one person. “Lincoln” may be the box office hit, with Lee playing but a bit part, but Professor Thomas is hoping for a Lee movie.