When I went to Virginia last year for a series of speaking engagements, I spent half a day at the Virginia Historical Society. Half a day was far from enough time. I could have spent a week looking through documents and images. On one hand, walking through the exhibitions was exhilarating. On the other, it was incredibly frustrating. At each turn, I found an object or a painting of a family member or distant relative. That was the fun part. The downside was that I was alone, and it seemed odd to gasp, then grab a nearby person and say, “That thar, why that’s my great-grandpappy.” So I went about this incredible discovery with only the guards to keep me company.
I feel amazingly lucky to have so much of my family’s history intact and easy to access. I’m also glad to know that my grandmother wasn’t totally loony and making up stories. My great-great grandmother, Ocatvia Mildred White, was General Robert E. Lee’s first or second cousin. I’m not sure which since the intermarrying tended to create a tangled mess of fishing lines. My grandmother was quite proud that her Grandmama Octavia was General Lee’s god-daughter. Now I won’t go into a lengthy historical review of General Lee’s biography, but he seemed to be rather an upstanding man. One of my favorite images from the VHS is this photograph of General Lee after the Civil War. It was taken in 1869, when Lee was president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. It’s an arresting and haunting image, with a composition that highlights a sense of isolation. It doesn’t feel heroic like other Lee images; it’s a quiet surrender.