Gen. Robert E. Lee in Culpeper
As we approach Robert E. Lee’s 200th birthday on January 19, it is appropriate that we reflect on the gray commander’s visits to Culpeper County. As one who descends from Confederate ranks and grew up on a cotton farm with a faded portrait of General Lee centered over the mantle, I’ll readily admit the specter of Lee lifts my eyes across the gulf of time to a pinnacle where great men reside in remembrance, if not in present reality.
Following Lee’s resignation from the U.S. Army, he boarded an Alexandria train and departed for Richmond. Rolling over the Rappahannock on April 22, 1861, Lee entered Culpeper not the least aware that dramatic events over the next four years would often return him to the county. As he exited Culpeper, little did Lee know he would soon command an army that would mangle a Union force at a nearby summit called Cedar Mountain.
As commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, General Lee entered Culpeper for the first time on August 20, 1862 at Raccoon Ford upon initiating the 2nd Manassas Campaign. Remaining a week as his army moved upriver, Lee passed out of Culpeper on August 27. After the succeeding Antietam Campaign, Lee returned to Culpeper, arriving about October 30.
For the first three weeks of November 1862, the army commander remained outside the village but attended church at St. Stephens, while receiving local visitors at his simple tent. Politely refusing an offer of a domicile for headquarters comfort, Lee remained modestly camped on a hillock east of town. Fearing an attack on Fredericksburg, he shifted his army eastward, with Lee departing Culpeper on November 20.
General Lee next visited Culpeper by crossing the Rapidan at Raccoon Ford on June 7, 1863 while inaugurating the momentous Pennsylvania Campaign. He again pitched his tent on the lawn of widow Sarah Freeman’s house, Eastern View. From Culpeper, Lee wrote his wife, “The country here looks very green and pretty…what a beautiful world God…has given us! What a shame that men…should mar his gifts.”
Following the Battle of Brandy Station, Lee’s army proceeded toward the Valley and the general departed Culpeper on June 15. After the Gettysburg Campaign, General Lee’s army once more returned to the county, with Lee arriving at “Camp Culpeper” by July 26. Feeling the heat from the rapidly closing Federal army, General Lee transferred his army south of the Rapidan, with Lee departing the county on August 4.
On October 11, 1863, Lee boldly advanced into Culpeper over the Rapidan, attempting to flank the Federal army investing the county. Alerted to the Rebel move, the Yankees retreated and Lee departed Culpeper in pursuit on October 13. After his defeat at Bristoe Station on October 14, Lee rebounded to Culpeper, arriving at his Brandy Station camp on October 20. Lee remained there until the Battle of Rappahannock Station, November 7, 1863.
On November 8, General Lee configured his army in a stout line precisely through the center of the county and offered battle to the Federals. The Yankees chose not to take Lee up on his offer, and that evening, General Robert E. Lee departed Culpeper for the final time in his life.
So for nearly ten weeks between 1862-1863, General Lee affixed his headquarters flag in Culpeper County. It is safe to say that as often as he returned to the county he not only appreciated the strategic significance of the county, but Lee also cherished Culpeper’s citizens, and in turn, they revered him. It is a fact that both Lee and his soldiers felt at home in Culpeper, as they correctly believed themselves among friends and family.
So now, how do we recall Lee on his 200th Birthday? Looking back, certainly no one did more to heal the division between North and South than did Lee, and it is equally certain that Robert E. Lee’s fame and character continues to ride secure through the passage of time. In fact, the mystical bond we have with him reaches still across the accumulating decades, and Lee is yet ours in Culpeper, and we his. And no one like him exists now. He was Robert E. Lee, and the world will never see another Robert E. Lee.