After the War Between the States, whenever Robert E. Lee was questioned, frequently by his former comrades-in-arms in the United States Army, as to the reason he rejected command of the United States Army when it was offered to him by Francis Blair, acting on behalf of Abraham Lincoln, Lee always answered in the same, consistent manner by answering “that his rejection was predicated upon two of the most sublime, if not the most sublime, words in the English language : duty and honor. I can only do what my duty demands. I can never do more. I can never desire to do less. I can take no other course without dishonor.” This simple response is what Frank Orlando, Civil War living historian, utilizes as the basis for the vast majority of his presentations to leadership groups, school groups, veterans and community organizations, reenactment and encampment activities, group tours, “meet and greets” at large hotel complexes, etc., as those two words embody all that is good about Robert E. Lee.
Unlike the vast majority of media created heroes that exist today, Robert E. Lee does not have a hint of scandal that has to be hidden from the public eye. The facts of his life may be recounted without modification. Theodore Roosevelt characterized Lee this way:”the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking peoples have brought forth.”
Robert E. Lee is also venerated in Europe as evidenced by Winston Churchill who said of Lee: “one of the noblest Americans who ever lived.” With these thoughts in mind, Orlando and his wife Bonnie have succeeded in bringing Gen. and Mrs. Robert E. Lee to life in the 21st Century. By gleaning quotations from the thousands of letters that the Lees not only sent back and forth to one another, but also the correspondence these two people sent friends and diverse other relatives, the Orlandos succeed in telling the Lees’ story through the Lees’ own words. While each presentation can be tailored to meet the needs of individual groups, no recounting of the Lees’ story can be conveyed to an audience without recollecting the following:
- That Lee’s father, Light Horse Harry Lee was a Revolutionary War hero under George Washington who, upon Washington’s death, eulogized Washington by writing that Washington was “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen
- That two members of the Lee family risked their lives by signing the Declaration of Independence
- That Robert E. Lee graduated in 1829 from West Point devoid of any demerits, thereby earning the nickname “The Marble Man”
- That Lee married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the step great granddaughter of George Washington (Lee’s idol), who ultimately inherited Arlington House which was unfortunately and unconstitutionally confiscated by the Lincoln administration and converted into Arlington National Cemetery
- Lee’s appointment by Jefferson Davis to the command of the Army of Northern VA and his subsequent surrender on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse
- His rationale for coming north to Gettysburg in July of 1863
- And his elevation to the presidency of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA – a post he held from 1865 until his death at age 63 on October 12, 1870
While these are not the only aspects of Robert E. Lee’s life that are utilized to tell his story in its entirety, these points are used by the Orlandos as the focal points in enriching their presentation. Though his reputation continues to be tarnished by a select few, current biographies continue to enhance his well-earned reputation as a Christian gentleman first and foremost. Even today one journalist commented that “The South may have succumbed to overwhelming military force and resources, but it triumphed in at least one sense. It produced perhaps the greatest symbol to come out of America’s most disastrous conflict, someone who combined combat and moral excellence and who, once defeated, worked to heal the wounds of war. It is a record that deserves to be retold constantly.”
It is a record that the Orlandos are extremely passionate about retelling – it is a record best exemplified by Lee when he was offered $10,000 by a group of businessmen who desired merely the use of his name after the War Between the States to sell their product when he answered: “Sirs, my name is the heritage of my parents. It is all I have, and it is not for sale.”
As an example of the magnitude of the passion that the Orlandos possess for the Gettysburg Battlefield, the following narrative was prepared by them for inclusion in the staff directory of the Lincoln Leadership Institute (LLI) in Gettysburg, PA, one of the most highly respected corporations of its kind. LLI generates diverse leadership seminars to both national and international corporations, as well as to the vast majority of the federal government’s multi-faceted departments. The Orlandos are employed by LLI to heighten
the realism of the Battle of Gettysburg by providing living history experiences for the Institute’s patrons through realistic portrayals of Gen. and Mrs. Robert E. Lee.
“Whenever my wife and I traverse the Gettysburg Battlefield, we cannot help but immediately gravitate toward Confederate Avenue and Seminary Ridge, not only for the inherent beauty of its landscape, but also for the historical importance located within the woods that surround the Virginia Memorial. It is in close proximity to this memorial that, on July 3, 1863, the 12,000 men in Gen. James Longstreet’s 1st Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia took refuge prior to beginning what has become known as Pickett’s Charge. Confederate Avenue possesses many of the most majestic monuments on the battlefield – monuments dedicated to the Southern troops who fought here by the various states that aligned themselves to the Confederate States of America. While Robert E. Lee’s sitting astride Traveller atop the VA Memorial overlooks the expanse of ground known as Pickett’s Charge – the monument that ultimately embodies the poignant story made by the flower of Virginia’s youth that led the charge – all of the other Confederate monuments detail the sacrifices made by the Confederate soldier in defense of the cause they passionately supported. Paramount among those other monuments are the Mississippi Monument on Seminary Ridge which recalls the desperate courage and gallantry of Gen. Lee’s men and the North Carolina Monument depicting one of Lee’s favorite Tarheel regiments as it is about to charge once more toward Cemetery Ridge and immortality. Additionally, if you follow Confederate Avenue past the Longstreet Tower, you ultimately arrive at the scene of other truly mythic parts of the battlefield: the boulder-strewn slopes of the Round Tops, Devil’s Den, the Bloody Run or Plum Run at the foot of Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, and the Peach Orchard. Additionally, as you travel the avenue in mid-summer and view the scenes of these horrific conflicts, do not be adverse to parking your car and getting out, as you can personally experience what these men had to endure in temperatures in the high 80’s on July 1, 2, and 3, 1863, when neither food nor water was readily available to the men in the Army of Northern Virginia. In doing so, my wife and I cannot help but remember what one visitor to the battlefield said in 1886 when he observed:
‘No natural panorama in the world surpasses that which the spectator beholds when, standing atop Seminary Ridge that extends from the Chambersburg Turnpike Road to Little Round Top, he looks down upon the broad expanse of field, meadow and woodland, dotted with farmhouses and barns, the deep red of the newly-turned-up soil in strong contrast with the verdure of growing crops and magnificent groves, and the whole landscape bounded by the ousted mountain wall as far as the eye can reach.’
Everything that that visitor observed in 1886 is still here, waiting for generations to come and see and learn. Confederate Avenue, as well as every other aspect of the Gettysburg Battlefield, will always – must always – remain not only to my wife and me, but to acquaint all Americans of all eras with a place that helped make our nation what it is and will continue to be. Gettysburg will be a special place within each and every one of us – regardless if you possess Northern or Southern sympathies – for a long time as we continue to reach into our hearts to find out who we are as an American people.”
Men and women of the magnitude of Robert E. Lee and his wife are rare in history. They come but once in a century and the Orlandos take great pleasure in being able to bring this great couple, their family and the times in which they lived to life. To contact Arlington House Impressions to discuss the possibility of contracting Gen. and Mrs. Robert E. Lee to speak to your group, call 717-337-2199 or 610-683-8861 or email the “Lees” at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have the opportunity to be present when Gen. and Mrs. Robert E. Lee are performed by Frank and Bonnie Orlando in Gettysburg, PA, you will leave the performance impressed that you have seen and heard the real Robert E. Lee and his wife in person.