Back Where I Come From
Having grown up in a pretty close-knit family, with both sets of grandparents nearby and a historically significant lineage to be proud of, you might think it’s easy to figure out where I come from. But where you come from is more than a place, a neighborhood, or a county that’s been home to your ancestors for hundreds of years. It’s more than a rugged portrait of a man from centuries past on the wall, or tracing an intricate family tree back to Richard Lee, the very first Lee who immigrated from England to Virginia’s shore in 1640.
In the interest of technicalities, that is where I come from — Shropshire (though this is slightly debated) England and the Lee family of Coton Hall. Within the scope of just me — I come from Manassas, Virginia, where I was born in the county hospital and grew up in the same home since I was two. In a broader scope, I come from a long line of Lees descended from the same people as two signers of the Declaration of Independence, Francis Lightfoot Lee and Richard Henry Lee, and the commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia in the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee.
Perhaps most importantly, the family I know starts with my grandparents, Clinton Lee and Jean Embrey, and I’m learning more and more what life has been like for them, and what it was like for their parents, and their parents’ parents.
I spent all day yesterday at my grandparents’ house, having lunch (Grandma fixed banana pudding just for me!), asking questions and listening to stories about the Lee patriarchs of the past. I’ve always heard bits and pieces of stories and lore here and there, from this person and that. But hearing my grandparents shed light on the lives and families of my great-grandparents and the stories they grew up hearing was truly remarkable.
Grandpa told me about using cannonballs from Civil War battles that occurred on hisgrandfather’s land as door stops in his childhood home. Grandma remembered stories of her great-grandparents having to dig up their valuables that they’d hidden in the yard from loot-hungry Union soldiers passing through. I looked at a census record from 1910 with Grandma which listed her mother as young child, and Grandma noticed that two families down in the list was her father’s family. This could have meant that even as young children, her parents may have lived closer to each other than we thought, since the census was recorded door-to-door at that time.
With Grandpa staring intently at the computer screen, I showed him his father’s draft registration cards for both World Wars. We both found this intriguing since Great Granddaddy Lee never served. He had claimed exemption from the draft, for WWI at age 25 and WWII at 50, because of his dependents (a wife and one child, then a wife and ten children) and his self-employment on the farm. Meanwhile, five of his seven sons served in WWII, three overseas in the heat of battle and two stateside toward the end of the war. Interestingly, on his WWI draft card, he notes that he had three years of prior military service as a Corporal in the Infantry in Virginia. We guessed that this was his time spent as a cadet and an agriculture student at Virginia Tech. Yes, our dedication to the school runs generations deep.
The stories we dug up yesterday only nicked the surface of the more recent history of this Lee family, and I want to know much, much more — and not just about them. It’s interesting piecing together missing tidbits of stories about the Lee family, but I want to know about my grandma’s family too. It can’t be fair that only the Lees are so well documented. On the other side, my mom’s dad was adopted and we know nothing about his birth family besides his mother’s name.
As a lover of history, a Virginia enthusiast and a family-oriented person, it would seem to me a disservice to each family line I come from to not learn and record everything we can possibly know about them. With springtime quickly approaching, the parents and I are hoping to take Grandma and Grandpa on a drive through the places they came from, the land their fathers used to work, the churches that saw them every Sunday morning. The record-digging and question-asking goes on, and this story is to be continued…