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This Day in Georgia History

January 19, 1871

Savannah First to Celebrate Lee’s Birthday

Savannah became the first city in America to celebrate Robert E. Lee’s birthday as a public holiday. Authorization for the holiday came in October 1870 after news of Lee’s death reached Savannah. Lee had a special relationship with Savannah, as this had been first assignment following graduation from West Point in 1829. Newly commission lieutenant Robert E. Lee reached Savannah in November 1829, where he began work surveying Cockspur Island in the mouth of the Savannah River for construction of a federal fort. Lee supervised construction of quarters for the officers and work crew, as well as a drainage system and other improvements. Lee continued his work until the spring of 1831, when he was reassigned to Virginia. Thirty years later, Lee returned to Savannah in November 1861 as a Confederate general, this time to inspect the defense status of the city and Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island. It was during this stay that he purchased his famous horse, Traveller.

In February 1862, Lee returned to plan for the unsuccessful defense of Fort Pulaski, which surrendered to federal forces on April 11. That was Lee’s last visit to Savannah until after the Civil War. In April 1, 1870, six months before his death on Oct. 12, Lee stopped in Savannah during a tour of southern states. During his 12-day stay in Savannah, Lee visited with old friends, including former general Joseph E. Johnston, who was then living in the city. Lee continued his tour, returning to Savannah on April 25 on the way back to Virginia.