Mary Custis Lee’s Trunks

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Southern Diaries, Letters and Memoirs

Mary Custis Lee in 1865In 2002, Robert E. L. DeButts, Jr., Robert E. Lee’s great-great-grandson, was called by his high school classmate E. Herbert Burke to the Burke & Herbert Bank & Trust in Alexandria. Burke, vice chairman of the bank, had discovered two trunks in the silver vault of the bank where they had sat unclaimed for 84 years. (Video)

These two steamer trunks had been stored at the bank in 1917 by Mary Custis Lee, the oldest daughter of Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary Anna Randolph Custis. Alas, a year later she died at the age of 83. Miss Lee never married and after the Civil War traveled the world for the next 40 years. The two trunks, now at the Virginia Historical Society, have yielded some 6,500 documents and memorabilia collected over Miss Lee’s lifetime.

Who was Mary Custis Lee was the second Child of the Lee’s. She was born at Arlington House in 1835. Mary Lee never married and remained with her mother throughout the war until her death in 1873. A gentleman who was a student at Washington College when General Lee was president, writing in later years, gives interesting particulars relating to the Lees.

The Lee family living in the home in Lexington as I knew them consisted of General and Mrs. Lee, their son, George Washington Custis, who succeeded his father as President of the College, and three daughters, Mary, Agnes, and Mildred. Agnes was an invalid and was away from home on health trips most of the time and I saw very little of her. The oldest daughter, Mary, was a person of strong, but somewhat eccentric character. She was wholly devoid of fear and was fond of taking long walks in the country alone.

The documents range from colonial papers, letters and documents through the post-Civil War period and memorabilia collected in Miss Lee’s travels. They include documents from her mother’s Custis family and her father’s family. In case, you don’t know, Mary Custis Lee’s great-great grandmother was Martha Washington. The Custis family were the owners of a vast estate that included Arlington House, now part of Arlington National Cemetery.

Mary Custis Lee traveled the world, leading a life of luxurious vagabondage. She spent months in London, Paris and Rome, and a year in Australia. She took a round-the-world cruise, stopping in Japan, China, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Java. She traveled to Palestine, Egypt and Sudan, to Mexico, the West Indies, Venezuela. She met Queen Victoria and Pope Leo XIII and spent one memorable Christmas as the guest of an Indian maharajah.

For Civil War scholars, the most interesting items are the letters from General Lee to family members that were found in the trunks. They serve to show General Lee as a man of emotion and not the “marble man” as he is so often depicted in our history books.

Having distributed such poor Xmas gifts as I had to those around me, I have been looking for something for you,” Lee wrote. “I send you some sweet violets that I gathered for you this morning while covered with dense white frost that glistened in the bright sun like diamonds and formed a broche of rare beauty and sweetness, which could not be fabricated by the expenditure of a world of money. Yet how little it will purchase. But see how God provides for our pleasure in every way. May he guard and preserve you for me, my dear daughter. Among the calamities of war the hardest to bear perhaps is the separation of families and friends.

In the same letter General Lee brings up the painful subject of the occupation of Arlington House by the Union Army.

Your old home if not destroyed by our enemies has been so desecrated that I cannot bear to think of it,” he writes. “I should have preferred it to have been wiped from the earth, its beautiful hill sunk, its sacred trees burned rather than to have been degraded by the presence of those who revel in the ill they do for their own selfish purposes.

On September 23, 1862, several days after the bloody Battle of Antietam, Robert E. Lee wrote to his daughter on a piece of cheap blue paper. Though faded the letter is still legible. It was an interesting spin on what most historians consider a Union victory.

We had two hard fought battles in Maryland and did not consider ourselves beaten as our enemies supposed,” he wrote. “We were greatly outnumbered and opposed by double if not treble our strength and yet we repulsed all their attacks, held our ground and retired when it suited our convenience.

Two months later Lee wrote to Mary after hearing about the death of his daughter Anne had died of typhoid fever at age 23.

In the quiet hours of night when there is nothing to lighten the full weight of my grief, I feel as if I should be overwhelmed. I had always counted, if God should spare me for a few days of peace after this civil war has ended, that I should have her with me. But year after year my hopes go out and I must be resigned.

One of the most touching letters in trunk was written by Selina Gray, a former slave at Arlington, who wrote to Mrs. Lee in 1872.

Mrs Lee, I received your letter and was happy to hear from you and I was hoping to see you once more at Arlington.

The place is changed so you would hardly know it. Your things at the time of the war was taken away by every body so the officers would have them in their tents and all over the ground . . . the book case that you speak of I cannot tell you any thing of it. I don’t remember seeing it since you left. I suppose it was carried off like everything else.

The whole of it is rented to the freemen. They have little huts all over that beautiful place.

Gray reported that she was living near Alexandria in “a comfortable home of my own,” and she updated Mrs. Lee on what some of her other former slaves were doing. Then she added a postscript that explained the item she’d enclosed in the letter: “This piece of green and this rose bud I send you is some that you planted at your mother grave.”

Mrs. Lee was never to return to Arlington House and died the following year. In 1874, Custis Lee began a long court battle with the Federal government over the estate. In 1882, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in the family’s favor, saying, in essence, that the government cannot seize a man’s land simply because he has led an army of rebellion against that government. Of course, the family members did not want to live in a cemetery, so they agreed to accept $150,000 for the land — a huge sum in those days.


Series Navigation<< Robert E. Lee’s Letters: 1862 to 1865Edward Porter Alexander’s “Fighting for the Confederacy” >>

Leave a Reply