The Life of Mary Custis Lee
American Civil War Museum
By Kimberly J. Largent
Charge the Cannons Publishing
Growing Up at Arlington
Mary Custis Lee, great-granddaughter of First Lady Martha Washington, has been often portrayed in a negative light wherever her name appears in the annals. It is written that her debilitating arthritis turned her into a constant complainer and that her depressive nature seemed to bring those around her down in spirit. Such conclusions were arrived at based on a few select comments taken out of context from letters her husband wrote to her and to others. Those who concluded such were probably not familiar with Robert’s humorous nature and opted to rely on his words instead of his meaning when drawing their conclusions. However, through reading her personal diary and letters written to her husband, family, and friends, we can conclude that she was actually a courageous, selfless, creative woman who managed to solely, for the most part, raise seven children while battling many physical ailments. Although she may have spent years walking in the shadow of her husband, in reality she was a guiding light and a pillar of strength-not just during the darkest days of the Confederacy, but throughout much of her life.
Mary Anna Randolph Custis was born on October 1, 1808 to parents Washington “Wash” Custis and Mary “Molly” Fitzhugh. Two children were born prior to Mary, but neither survived past their first birthday nor did a child born after Mary. Wash Custis, who was the grandson of Martha Washington and was raised by her and George Washington after his father’s (Martha’s son from a previous marriage) death, settled his family in a quaint four-room brick home he named Arlington. As Mary grew, so did Arlington as Wash invested time and money in its expansion.
Life at Arlington
Arlington House front view / Wikimedia Commons
Knowing her heart
As Mary grew, her intellectual talents were not overlooked. In her early teens, she was already reading in French, Greek, and Latin. She prided herself on reading several newspapers a day to keep abreast on current events. She enjoyed history and was thrilled to meet 67-year-old Marquis de Lafayette in 1824 when he spent three days visiting Arlington. Although history stirred her, her real passion was art; she was a very talented self-taught painter, choosing to paint the very beauty that surrounded her at Arlington. Those who knew Mary never described her as having a distinguished outer beauty-she had inherited her father’s sharp nose and chin-but they were captivated by her grace, charm, and wit. During her late teens, she was considered a social butterfly and many were drawn to her magnetic personality.
At 17, she was introduced to, and briefly courted by, 32-year-old, dashing Sam Houston. Her heart was unmoved. Instead, her joy was founded in a man she’d known since childhood. His name was Robert E Lee. The two were distantly related and often played together at the Ravensworth estate, which was owned by William Fitzhugh, Mary’s uncle. In 1824, 16-year-old Mary wasn’t surprised to learn that Robert received an appointment at West Point. He was intelligent, studious and responsible-all traits she admired. Unlike her, he excelled in math, the very subject that she was weakest.
From 1824 through 1827, the two grew closer and Mary timed a visit to Kinloch, home of a distant cousin, the same time she knew Robert would be there visiting. It was during this visit, Mary realized with certainty she loved Robert and wanted to marry him. Robert graduated from West Point second in his class and demerit-free in 1829. He journeyed to Arlington for a visit and it was during that time, he asked his “Molly” to marry him. She gave him a resounding yes. After his visit, they relied on letters to share their intimate feelings-letters that Mary never hesitated to share with her mother. However, when Robert found out, he expressed his discomfort that his intimate thoughts went beyond Mary’s eyes. She respected his request to have his most private thoughts read only by her and never again shared a letter with her mother.
During this time, Mary also began a prayer journal that clearly conveyed her commitment to her faith in God. In this journal she also wrote of her apprehension concerning Robert’s faith, which didn’t appear to be as strong as hers-a fact she would struggle with for some time. Nonetheless, the two set a wedding date of June 30, 1831, and the planning for the Arlington social event of the year was underway. In November 1830, Mary became gravely ill and wasn’t expected to live. Just as she resigned herself to death and placed herself in God’s hands, she began to recover. As her body slowly regained its strength, her commitment to God was even more cemented; she had faced death and hadn’t been afraid.
After weeks of recuperation, the wedding day had arrived. During the service, Mary recalled being taken aback by how handsome Robert looked with his newly-grown sidewhiskers. Robert, in turn, was impressed with her radiance and poise. She had been the envy of many of the young women in attendance. Robert humorously recalled later that the minister had read the vows of the Episcopal service “as if he had been reading my death warrant.”
After the ceremony, the newlyweds, along with Mary’s mother, journeyed to Ravensworth for a visit. There, Mary once again fell ill with fever. This time her recovery was slower and even when she had recovered and was ready to travel, Robert noticed that the illness, following so closely on the heels of the previous one, had taken its toll on her. She appeared tired and drawn and never fully recovered her coloring. This would be the beginning of many physical ailments that would beset her.
Setting up house
Old Point Comfort, c.1900 / Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library via Wikimedia Commons, Yale University
A month prior to the wedding, Robert had received news of his new assignment-Old Point Comfort where Fort Monroe was under construction. The news had pleased the Custis family; it meant Mary would remain close to Arlington. Even so, both mother and daughter were faced with somber adjustments when she moved away. Her mother was faced with the loss of the one person she’d doted on most of her life and Mary was faced with the challenges of managing a household without the slaves or her mother nearby to direct matters. Robert picked up on Mary’s confusion with taking care of the house and often teased her about her shortcomings and once confided in a letter to a friend, “Mrs. L is somewhat addicted to laziness and forgetfulness in her housekeeping…but she does her best, or in her mother’s words, ‘The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.'”
Mary spent her days at Old Point Comfort reading the Bible and enjoying the beauty that surrounded her. She wrote to her mother, “I walk every morning before breakfast on this beautiful beach and inhale the sea breezes which are said to bring health along with them.” And although she enjoyed the beauty surrounding her, the fact that she longed for Arlington is clear in a subsequent letter to her mother where she comments, “What would I give for one stroll on the hills at Arlington this bright day?” Christmas was approaching and Mary was feeling apprehensive at the prospects of spending the most blessed holiday away from Arlington. She was pleased when Robert informed her they would indeed be able to make the journey home just in time for the holidays. Mary had felt such joy at being back home that she decided to stay at Arlington after the holidays. Robert made the return trip to Old Point Comfort alone.
Within a few weeks after his departure, Mary was overjoyed to learn she was pregnant. But the joy was short-lived and she became ill again. Her family wondered if she could pull through the illness yet a third time in less than two years. Miraculously, she did. As she recovered, Robert expressed in his letters how much he missed her and wished her to be with him. He was becoming increasingly aware of her attachment to Arlington and decided to wean her of it, which is evident in a letter he wrote to her. “Hasten down,” he had teased, “if you do not want to see me turned out a beau again.” At six-months pregnant, Mary made the return voyage to Old Point Comfort and there, she and her husband spent their evenings together with Mary sewing clothes for the baby while Robert would lovingly read passages to her.
On September 16, 1832, the first of the Lee brood was born-a healthy son they named George Washington Custis Lee. Robert wrote to his brother Carter of his joy. “I have got me an heir to my estates! Aye, a boy!” Baby George, or “Bouse” as Mary affectionately nicknamed him, grew quickly and the new mother soon realized she had her hands full. She wrote to her mother, “If his energies can only be well directed, they may be the means of much usefulness. But I already shrink from the responsibility. It requires so much firmness and consistency to train up a child in the right way…”
Mary’s days were filled with sewing, cleaning, and cooking. Even so, she found occasional time to read and paint. Life at Old Point Comfort was becoming palatable. She even found time to tend to the black children in the fort who were not permitted to worship in the chapel. She opened her home to them and taught Bible classes. She also used her own money to purchase Catechism books for the slaves located at the garrison.
In 1833, the Lees spent their first Christmas apart. Mary returned to Arlington with Bouse while Robert remained at the fort where he was needed. Even though the holiday was dismal for both, January brought good tidings when Robert received news that his next duty station would be Washington. Mary was thrilled at the prospect of being so close to home and actually moved back into Arlington while Robert rented a room closer to his office in the city. He initially feared that Mary’s attachment to Arlington would create more problems but strangely, he felt himself becoming very attached to the home too. Even so, he disliked his desk position in Washington and shortly thereafter asked for, and was granted, a transfer. He was assigned to an expedition team that would survey the boundary between Ohio and Michigan.
By this time, Mary, or “May” as Robert was now calling her, was seven months pregnant with their second child. Robert was away when their second child, a girl named Mary Custis Lee, was born on July 12, 1835. Shortly after the birth, Mary became ill once again. Unable to care for the baby, she sent a letter to her husband asking that he return at once. She omitted the details of her ailing health and Robert, not knowing the severity of her condition, brushed aside her request and instead chastised her selfishness. In the meantime, she’d grown weaker, lost her appetite, remained feverish, and developed a chronic stiffness in her legs that was diagnosed as “rheumatic diatheses.” Her inner thighs swelled with abscesses and within weeks, she was completely bedridden. She wasn’t expected to live and by the time Robert returned to Washington, he was shocked to find her so close to death. She was pale, emaciated, listless and in constant pain. It wasn’t until weeks later she began to slowly improve. Robert’s worry began to ease up when she began eating again. He wrote to a friend, “May gets better every day…Her appetite is famous and the partridges, buckwheat muffins and etc. disappear at breakfast as fast as the pheasants, chickens and etc at dinner.” But her good health was short-lived and within a few months she was bedridden again with pain and swelling in her ears followed by fever and headache. Robert finally resigned himself to the fact that Mary would require extra care with her health. He suggested she travel to Warrenton Springs, located along the Blue Ridge Mountains, where she could bathe in the springs that contained chemicals said to alleviate symptoms of arthritis and rheumatism. Mary did so and as her health returned, she learned she was pregnant with their third child. She also learned that Robert’s next assignment was miles from Arlington.
It was St. Louis
William Henry Fitzhugh Lee 1860s photo / Wikimedia Commons
On May 30, 1837, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee was born at Arlington and two weeks later, Robert was off to St Louis. It wasn’t until Christmas of that year the Lees were all reunited at Arlington that Robert expressed his loneliness and asked Mary to return with him to St. Louis. She did so. While there, she began writing a book on the life of George Washington all the while keeping the house and raising the children-which was quite a feat considering the children were requiring so much of her time and energy. She wrote to her mother about “Rooney,” her nickname for the newest member of the family, “[He is] the most mischievous and cunning little fellow you ever saw…Excuse this very stupid and unconnected letter, for Rooney is playing around me pulling my pens, paper and ink and now it trying to throw his Papa’s hat out the window.”
A few weeks later, Mary learned she was pregnant with their fourth child. A return trip to Arlington was in order. Anne Carter Lee, named after Robert’s mother, was born on June 18, 1839 at Arlington. Anne had been born with a large red birthmark on her cheek that worried Mary. Robert on the other hand used the blemish to provide a nickname for his youngest. He called her “little raspberry.” Within a few short weeks, Mary fell into a predictable routine at Arlington with the children. She held classes for her two oldest in the very room in which she was schooled as a child. Mealtimes were shared with her children and her parents, followed by a prayer service given by Mary’s mother. After the children were put to bed, Mary would spend her time reading, sewing, or writing letters to her husband.
Although she was content at Arlington raising her children, she was aware that something was missing-Robert. He was also growing weary of their separation and expressed the following in a letter to her: “This is a terrible kind of life we lead, Molly, unsatisfactory, profitless & irksome…” Robert found himself back in Washington a few months later when a national depression cut off funding for the St. Louis project he had been working on. The Lees rejoiced in their reunion. Robert, having been separated from his children for much of their young lives, was especially touched at this point in his life. He recalled one afternoon, after having played outdoors with the children, that he and little Custis had taken a walk through the woods. Robert was deeply affected when he’d turned to find Custis stretching to place his feet into each of his father’s footprints as they walked. Robert later wrote, “It behooves me to walk very straight, when the little fellow is already following in my tracks.”
Contentment in New York
On February 27, 1841, Eleanor Agnes Lee was born at Arlington and shortly thereafter, the family prepared to move to Robert’s new duty station: New York. By this time, Mary’s hands were full with raising the children, a task she continually struggled with and felt a failure. She felt Robert was disappointed with her inability to effectively parent the children. A couple of times, Robert tried to enlist the aid of Mary’s mother to give her guidance on raising the children. Of course, in all fairness to Mary, Robert was never around long enough to parent the children himself and usually did so by way of letter. If anything, Mary should have been praised for her child-rearing efforts-all the while suffering physical ailments. The ensuing years included many return trips to Arlington, and more illnesses for Mary.
On October 27, 1843, Robert Edward Lee Jr was born and by 1845, the family was separating again, but this time it was the children leaving the home to head to boarding school. Mary grew fond of New York and for the first time, enjoyed spending Christmas away from Arlington. She wrote to her mother that it was, “a day of great enjoyment to the young ones…The children were awake at 4 o-clock this morning discussing the contents of their stockings & could not be induced to sleep again so that I feel pretty tired tonight.” She was seven months pregnant at the time. Mildred Childe Lee, named after Robert’s sister, was born on February 10, 1846. The seventh pregnancy had taken its toll on Mary and she was again bed-ridden for several months. In May, when Congress declared war on Mexico, Robert asked for and received field duty. Mary and the children returned to Arlington once again, this time to wait out the end of the war…
The War Years
As Mary moved into the later stages of her life, it’s clear she refused to let her poor health keep her from tending to the needs of her family and friends. Always suffering from constant pain, she went about her life with an unwavering faith in God, a strong love and commitment to her husband and children, and a genuine desire to ease the pain and discomfort of those around her—even when there was seldom any relief for her own physical suffering. During her idle time after the Civil War, which was rare, Arlington was foremost in her mind and she wondered if she would ever get to see her childhood home again…
The New Lady of Arlington
Cadets on the West Point campus in 1863 / Public Domain
The main difficulty Mary experienced while her husband was off fighting in the War with Mexico was the task of solely caring for all her children; however, the fact that they were back at Arlington made the task a bit easier. After the war, Mary was excited to learn Robert’s next post was West Point; a blessing that meant the Lees would be close to Custis who was now in his second year at the academy. They were no sooner settled in their quarters in New York that Mary received word that her mother was dying. She immediately left for Arlington but didn’t arrive in time to bid her mother goodbye. Her mother’s passing left her father in deep mourning and Mary knew he was in no condition to see to the funeral arrangements and as she had so often done in the past, she squared her shoulders and took the heavy burden upon herself. She became a pillar of strength as the household fell apart. She was now the new Lady of Arlington.
Shortly after the funeral, Mary returned to West Point where she became popular among the cadets who enjoyed her doting and motherly affection. Some of the students she grew fond of included: Jeb Stuart, John Pegram, and Otis Howard. In 1854, she was pleased when Custis graduated first in his class from West Point. By this time, Rooney was attending Harvard College, having failed to receive an appointment to West Point. No sooner had Mary fallen into a comfortable routine, the family was uprooted once again as Robert accepted a field command in Texas. He dutifully escorted his family back to Arlington and prior to his departure, Mary’s father presented him with George Washington’s service sword. It was during that visit that Robert noted the disarray of the Arlington finances and worked tirelessly to bring order to the books in the short amount of time he had before reporting to Texas. When it was time for him to leave, he turned the task over to Mary and later wrote to her concerning her additional duties: “As regards your household arrangements & what concerns your father’s comfort & welfare, as well as your own, you must yourself act & not rely on him or wait on me.” Not only was she raising the children and overseeing the household, she was now responsible for the finances of Arlington, as well as all of the other properties her father owned.
During that year, Mary’s health deteriorated and she suffered more bouts of swelling, stiffness and pain. Walking became difficult and climbing the steps near impossible. Much of the time she was confined to her bed. But although her health was failing, she kept up current events, especially politics—it was an election year. Many topics were being debated, especially concerning slavery. She was still opposed to the institution, a view that was in disagreement with her husband which is evident in a letter he penned to her in December of that year: “…The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instructions as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things…”
Mary made a difficult journey to the springs in Berkley hoping to find some relief from her pain and suffering. When she returned to Arlington, she found her father had taken quite ill. They had a few days together before he died on October 10 with Mary at his bedside. Robert immediately asked for, and was granted, two months leave to oversee his father-in-law’s estate. While Robert grappled with finances that included decades of poor financial decisions and poor record keeping, Mary, having stumbled upon her father’s memoirs of his days growing up at Mount Vernon, organized the papers and arranged them into a book. Her crippling disease made the task difficult and painful, but she was persistent.
In 1859, she completed the project and it was published shortly thereafter under the title Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, by his Adopted Son George Washington Parke Custis, with a Memoir of this Author by his Daughter. It received favorable reviews. Mary inherited Arlington House and its 1,100 acres, as well as the slaves that were, according to the will, to be freed within five years of Custis’ death. She also inherited a mill and other property owned by Custis located in Alexandra and Fairfax counties. The will also contained a provision that when she died, everything would be passed on to her son Custis. Rooney inherited White House plantation, and Romancoke was willed to Rob. Mary’s daughters received $10,000 a piece that was to be drawn from the plantation proceeds. Unfortunately, the plantation wasn’t profitable. Robert’s two-month leave to bring order to Arlington’s finances turned in to two years. When his leave was up, instead of returning to Texas immediately, he was assigned to Harper’s Ferry where he oversaw the capture and execution of John Brown.
East front of Custis Lee Mansion with Union Soldiers on lawn / National Archives and Records Administration
When the Confederate States of America was formed, Mary wrote to her daughter Mildred who was away: “With a sad and heavy heart, my dear child, I write, for the prospects before are sad indeed. And as I think both parties are in the wrong in this fractricidal war there is nothing comforting even in the hope that God may prosper the right, for I see no right in this matter. We can only pray that in His mercy He will spare us.” At the same time Lincoln was sending out the call for 75,000 volunteers, he also offered command of the volunteer troops to Robert. Mary remembered how her husband had paced the gardens at Arlington waiting for the answer to come to him—it finally did. He tendered his resignation one day prior to Virginia’s secession, then accepted a commission from Virginia Governor John Letcher as a major general and commander in chief.
Fearful Washingtonians demanded that Arlington be confiscated from the traitorous Lees, alleging that the land would be a perfect location for a Confederate attack against the city. Robert urged Mary to leave Arlington, but she wasn’t ready. However, she did pack up the most treasured of the family heirlooms and send them to storage at various locations. She solely took to this task as her children were not at Arlington: Rooney was with his wife at White House and Annie was visiting to help with their newborn, Rob and Mildred were at school, and daughter Mary and Agnes were at Ravensworth.
Using her crutches, Mary walked the gardens trying to absorb the beauty around her, as though she knew her days at Arlington were numbered. After several warnings from friends and relatives that she should leave Arlington, she decided to heed their words and left for Ravensworth, escorted by Custis who had just received a commission in the Virginia Army. Shortly after settling in, Mary received a letter from Robert, dated May 13, 1861: “Make your plans for several years of war. If Virginia is invaded…the main routes through the country will, in all probability, be infested and passage interrupted. The times are indeed calamitous…” As weeks passed, Robert urged her to seek refuge deeper into the Confederacy.
During the Battle of First Bull Run, she was close enough to hear the artillery fire. Afterwards, she helped nurse the wounded. In her spare time, she wrote to her husband and always included a pair of hand-knitted socks—regardless of how much pain and discomfort the task brought. Mary traveled to White House plantation to stay with Charlotte, Rooney’s wife, who was now pregnant with their second child. There, she heard many accounts of Arlington’s fate—how buildings had been dismantled for fire wood, crops destroyed, animals stolen, and family heirlooms taken and put on display at the Patent Office. Robert knew of Mary’s distress and wrote to her: “Even if the enemy had wished to preserve [Arlington], it would almost have been impossible. With the number of troops encamped around it, the change of officers, the want of fuel, shelter, & etc., all the dire necessities of war, it is vain to think of its being in a habitable condition. I fear, too, books, furniture, & the relics of Mt Vernon will be gone. It is better to make up our minds to a general loss. They cannot take away the remembrances of the spot & the memories of those that to us rendered it sacred. That will remain to us as long as life will last…”
Robert was still not satisfied with the safety of her location and urged Mary to seek refuge deeper into the Confederacy. At first she refused, but after ending up behind enemy lines, she acquiesced and asked for an escort to lead her back into the Confederacy and Union General McClellan approved the move and secured a pass for her. Once back in the Confederacy, she was briefly reunited with her husband who was surprised by her crippled state. In the summer of ’62, Mary’s grandson Rob (Rooney and Charlotte’s child) was taken ill and died in Warrenton, NC where Charlotte had taken him to recuperate at the mineral baths. Mary went to comfort Charlotte, who had yet to deliver her second child, but was called away quickly when she learned that Annie was ill with typhoid fever. She traveled to Warrenton Springs and later wrote of the event:
“…[Annie’s] hands too cold & clammy. I sent for the doctor, but he did not seem so alarmed as I was…After 12 o’clock, she seemed not to notice who was around her & never called me, which she was apt to do frequently during the night. Her eyes were raised to the ceiling & her breath became more labored. Toward day we found she could not swallow the brandy. The Dr. came & said her pulse was scarcely perceptible & she lay quietly, her life ebbing away, with her hand warm & soft in my bosom, till at 7 o’clock all was still.”
Only twenty-three years old, Anne Carter Lee passed away. Mary’s sorrows continued when a few weeks later, Charlotte gave birth to a sickly daughter that died shortly thereafter. Mary made the difficult journey back to Charlotte’s side to comfort her, even though she was now almost completely immobile due to her crippling disease. Still, when not tending to the needs of others, she spent every waking moment knitting socks for the soldiers and even nursed Rooney back to health after he’d been shot in the leg during the Battle of Brandy Station before he was removed from the house by a Federal posse and taken prisoner of war.
When things settled down, Mary made arrangements to be moved to a small house located on East Leigh Street in Richmond. A few days prior to Christmas that year, Robert and Custis made a surprise visit; although Robert returned to be with his troops for Christmas. Charlotte, still grieving the loss of two children, died Christmas Eve. As she lay on her deathbed, Custis, now a brigadier general, offered himself to the Federals for 48 hours; just long enough for Rooney to come to his wife as she lay dying. The federals refused. Rooney remained a prisoner of war until he was exchanged in a prisoner exchange in 1864.
On January 11, 1864, property taxes on Arlington became delinquent and it ended up on the auction block at Alexandria Courthouse where it sold to the U.S. Government for a mere bid of $26,800. Prior to the delinquency, Mary sent her cousin Phillip Fendall to pay the tax; however the tax commissioner refused the payment, citing the owner must pay in person. The government knew of Mary’s ailing health and her inability to make the journey, as well as the fact she was the wife of the commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia. The government was quite sure Mary Custis Lee would not be returning to Alexandria to pay the tax.
In 1865, as the Yankees threatened to overtake Richmond, residents were packing up their valuables and fleeing the city—everyone, save Mary. Instead, she and her daughters bolted their doors and windows and prepared to defend themselves. While hunkered down, they heard the explosions of the Confederate vessels in the river as well as the earth-moving booms of the powder magazine blowing up. Flames spread to the houses of the city and as the fire neared her own home, Union General Godfrey Weitzel approved a neighbor’s request for an ambulance to take Mary to a safe place. Mary refused. Just as the flames threatened to engulf her home, the wind shifted and her house was secured. When the Yankees fully occupied the city, a Union sentry was placed at her door for her safety. Although it was the enemy guarding her, Mary saw to it the sentry was well-fed.
On Sunday, April 9, she was startled to hear the sound of a cannon and later learned it was artillery fired to mark the end of the war. Robert E. Lee had surrendered. On Saturday, April 15, Robert and Rooney found their way home to Mary. With the war over, Mary petitioned the federal government to return her property—they refused. By this time, her health was so deteriorated she was unable to travel or move about on her own. She needed constant care.
Her son Rob wrote of her condition: “She was a great invalid from rheumatism, and had to be lifted wherever she moved. When put in her wheel-chair, she could propel herself on a level floor, or could move about her room very slowly and with great difficulty on her crutches, but she was always bright, sunny-tempered, and uncomplaining, constantly occupied with her books, letter, knitting, and painting…”
Engraving of Mary Anna Custis Lee, 1854 / Library of Congress
In September, 1865, Robert accepted the position of president of financially-ailing Washington College in Lexington, VA and journeyed to Lexington to set up housekeeping. Custis received a position at VMI, Rob and Rooney continued rebuilding White House, which had been burned to the ground by the Yankees, daughter Mary traveled, and Agnes and Mildred stayed behind to care for their mother. Mary’s first task was to oversee the unearthing of the Washington treasures buried for safekeeping before the war. She was disheartened to find that the Washington letters and papers had been inadvertently exposed to the elements over the years and were rotted. None could be salvaged and she took to the task of burning them herself.
“I almost wept as I had to commit to the flames papers that had been cherished for nearly a century…”
The silver was recovered, as well as the Washington carpets and Mary was pleased to display those items in her new home in Lexington where she was an admired hostess. In 1869, President Johnson authorized the return to Mary of all the personal property that had been removed from Arlington; however, Congress stepped in and concluded the articles were “the property of the Father of his country, and as such are the property of the whole people and should not be committed to the custody of any one person, much less a rebel like General Lee.”
With that news, Mary’s hope of ever having any of her treasures returned died. Her joy was found in sitting on the front porch in the cool evening with Robert when they would bask in the beauty and calm that surrounded them. Through this time together, Mary was able to see the slow decline in Robert’s health. One evening, as Robert had returned from a church meeting, he placed his hat and coat in his room and entered the dining room. Mary became alarmed at his appearance and called to Custis to assist his father. He was immediately put to bed and slept almost continuously for two days and nights. At first, the doctor felt that Robert simply needed a rest, but after he failed to improve Mary stayed at his bedside, knowing the end was near. She wrote of his passing: “We all sat up all night every moment almost expecting to be his last. He lay breathing most heavily & the Dr. said entirely unconscious of pain. I sat with his hand in mine all moist with heavy perspiration & early in the morning and went into my room to change my clothes & get a cup of tea. When I went back he lay in much the same condition, only there were some more severe struggles for breath—these became more frequent and intense & after 2 very severe ones, his breath seemed to pass away gently, & he so loved & admired now lies cold & insensible…”
Mary’s incapacitating disease made it impossible for her to attend the October 15 funeral service for Robert. Instead, she remained at home and reread letters that Robert had sent to her during their courtship and early on in their marriage. The days passed and Mary received hundreds of condolences from across the country. With her health still deteriorating, her heart ached even more for one last look at Arlington. In June 1873, with the help of many individuals, she made the return trip to Arlington.
“I rode out to my dear old home, so changed it seemed but as a dream of the past. I could not have realized that it was Arlington but for the few old oaks they had spared, & the trees planted on the lawn by the Gen’l & myself which are raising their tall branches to the Heaven which seems to smile on the desecration around them.”
Mary was unable to exit the carriage, but was delighted when old servants still at Arlington came to see her. When it was time to leave, she didn’t look back. Mary returned to Lexington in time to sit at Agnes’ deathbed and Mary, tired in body and spirit, drew her last breath in her sleep on Wednesday, November 5, 1873. With her passing, Custis took to fighting for the return of Arlington and in 1882 the Supreme Court ruled that Arlington had indeed been illegally taken and ordered it returned to the family. Custis, the legal heir, had no desire to live among dead and sold it to the government for $150,000, half its estimated value. In 1901, President McKinley ordered all the Washington artifacts taken during the course of the war be returned to the family. Mary Custis Lee could now rest in peace.
Originally published by eHistory at The Ohio State University under a Creative Commons license.