A Lee descendant finds two long-lost trunks full of family memorabilia in a Virginia bank vault
Stumbling across long-forgotten steamer trunks crammed with family memorabilia can excite the history buff in anyone. But when the trunks belong to Mary Custis Lee, the eldest daughter of General Robert E. Lee, and contain a treasure trove of documents and artifacts about her father and other members of her illustrious family spanning more than two centuries, that’s when historians take notice. And now, this collection is open to the public.
The discovery occurred in 2002, as Robert E. L. deButts, Jr., the great-great-grandson of Robert E. Lee, conducted family research. A commercial and securities lawyer in New York who bears a striking resemblance to the formidable general with his flinty eyes and broad expanse of forehead, deButts had queried Burke & Herbert Bank & Trust in Alexandria, Virginia, to see if they retained any financial records of his great-grandaunt, Mary Custis Lee. After the Civil War ended, Mary spent much of her life traveling abroad, and used the bank as a permanent address. As the officers of the family-owned bank checked their inventory, they decided to look in their rarely used “silver vault,” which safeguards items too large for safe-deposit boxes. A pair of dusty wooden steamer trunks caught their eye, the larger one bearing a piece of tin patching and the unmistakable stenciled letters, “M. Lee.”
DeButts came south immediately and together they unlocked the trunks, unopened at least since Mary Custis’ death 84 years before, and discovered more than 4,000 yellowed letters, postcards, documents, photographs, and artifacts. DeButts brought the contents to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, which houses the nation’s largest collection of Lee papers, and started sorting. Turns out, says Lee Shepard, the Society’s senior archivist, that Mary Custis “was the unofficial family archivist and also a bit of a pack rat.” One envelope contained three cloth stars of gold thread, identified in a note as those that Lee cut off his uniform after his surrender to Grant at Appomattox.
The earliest letter in the trunks dates to 1694, a letter from John Custis II, the family’s first English immigrant, to merchants back home discussing the tobacco crop and the shipbuilding business on the Eastern Shore, valuable details, says Shepard, for future researchers. Also amidst the letters is an unusual 1766 manifest of 266 African American slaves owned by John Parke Custis, the stepson of George Washington. There are accounts from the 1760s and 1770s kept by George Washington; an 1860 letter from Robert E. Lee to the Secretary of War about relations between Mexico and the U.S.; an 1872 letter from a former slave at Arlington House to Lee’s wife; postcards and mementos from around the world acquired by Mary Custis; and the correspondence of Lee’s mother-in-law, Mary Fitzhugh Custis, an anti-slavery activist in the upper South.
The letters written by Robert E. Lee add exciting new dimensions to the man, showing a complexity of character and emotional conflict rarely associated with someone too often portrayed as a stone icon, notes Elizabeth Brown Pryor, a Lee biographer and the first scholar to read dozens of the private and revealing missives. “This material shows him not as a simple Christian gentleman but as far more complex, problematic, witty, wickedly funny, and baffled at times.” She read two dozen letters from Lt. Robert Lee to his fiancée, Mary Custis—all delightfully colored by the irreverence and passion of an impatient young man.
There are family letters that give life to Lee’s experience in the Mexican War. His grief over the loss of Arlington House is palpable in a Christmas 1861 letter to his daughter Mary: “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.”
The collection also includes several hesitant attempts by Lee to chronicle his military actions in the Civil War. The documents contain few battlefield secrets—their most revealing aspect, says Pryor, is Lee’s avoidance of candid assessment, evidence perhaps either of optimistic resilience or delusion. He wrote his daughter on September 23, 1862, just after the Sharpsburg campaign. “We had two hard fought battles in Maryland and did not consider ourselves beaten as our enemies suppose. 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.” Brave words in the wake of a campaign that caused a quarter of his army to desert—and enabled Abraham Lincoln to seize the moral high ground and issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
At other times, Lee’s letters are unselfconscious and expressive. Early in the war, as the South’s fortunes surged, Lee wrote a sentimental Christmas letter to Mary: “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 . . . “
Anguish creeps in as the war progresses, especially when he hears in November 1862 of the death of his 23-year-old daughter Anne of typhoid fever. He wrote his wife, “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 had ended, that I should have her with me. But year after year my hopes go out and I must be resigned.”
Grim foreboding comes in the Lee’s handwritten original draft of the 1863 General Order notifying his troops of the death of General Stonewall Jackson, the brilliant Confederate tactician upon whom Lee depended. Generals usually dictated orders, says Shepard, so the fact that he handwrote this one indicates that he understood the full import of Jackson’s death for the Southern cause.
According to Pryor, perhaps the most significant Robert E. lee materials in the trunks are unfinished post-war essays he wrote on the government, war, and the evils of majority rule. The traditional view of Lee holds that he held no rancor in his heart after the war and altogether transcended the whole cataclysmic experience of war, perhaps an impression given by the great dignity in which he carried himself. These essays, however, expose Lee’s bitter struggle to reconcile himself to defeat and its disastrous results for the South, as well as his oral dilemma over having chosen that side.
What comes through most strongly in Lee’s writings is his humanity. In a letter to his wife-to-be, long before the Civil War would rip him and the nation apart, Lee’s words are those of a love struck young engineer who can’t wait to see her. In his letter of September 11, 1830, he rather comically describes the reaction of his family members to news of his engagement. “Both parties gradually approached the place where I was standing, and just as the storm seemed ready to burst upon my innocent head I bolted from the house & took refuse in the laundry. I just escaped in time, for hardly had I closed the door, when the whole building rung with the shouts and clamour of the enraged combatants.”
Most of Lee’s 21 love letters to Mary are published in a special edition of the Virginia Historical Society’s Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (Vol. 115, Issue 4, 2007). See also Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (Viking 2007).