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What Robert E. Lee Wrote to The Times About Slavery in 1858
One day in January, a few years before the Civil War, Robert E. Lee wrote to The New York Times, seeking a correction.
The man who would become the top Confederate general was trying to set the record straight about the slaves on his wife’s estate in Virginia, and about the last wishes of a dying slave owner.
He wrote that the people enslaved on his family’s property, in what was then known as Alexandria County, were not “being sold South,” as had been reported. And he implied that he would free them within five years.
The letter is one of many written by Lee that sheds slivers of light on his thoughts about slavery. Historians have clashed — and are clashing still — over the strength of his support for the system of forced labor that kept millions of people in bondage for generations.
Now that statues of Lee and other Confederate leaders are the focus of an intensely heated national debate, the issue is an especially pertinent one.
“He was not a pro-slavery ideologue,” Eric Foner, a Civil War historian, author and professor of history at Columbia University, said of Lee. “But I think equally important is that, unlike some white southerners, he never spoke out against slavery.”
When Lee wrote his letter to The Times, he was an accomplished United States Army officer acting as the executor of his father-in-law’s will. His wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee, a descendant of Martha Washington, had recently inherited her father’s estate, Arlington House, along with the slaves who lived there.
In his will, Ms. Lee’s father, George Washington Parke Custis, said his slaves should be freed five years after his death.
But an article that was first published by The Boston Traveller and reprinted in The Times on Dec. 30, 1857, contended that the slaves “will be consigned to hopeless Slavery unless something can be done” because Mr. Custis’s heirs did not want to free them.Image
It also said that Mr. Custis, while dying, told his slaves that they should be freed immediately, rather than five years on.
Lee challenged that account. In his letter to The Times, he said that “there is no desire on the part of the heirs to prevent the execution” of the will. And he said Mr. Custis, who was “constantly attended” by family members during his final days, had never been heard granting immediate freedom to his slaves.
The Times published Lee’s letter on Jan. 8, 1858, (though the letter itself, written shortly after New Year’s, appears to be mistakenly dated 1857) and said it was “glad” to be corrected on the matter.
The war came three years later.
Lee joined the secessionists in April 1861. He left Arlington House, and the estate was eventually overtaken by Union soldiers. (The dead were buried in its grounds, which would later become the site of Arlington National Cemetery.) Over the course of the conflict, many slaves were hired out or escaped the property.
In 1862, in accordance with Mr. Custis’s will, Lee filed a deed of manumission to free the slaves at Arlington House and at two more plantations Mr. Custis had owned, individually naming more than 150 of them. And in January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all people held as slaves in the rebelling states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
Of all the letters by Lee that have been collected by archivists and historians over the years, one of the most famous was written to his wife in 1856. “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country,” he wrote.
But he added that slavery was “a greater evil to the white man than to the black race” in the United States, and that the “painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction.”
The 1857 article in The Times noted that slaves’ own voices were missing from the story of Mr. Custis’s dying wishes. It said that when he told his slaves they would be freed, “no white man was in the room, and the testimony of negroes will not be taken in Court.”
But years later, in 1866, one former slave at Arlington House, Wesley Norris, gave his testimony to the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Mr. Norris said that he and others at Arlington were indeed told by Mr. Custis they would be freed upon his death, but that Lee had told them to stay for five more years.
So Mr. Norris said he, a sister and a cousin tried to escape in 1859, but were caught. “We were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty,” he said.
And when the overseer declined to wield the lash, a constable stepped up, Mr. Norris said. He added that Lee had told the constable to “lay it on well.”
Dr. Foner said that after the war, Lee did not support rights for black citizens, such as the right to vote, and was largely silent about violence perpetrated by white supremacists during Reconstruction.
The general did, however, object to the idea of raising Confederate monuments, writing in 1869 that it would be wiser “not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife.”
Robert E. Lee
Born to Revolutionary War hero Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee in Stratford Hall, Virginia, Robert Edward Lee seemed destined for military greatness. Despite financial hardship that caused his father to depart to the West Indies, young Robert secured an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated second in the class of 1829. Two years later, he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, a descendant of George Washington's adopted son, John Parke Custis. Yet with all his military pedigree, Lee had not set foot on a battlefield. Instead, he served seventeen years as an officer in the Corps of Engineers, supervising and inspecting the construction of the nation's coastal defenses. Service during the 1846 war with Mexico, however, changed that. As a member of General Winfield Scott's staff, Lee distinguished himself, earning three brevets for gallantry, and emerging from the conflict with the rank of colonel.
From 1852 to 1855, Lee served as superintendent of West Point, and was therefore responsible for educating many of the men who would later serve under him - and those who would oppose him - on the battlefields of the Civil War. In 1855 he left the academy to take a position in the cavalry and in 1859 was called upon to put down abolitionist John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry.
Because of his reputation as one of the finest officers in the United States Army, Abraham Lincoln offered Lee the command of the Federal forces in April 1861. Lee declined and tendered his resignation from the army when the state of Virginia seceded on April 17, arguing that he could not fight against his own people. Instead, he accepted a general’s commission in the newly formed Confederate Army. His first military engagement of the Civil War occurred at Cheat Mountain, Virginia (now West Virginia) on September 11, 1861. It was a Union victory but Lee’s reputation withstood the public criticism that followed. He served as military advisor to President Jefferson Davis until June 1862 when he was given command of the wounded General Joseph E. Johnston's embattled army on the Virginia peninsula.
Lee renamed his command the Army of Northern Virginia, and under his direction it would become the most famous and successful of the Confederate armies. This same organization also boasted some of the Confederacy's most inspiring military figures, including James Longstreet, Stonewall Jackson and the flamboyant cavalier J.E.B. Stuart. With these trusted subordinates, Lee commanded troops that continually manhandled their blue-clad adversaries and embarrassed their generals no matter what the odds.
Yet despite foiling several attempts to seize the Confederate capital, Lee recognized that the key to ultimate success was a victory on Northern soil. In September 1862, he launched an invasion into Maryland with the hope of shifting the war's focus away from Virginia. But when a misplaced dispatch outlining the invasion plan was discovered by Union commander George McClellan the element of surprise was lost, and the two armies faced off at the battle of Antietam. Though his plans were no longer a secret, Lee nevertheless managed to fight McClellan to a stalemate on September 17, 1862. Following the bloodiest one-day battle of the war, heavy casualties compelled Lee to withdraw under the cover of darkness. The remainder of 1862 was spent on the defensive, parrying Union thrusts at Fredericksburg and, in May of the following year, Chancellorsville.
The masterful victory at Chancellorsville gave Lee great confidence in his army, and the Rebel chief was inspired once again to take the fight to enemy soil. In late June of 1863, he began another invasion of the North, meeting the Union host at the crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. For three days Lee assailed the Federal army under George G. Meade in what would become the most famous battle of the entire war. Accustomed to seeing the Yankees run in the face of his aggressive troops, Lee attacked strong Union positions on high ground. This time, however, the Federals wouldn't budge. The Confederate war effort reached its high water mark on July 3, 1863 when Lee ordered a massive frontal assault against Meade's center, spear-headed by Virginians under Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett. The attack known as Pickett's charge was a failure and Lee, recognizing that the battle was lost, ordered his army to retreat. Taking full responsibility for the defeat, he wrote Jefferson Davis offering his resignation, which Davis refused to accept.
After the simultaneous Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Mississippi, Ulysses S. Grant assumed command of the Federal armies. Rather than making Richmond the aim of his campaign, Grant chose to focus the myriad resources at his disposal on destroying Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. In a relentless and bloody campaign, the Federal juggernaut bludgeoned the under-supplied Rebel band. In spite of his ability to make Grant pay in blood for his aggressive tactics, Lee had been forced to yield the initiative to his adversary, and he recognized that the end of the Confederacy was only a matter of time. By the summer of 1864, the Confederates had been forced into waging trench warfare outside of Petersburg. Though President Davis named the Virginian General-in-Chief of all Confederate forces in February 1865, only two months later, on April 9, 1865, Lee was forced to surrender his weary and depleted army to Grant at Appomattox Court House, effectively ending the Civil War.
Lee returned home on parole and eventually became the president of Washington College in Virginia (now known as Washington and Lee University). He remained in this position until his death on October 12, 1870 in Lexington, Virginia.
The mansion was built on the orders of George Washington Parke Custis, the step-grandson and adopted son of George Washington and only grandson of Martha Custis Washington. Custis became a prominent resident of an area that was then known as Alexandria County, at the time a part of the District of Columbia.
Arlington House was built at a high point on a 1,100-acre (445 ha) estate that Custis's father, John Parke Custis, had purchased in 1778 and named "Mount Washington"  ("Jacky" Custis died in 1781 at Yorktown after the British surrender). The younger Custis decided to build his home on the property in 1802 following the death of Martha Washington and three years after the death of George Washington. After acquiring the property, Custis renamed it "Arlington" after the Custis family's homestead on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. 
Almost immediately, Custis began constructing Arlington House on his land. Hiring George Hadfield as architect, he constructed a mansion exhibiting the first example of Greek Revival architecture in America.  Custis intended the mansion to serve as a living memorial to George Washington and a place for his collection of George Washington artifacts. Its design included elements similar to those of George Washington's house, Mount Vernon. 
Construction began in 1803, eleven years after L'Enfant's Plan for the future "Federal City" (later called "Washington City", then Washington D.C.) had designated an area directly across the Potomac River to be the site of the "President's House" (later called the "Executive Mansion", now the White House) and the "Congress House" (now the United States Capitol). Custis located the building on a prominent hill overlooking the Georgetown-Alexandria Turnpike (at the approximate location of the present Eisenhower Drive in Arlington National Cemetery), the Potomac River and the growing Washington City on the opposite side of the river.  The mansion was built using materials on site, though the building was interrupted by the War of 1812 (and material shortages after the British burned the American capital city). The Custis mansion's exterior was completed in 1818. 
The north and south wings were completed in 1804. The large center section and the portico, presenting an imposing front 140 ft (43 m) long, were finished 13 years later. The house has two kitchens, a summer and a winter. The most prominent features of the house are the 8 massive columns of the portico, each 5 feet (1.5 m) in diameter.
Guests at the house included such notable people as Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, who visited in 1824 (see: Visit of the Marquis de Lafayette to the United States). At Arlington, Custis experimented with new methods of animal husbandry and other agriculture. The property also included Arlington Spring, a picnic ground on the banks of the Potomac that Custis originally built for private use but later opened to the public, eventually operating it as a commercial enterprise.
Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh. Their only child to survive to adulthood was Mary Anna Randolph Custis. Robert E. Lee, whose mother was a cousin of Mrs. Custis, frequently visited Arlington and knew Mary Anna as they grew up. Two years after graduating from West Point, Lieutenant Lee married Mary Anna Custis at Arlington on June 30, 1831. For 30 years Arlington House was home to the Lees. They spent much of their married life traveling between United States Army duty stations and Arlington, where six of their seven children were born. They shared this home with Mary's parents. After their deaths, Mary's parents were buried not far from the house on land that is now part of Arlington National Cemetery.
The Custises extensively developed the Arlington estate. Much of the steep slope to the east of the house became a cultivated English landscape park, while a large flower garden with an arbor was constructed and planted south of the house. To the west of Arlington House, tall grass and low native plants led down a slope into a natural area of close-growing trees the Custises called "the Grove."  About 60 feet (18 m) to the west of the flower garden, "the Grove" contained tall elm and oak trees which formed a canopy. An informal flower garden was planted beneath the trees and maintained by the Custis daughters.  It is not clear when "the Grove" began to be developed, but it was under way by at least 1853. 
Upon George Washington Parke Custis's death in 1857, he left the Arlington estate to Mary Custis Lee for her lifetime and thence to the Lees' eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee. The estate needed much repair and reorganization, and Robert E. Lee, as executor of Custis's will, took a three-year leave of absence from the Army to begin the necessary agricultural and financial improvements.
In April 1861, Virginia seceded from the United States. Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army on April 20, 1861, and joined the Confederate States Army.  With Arlington House on high ground overlooking the capital, the government of the United States knew it must occupy the mansion or be left in an untenable military position.  Although unwilling to leave Arlington House, Mary Lee believed her estate would soon be occupied by federal soldiers and left to stay with relatives on May 14, having been warned by her young cousin William Orton Williams, then serving as aide to General Winfield Scott.    Union Army troops seized and occupied Arlington without opposition on May 24. 
In June 1862, the 37th United States Congress enacted legislation that imposed a property tax on all land in "insurrectionary" areas of the United States.  The 1863 amendments to the statute required these taxes to be paid in person.   But Mary Lee, afflicted with severe rheumatoid arthritis and behind Confederate lines, could not pay the tax in person.  The Arlington estate was seized for nonpayment of taxes. It was auctioned off on January 11, 1864, and the U.S. government won the property for $26,800 ($453,095 today).  
During the war, Union Army troops cut down many of the trees on the Arlington estate, especially those to the north and east of Arlington House in and near Fort Whipple (north of the house) and Arlington Springs (near the Potomac River). However, a number of large trees remained, particularly those in a forested area (now known as Arlington Woods) west of the house. 
By early 1864, the military cemeteries of Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Virginia, were rapidly filling with war dead. Quartermaster General of the United States Army Montgomery C. Meigs proposed using 200 acres (81 ha) of the Arlington estate as a cemetery.  United States Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton approved the establishment of a military cemetery on June 15, 1864, creating Arlington National Cemetery.   Meigs believed that since Lee had committed treason in deciding to fight against the Union,  denying Lee use of the mansion after the war was a rough form of justice.  Meigs decided that a large number of burials should occur close to Arlington House to render it unlivable. Officers were to be buried next to the main flower garden south of the house, and the first burial occurred here on May 17.  Meigs ordered that additional burials commence immediately on the grounds of Arlington House in mid-June.  When Union officers bivouacked in the mansion complained and had the burials temporarily stopped, Meigs countermanded their orders and had another 44 dead officers buried along the southern and eastern sides of the main flower garden within a month. 
In September 1866, the remains of 2,111 Union and Confederate soldiers who died at the First Battle of Bull Run, Second Battle of Bull Run, and along the Rappahannock River were buried on the former site of "the Grove", southeast of the mansion, beneath the Civil War Unknowns Monument.  
Robert E. Lee made no attempt to visit or restore his title to Arlington before his death in 1870. Mary Lee died in 1873, having visited the house only one more time, a few months before her death. Too upset at its condition, she refused to enter and left after just a few moments. 
In April 1874, Robert E. Lee's eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, filed suit against the United States government in a Virginia circuit court to regain his property.   Custis Lee was a major general in the Civil War and was captured by Union forces at the Battle of Sailor's Creek on April 6, 1865 (see David Dunnels White). A jury found in favor of Custis Lee,  leading to extensive appeals by both parties. In 1882, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of Lee in United States v. Lee, 106 U. S. 196. The court, by a 5–4 majority, found that the estate had been "illegally confiscated" in 1864 and ordered it returned.    But Lee was less interested in obtaining the estate than he was in a cash compensation for its value. After several months of difficult negotiations, Lee and the federal government settled on a sale price of $150,000 ($4,166,250 in 2020 dollars).   Congress enacted legislation funding the purchase on March 3, 1883 Lee signed over the title on March 31 and the title transfer was recorded on May 14, 1883.  
In 1920, the Virginia General Assembly changed the name of Alexandria County to Arlington County to end ongoing confusion between Alexandria County and the independent city of Alexandria. The name Arlington was chosen to reflect the presence of the Arlington estate. 
On March 4, 1925, the 68th United States Congress enacted Public Resolution 74, which authorized the restoration of the Lee Mansion in the Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia.  The War Department then began to restore Arlington House, and the Department of the Army continues to manage over half of the original plantation's 1,100 acres (450 ha), as Arlington National Cemetery. However, for several years after Congress enacted the authorizing legislation, the War Department, which was responsible for managing the house and grounds, largely ignored the legislation. Contradicting the authorizing legislation, the Department, largely at the insistence of Charles Moore, the director of the United States Commission of Fine Arts, furnished and interpreted the Mansion to “the first half of the republic.” This decision was based, in part, on the popularity of the Colonial Revival movement which was still popular in 1925. The Mansion was restored to the period of George Washington Parke Custis, and no furniture manufactured after 1830 was accepted. This approach negated Lee's role and presence at Arlington.
In 1955, the 84th United States Congress enacted Public Law 84-107, a joint resolution that designated the manor as the "Custis-Lee Mansion" as a permanent memorial to Robert E. Lee. The resolution directed the United States Secretary of the Interior to erect on the premises a memorial plaque and to correct governmental records to bring them into compliance with the designation, "thus ensuring that the correct interpretation of its history would be applied".  Gradually the house was furnished and interpreted to the period of Robert E. Lee as specified in the original legislation.
The National Park Service received jurisdiction over the building and some 28 acres (11 ha) of adjacent gardens (distinguished from the cemetery) beginning June 10, 1933. 
In 1972, the 92nd United States Congress enacted Public Law 92-333, an Act that amended Public Law 84-107 to designate the manor as "Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial". 
One of the lesser known histories about Arlington House concerns the Gray family, who helped to preserve the legacy of George Washington Parke Custis as well as the Lee family. Selina Norris Gray, the daughter of Leonard and Sally Norris, was a second-generation Arlington slave.  In 1831, Selina married Thornton Gray, a fellow Arlington slave, and eventually had eight children who grew up at Arlington. With the onset of the Civil War, the Lee family had to evacuate their home before the Union troops came and occupied the property. Even though Selina was a personal maid to Mrs. Lee, she and her family were left behind however, before leaving, Mrs. Lee left the house keys to Selina and the responsibility to protect the treasures of the home. Several of these treasures included cherished family heirlooms that had once belonged to Mrs. Lee's great-grandmother, Martha Custis Washington, and President George Washington. 
Within months of Union Army General Irvin McDowell occupying the home in 1861, Selina realized that several precious heirlooms were missing due to soldiers looting the property. When she discovered that some of the Washington relics had also disappeared, she promptly provided a list of the missing objects to General McDowell and convinced him that the significance of the collection required his involvement. He first secured the attic and basement areas to prevent further theft, then had the remaining Lee heirlooms shipped to the Patent Office in Washington, D.C for safekeeping.  While Selina is credited with saving the heirlooms and treasures of Arlington House, her children later on are credited with helping to restore the home as well as provide accurate details about the layout of the home, personal stories of the Lee family, and help preservationists in the early twentieth century.
During major restorative efforts to Arlington House from 1929 to 1930, the Gray family made another important contribution to the history of Arlington County and the nation. Four of Selina and Thornton's daughters provided crucial details about the house and its furnishings, and their input proved vital to the authenticity of the project.  In 2014, the National Park Service acquired a rare photograph of Selina. 
Arlington National Cemetery expansion Edit
In 1995, officials of the United States Department of the Interior and the United States Department of the Army signed an agreement to transfer from Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, to the Army a part of Arlington Woods, which was located in Section 29 of the NPS at Arlington National Cemetery between Arlington House and Fort Myer.  The property transfer, which involved 12 acres (4.9 ha) of NPS land, was intended to enable the Cemetery to increase its space for burials.  
Environmentalists expressed concerns that the agreement would result in the partial destruction of the 24 acres (9.7 ha) remnant of an historically important stand of native trees.  Nevertheless, Congress enacted legislation in September 1996 authorizing the transfer.  
On June 5, 2013, after reviewing 100 public comments that it had received on a draft environmental assessment (EA) for the Cemetery expansion project, the United States Army Corps of Engineers released a final EA and a signed Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the project.   The final EA stated that, of the 905 trees to be removed, 771 trees were healthy native trees that had diameters between 6 and 41 inches.   The project would remove approximately 211 trees from a less than 2.63 acres (1.06 ha) area containing a portion of a 145-year-old forest that stood within the property boundaries of a historic district that a National Register of Historic Places nomination form for Arlington House had described in 1966.   About 491 trees would be removed from an area of trees that was approximately 105 years old.  At a public hearing on July 11, 2013, the National Capital Planning Commission approved the site and building plans for the project. 
Studies, damages and restorations Edit
From 2003 to 2007, the National Park Service conducted an archeological excavation of two outbuildings that once held Arlington House's slave quarters.  In 2009, the Park Service published reports that described the history of the slave quarters and the findings of the excavations, as well as proposals for the restoration of the quarters. 
From 2007 through 2013, Arlington House underwent its first renovation since 1925.  During that period, the National Park Services placed the House's furnishings on display at the Friendship Hill National Historic Site near Point Marion, Pennsylvania.  The Park Service held a rededication ceremony after it had completed the renovation and returned the furnishings to the House. 
Arlington House suffered significant damage in the 2011 Virginia earthquake, requiring the closure of the back halls and upper floor pending an architectural assessment.  On July 17, 2014, philanthropist David Rubenstein donated $12.5 million to the National Park Foundation (the arm of the National Park Service which raises funds through private contributions) to rehabilitate Arlington House, its outbuildings, and grounds. The 30-month project is intended to restore the mansion, buildings, and grounds to the way they looked in 1860. The project will repair the earthquake-damaged foundation, and add new interior lighting and a modern climate-control system. National Park Service officials said they are likely to close Arlington House and the slave quarters for several months in 2016, during which most of the work will be done. 
In 1919, a replica was built for the short-lived Lanier University in Atlanta, designed by architect A. Ten Eyck Brown. It is still standing at 1140 University Drive NE, and houses the Ben H. Zimmerman Religious School and the Canterbury School.  Arlington Hall, a two-thirds scale replica of Arlington House, was built in 1939 in Robert E. Lee Park in Dallas, Texas. 
The façade of the Old Administration Building in Arlington National Cemetery resembles that of Arlington House. The building is 500 feet (150 m) west of Arlington House. 
Robert E. Lee Cake History and RecipeAlso called General Robert E. Lee Cake. One of the most famous Southern American cakes of all times. Making this cake is definitely a labor of love because it is not simple to do. There are many recipes and many versions in old southern cookbooks (this cake was extremely popular in the nineteenth century). No two authorities seem to agree on the egg content of the cake (ranging from eight to ten eggs). The icing also varies with each recipe.
The Robert E. Lee Cake was traditionally believed to be a favorite of the Civil War general who led the confederate troops in the Civil War, although this is difficult to confirm. Most sources date the first written version of Robert E. Lee Cake to 1879, and General Lee died in 1870. A reference in the book The Robert E. Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book (1997) by Anne Carter Zimmer, suggests that a recipe for citrus layer cake was well-known in the Lee family but never written down.
This cake, an orange and lemon layer cake, was probably made to honor Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces during the American Civil War. For some southerners he is an almost god-like figure – for others, he is a paradox.
Following the war, Lee was almost tried as a traitor, but was only left with his civil rights suspended.
1879 – In the cookbook, Housekeeping In Old Virginia Contributions from Two Hundred and fifty of Virginia’s Noted Housewives, Distinguished For Their Skill In The Culinary Art And Other Branches of Domestic Economy, Edited by Marion Cabell Tyree:
Robert E. Lee Cake
Twelve eggs, their full weight in sugar, a half-weight in flour. Bake it in pans the thickness of jelly cakes. Take two pounds of nice “A” sugar, squeeze into it the juice of five oranges and three lemons together with the pulp stir it in the sugar until perfectly smooth then spread it on the cakes, as you would do jelly, putting one above another till the whole of the sugar is used up. Spread a layer of it on top and on sides. – Mrs. G.
Gen. Robert Lee Cake
1 pound sugar.
1/2 pound flour.
Rind of 1 lemon, and juice of 1/2 lemon.
Make exactly like sponge cake, and bake in jelly-cake tins. Then take the whites of two eggs beat to a froth, and add one pound sugar, the grated rind and juice of one orange, or juice of half a lemon. Spread it on the cakes before they are perfectly cold, and place one layer on another. This quantity makes two cakes. – Mrs. I. H.
1890 – The General Assembly of Virginia passed a law to designate Robert E. Lee’s birthday (January 19th) as a public holiday.
1904 – The legislature added the birthday of Stonewall Jackson to the holiday, and Lee-Jackson Day was born.
1984 – President Ronald Reagan declared the day in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Virginia, who since 1978 had celebrated King’s Birthday in conjunction with New Years Day, made the change and simply tacked him onto Lee-Jackson Day. Thus Lee-Jackson-King Day was born.
2000 – Virginia Governor, Jim Gilmore, proposed splitting Lee-Jackson-King Day into two separate holidays, with Lee-Jackson Day to be celebrated the Friday before what would become Martin Luther King Day. The measure was approved and the two holidays are now celebrated separately. Virginians still observe Robert E. Lee Day by partying and making this famous cake.
Robert E. Lee’s Tactics During the Civil War
Although Lee’s purported “tactical genius” was trumped by Grant’s “superior talent in grand strategy,” Lee is famed for his tactical management of battles. He was the tactical victory in several 1862–63 battles and generally performed well on the tactical defensive against Grant in 1864. However, Robert E Lee Tactics proved fatally defective. His tactical defects were that he was too aggressive on the field, he frequently failed to take charge of the battlefield, his battle plans were too complex or simply ineffective, and his orders were too vague or discretionary.
Problems with Robert E Lee’s Tactics
The first problem was that Robert E Lee’s tactics, like his strategy, were too aggressive. Bevin Alexander pointed out that in 1862 alone Lee had “an obsession with seeking battle to retrieve a strategic advantage when it had gone awry or he thought it had.” Thus, at Beaver Dam Creek (Gaines’ Mill), Frayser’s Farm (Glendale), Malvern Hill, and Antietam, he resorted to “desperate, stand-up, head-on battle” that resulted in great losses. “This fixation was Lee’s fatal flaw. It and Lee’s limited strategic vision cost the Confederacy the war.” Elsewhere Alexander concluded, “Lee never understood the revolution that the Minié ball had brought to battle tactics. . . . This tendency to move to direct confrontation, regardless of the prospects of the losses that would be sustained, guaranteed Lee’s failure as an offensive commander.”
Although sometimes creative (particularly when Stonewall Jackson was involved), too often those tactics failed to adequately consider the advantages new weaponry gave to defensive forces. Rifled muskets (ones with grooves rifled in their bores to spin bullets for accuracy) and bullets which expanded in the bores to follow the grooves (Minié balls) greatly increased the accuracy and range of infantry firepower (from 100 yards to between 400 and 1,000 yards), thereby providing the defense with an unprecedented advantage. Fuller called the Civil War “the war of the rifle bullet,” and rifle bullets (primarily Minié balls) accounted for 9 0 percent of the about 214,000 battlefield deaths and 469,000 wounded during the war. This advanced weaponry made assaults increasingly difficult.
Despite the fact that seven of eight Civil War frontal assaults failed, Lee just kept attacking. Battles in which Lee damaged his army with overly aggressive tactics include the Seven Days’ (particularly Mechanicsville, Gaines’ Mill, and Malvern Hill), Second Manassas, Chantilly, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Rappahannock Station, the Wilderness, and Fort Stedman. Archer Jones pointed to Lee’s periodic misplaced elation when he refused to “quit while he was ahead,” and cited Malvern Hill, Chantilly, the end of Chancellorsville, and Pickett’s Charge as examples.
The North had more advanced weaponry and had it earlier in the war. Its Model 1861 Springfield rifle, with an effective range of 200–400 yards, could kill at a distance of 1,000 yards or more. Most infantrymen (especially Federals) had rifles by sometime in 1862, Union cavalry had breech-loading (instead of muzzle-loading guns) repeating rifles by 1863, and even some Union infantry had these “repeaters” (primarily Spencer rifles) in 1864 and 1865.
Demonstrating this trend, Rhode Islander Elisha Hunt Rhodes experienced an improvement in weaponry during the war. In June 1861 he was first issued one of many muskets that he described as “old-fashioned smooth bore flintlock guns altered over to percussion locks.” Late the following month, when other Rhode Islanders’ enlistments expired after First Bull Run, Rhodes’ unit members traded their smoothbore weapons for Springfield rifles. Three years later, in July 1864 in the Shenandoah Valley, Captain Rhodes wrote: “I have forty of my men armed with Spencer Repeating rifles that will hold seven cartridges at one loading. I have borrowed these guns from the 37th Mass. who are armed with them and have used them for some time.”
Appreciation of the great reliance upon rifles by both sides in the conflict can be gleaned from the following estimates provided by Paddy Griffith in his thought-provoking Battle Tactics of the Civil War. He estimated that the Confederate Government procured 183,000 smoothbore muskets and 439,000 rifles and that the Union obtained 510,000 smoothbores and an astounding 3,253,000 rifles, including 303,000 breechloaders and 100,000 repeaters. The increased effectiveness of breechloaders, rather than muzzleloaders, was demonstrated by Union cavalry on the first day at Gettysburg (July 1, 1863) and by Union defenders on the second day at Chickamauga just two months later.
Musketry and the new lethal force of rifle power accounted for as many as 80 percent of the Civil War’s battlefield casualties. The improved arms gave the defense a tremendous advantage against exposed attacking infantry or cavalry. Use of trenches from 1863 on further increased the relative effectiveness of infantry defenders’ firepower. Similar improvements in artillery ranges and accuracy also aided the defense. Rhodes, for instance, wrote on February 14, 1862: “The 4th Battery ‘C’ 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery came over [to Washington, D.C.] from Virginia this morning and exchanged their brass guns for steel rifle cannon.” The old smooth-bore cannons had ranges of 1,000 to 1,600 yards while the new rifled artillery had ranges of 4,000 to 6,000 yards.
Despite these significant new advantages held by the defense, during battle after battle, Lee frontally attacked and counterattacked with his splendid and irreplaceable troops. Military historian Bevin Alexander asserted that Lee’s obsession with seeking battle and his limited strategic vision lost the war. The short-term results of Lee’s overly aggressive tactics were his troops’ injury, death, and capture the long-term results were dissipation of the South’s finite resources and loss of the war.
Lee was not alone in failing to adequately compensate for the new effectiveness of defensive firepower, but, as the leading general of a numerically inferior army for almost three years, he could not afford to make that mistake. In fact, Lee lost 20.2 percent of his soldiers in battle while imposing only 15.4 percent losses on his opponents. This negative difference in percentage of casualties (4.8 percent) was exceeded among Confederate generals only by Lee’s protégé Hood (19.2 percent casualties minus 13.7 percent difference) and by Pemberton, who surrendered his army at Vicksburg. For example, neither Joseph Johnston (10.5 percent casualties minus 1.7 percent difference), Bragg (19.5 percent casualties minus 4.1 percent difference) nor Beauregard (16.1 percent casualties minus 3.3 percent difference) sacrificed such percentages of their men in unjustified frontal assaults as did Lee. Lee’s statistics substantially improved when he generally went on the defensive—finally and much too late—after the Battle of the Wilderness in early May 1864.
In addition to his aggressiveness, Lee had other tactical problems. His second problem was his failure to take charge on the battlefield. Lee explained his approach to a Prussian military observer at Gettysburg: “I think and work with all my powers to bring my troops to the right place at the right time then I have done my duty. As soon as I order them into battle, I leave my army in the hands of God.” To interfere later, he said, “does more harm than good.” “What Lee achieved in boldness of plan and combat aggressiveness he diminished through ineffective command and control.”
The third problem with Robert E Lee’s tactics was his propensity to devise battle plans which either required impossible coordination and timing or which dissipated his limited strength through consecutive, instead of concurrent, attacks. For example, the Seven Days’ Battle was a series of disasters in which Lee relied upon unrealistic coordination and timing that resulted in Confederate failures and extreme losses. Again, the second and third days at Gettysburg featured three uncoordinated attacks on the Union line by separate portions of Lee’s forces when a simultaneous assault might have resulted in an important Confederate breakthrough or seizure of high ground.
Lee’s fourth tactical problem was that his orders often were too vague or discretionary, an issue discussed more fully below. The pre- Gettysburg orders to Stuart and the Gettysburg Day One orders to Ewell are examples of this problem. In Philip Katcher’s words, “Lee’s failure adequately to order his generals to perform specific actions or discipline them if they failed was probably his greatest character defect. . . . One of his staunchest defenders [Fitzhugh Lee] agreed: ‘He had a reluctance to oppose the wishes of others or to order them to do anything that would be disagreeable and to which they would not consent.[’]” Almost a century ago, George Bruce concluded, “Every order and act of Lee has been defended by his staff officers and eulogists with a fervency that excites suspicion that, even in their own minds, there was need of defense to make good the position they claim for him among the world’s great commanders.”
About the author
Helen Andrews is a senior editor at The American Conservative, and the author of BOOMERS: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster (Sentinel, January 2021). She has worked at the Washington Examiner and National Review, and as a think tank researcher at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Yale University. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, First Things, The Claremont Review of Books, Hedgehog Review, and many others. You can follow her on Twitter at @herandrews.
Robert E. Lee Jr.: The Legend’s Last Son Followed the Family to War
In a modern painting entitled "Chance Meeting," artist Dan Nance portrays an encounter between General Robert E. Lee and his youngest son and namesake on the Second Manassas Battlefield. (Painting by Dan Nance)
After serving as a junior officer, ‘Rob’ Lee wrote a renowned chronicle of his father’s life
IT WASN’T EASY LIVING in the shadow of the Confederacy’s greatest general, but Robert E. Lee Jr. had an interesting and accomplished Civil War career. He fought in the artillery and cavalry and rose to the rank of lieutenant. He later became one of his father’s greatest chroniclers through the publication of Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee in 1904.
Robert Edward Lee Jr. was the sixth of his parents’ seven children. The youngest of three boys, he was born October 27, 1843, atArlington Plantation, the home of his mother, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted grandson of George Washington. Rob’s other grandfather was Revolutionary War cavalryman “Light Horse” Harry Lee.
Robert E. Lee Jr. poses as a toddler with his mother, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee. (Virginia Museum of History and Culture)
The family’s military tradition had its challenges. As a Regular Army officer, the elder Lee was gone for long periods conducting engineering work on military defenses in Virginia, New York, Maryland, and Georgia. When the Mexican War broke out, Captain Lee served as an engineer in Winfield Scott’s forces. In Recollections and Letters, Rob said his earliest memory of his father was of him returning home from Mexico after an absence of nearly two years. According to Rob, his father didn’t recognize him and kissed Rob’s playmate by accident. It would not be the last time Rob’s father failed to recognize his son.
As was true of the other Lee children, Rob received an excellent education. He first attended school in Baltimore, while his father was serving at Fort Carroll. When Robert E. Lee moved to West Point, N.Y., in 1852 to serve as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, Rob followed. Rob remembered his father helping him with Latin and teaching him how to ride a horse. But Rob wrote, “I saw but little of my father after we left West Point” in 1855, when the senior Lee was ordered to St. Louis in preparation for his next assignment out West, chasing Comanche warriors across the hot and arid Texas plains.
Despite his father’s absences, “it was impossible to disobey him,” Rob recalled. “My mother I could sometimes circumvent and at times took liberties with her orders…but exact obedience to every mandate of my father was a part of my life and being.” From November 1857 to February 1860, Robert E. Lee returned to Arlington to settle the estate of George Washington Parke Custis. Young Rob had another couple of years to enjoy with his father.
In contrast to his father and brothers, Rob was not interested in pursuing a military education. He attended the University of Virginia, which in the prewar period was a raucous, all-male institution where students drank, shot pistols, and broke things. Rob might have been
Robert Jr. grew up at Arlington Plantation while his father was stationed at army posts for long periods. This June 28, 1864, photo shows Union troops occupying the Lee home. (Library of Congress)
full of youthful energy, but like his father, he was also religious. In May 1860, he underwent a spiritual conversion. “How are you getting along with your God,” he wrote his sister Mildred in January 1861. “O! my sister,” he said, “neglect not him. I have suffered much from neglecting him.”
When the Civil War broke out, Rob—not yet 18 years old—was an eager volunteer. In the spring of 1861, young men from the University of Virginia organized military companies, and Rob became a commissioned officer in the “Southern Guard.” He marched with this unit all the way to Winchester before Governor John Wise ordered the students back to Charlottesville. In December 1861, Rob wrote there were only 50 students left at the university—down from 650 the previous year—because so many had enlisted in the Confederate Army.
Rob grew up in a thriving slaveholding society, and his racial views reflected that reality. In January 1862, a few months before he reenlisted, Rob visited White House plantation, the home of his brother William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, better known as “Rooney.” Rob wrote to Mildred that “the most delightful thing about the place is the set of negroes. They are the real old Virginny kind, as polite as possible devoted to their master & mistress, who are devoted to them & who do every thing for them.”
Robert Jr.’s older brothers, Maj. Gen. William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee, left, and Maj. Gen. Custis Lee also served in the Army of Northern Virginia. Both were captured by Union troops. (From left: Library of Congress Heritage Auctions)
On March 28, 1862, Rob joined the Rockbridge Artillery as a private, and with that unit experienced his first fighting in the Shenandoah Valley. During the first few weeks of his service, the Confederate Army was in a difficult moment of transition. In April, the Confederate Congress passed a controversial conscription act, the first in American history. The act drafted men from the ages of 18 to 35 and kept them for three years or until the end of the war. The act led to the reorganization and consolidation of regiments. “The whole army seems very much dissatisfied,” Rob wrote to his father on April 23. He noted there were “a good many desertions among the militia & the valley men who refuse to leave their homes behind them.” Rob himself was not discouraged, and he looked down on those men of wavering patriotism.
In May at Front Royal, Va., Confederates routed a much smaller force of Federals under Colonel John Reese Kenly. Rob wrote of overrunning Federal camps and the men helping themselves to bacon, sugar, coffee, and other luxuries. We “got all kinds of sweetmeats,” Rob wrote his father, “the most delicious canned fruit of all Kinds ginger cakes by the barrels sugar candy & all Kinds of ‘nick nacks.’” Rob said he made a “hearty meal” of “bread & butter ginger cakes & sugar wh[ich] helped me out, for I was nearly starved.” The young artilleryman said the Confederate damage amounted to $100,000.
Victory did not erase the harsh realities of war. Rob saw one of his friends badly wounded in the face at Front Royal. As for himself, he was exhausted. “I think I have been through as hard a time as I ever will see in this war,” he told his father. “For twenty four days we have been marching & this is the fourth day we have rested Through rain mud water woods up & down mountains & for two weeks half starved.” The hard fighting, though, energized him. “I am now as hearty as a buck feeling better than I ever did in my life,” he reassured his father.
Rob did not see General Lee again until the Seven Days Battles. By then, his father had been put in command of the Army of Northern Virginia and was fighting to drive Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac from the outskirts of Richmond. Rob remembered that by then, “short rations, the bad water, and the great heat, had begun to tell on us, and I was pretty well worn out.”
At the Second Battle of Manassas, Rob, serving as the “No. 1” man in charge of ramming artillery rounds down his cannon’s barrel, was again in the thick of combat. “My face and hands were blackened with powder-sweat,” he recalled, “and the few garments I had on were ragged and stained with the red soil of that section.” Rob encountered his father on the battlefield and managed to get his attention. “Well, my man, what can I do for you?” he remembered his father saying. “Why, General don’t you know me?” Rob replied. Once his father realized who he was talking to, he was “much amused at my appearance and most glad to see that I was safe and well.”
After the war Robert Jr. settled at Romancoke, a plantation on the Pamunkey River, but struggled as a farmer and missed his family in Lexington. (Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy, 1807-1870. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897)
Shortly after Second Manassas, the Army of Northern Virginia headed north toward the Potomac River and Maryland. During the busy days of marching, Rob recalled he “occasionally saw the commander-in-chief, on the march, or passed the headquarters close enough to recognise him and members of his staff, but as a private soldier in Jackson’s corps did not have much time…for visiting …. ”
His next opportunity to talk to his father came on September 17, the day of the notorious Battle of Sharpsburg. During that bloody fight, when 23,000 men became casualties, Rob remembered that “our battery had been severely handled, losing many men and horses. Having three guns disabled, we were ordered to withdraw, and while moving back we passed General Lee and several of his staff, grouped on a little knoll near the road …. Captain Poague, commanding our battery, the Rockbridge Artillery, saluted, reported our condition, and asked for instructions.”
The general listened to Poague’s report and told him to take his damaged guns to the rear, but to prepare his remaining cannon for more action. As he talked to Poague, Lee’s eyes drifted over the battle-worn men on the battery, once again apparently not recognizing his youngest son. Rob recalled that he approached his father, said hello, then asked, “General, are you going to send us in again?” Replied the commander, “Yes, my son, you all must do what you can to help drive these people back.”
By the fall of 1862, Rob, his father, and his brother and cavalry officer Rooney had survived several bloody campaigns, but the family suffered loss all the same. In October, his sister Annie died of disease in North Carolina, where she had fled to escape the ravages of war in Virginia. “I shall never see her any more in this world,” Rob wrote of Annie.
As much as possible, the family tried to stay together. Rooney was promoted from colonel of the 9th Virginia Cavalry to brigadier general and leadership of North Carolina and Virginia troopers. Rob became a lieutenant and one of Rooney’s staff officers and remained optimistic about the Confederacy’s future. “I think we’ll whip old Burnside badly when we meet him,” he wrote in late November 1862. Events proved him correct. Lee’s forces soundly defeated Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside in December at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Months of relative inactivity followed. Rob fought at Chancellorsville on May 1-3, 1863, but he did not march north with the Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg Campaign. That might have been because Rooney was wounded at Brandy Station on June 9 and captured soon thereafter and sent to a Northern prison, where he languished for months. With his brother out of the army, Rob worked for a while with the Ordnance Department in Richmond.
Rob was not depressed by the news of his father’s July defeat at Gettysburg. Later that month, he told his mother that “the men & officers are in very good spirits & very desirous of establishing their fame firmly, which they think has been a little shaken at Gettysburg.” By then, Rob had rejoined the cavalry, serving in Colonel John R. Chambliss’ 13th Virginia Cavalry, and he defended his fellow horsemen against accusations that the cavalry “never does anything.” “Truth is we do all the hard work of the Army,” he said, noting there was “freedom in this branch which is delightful.”
Rob remembered that at the time of the 1864 Overland Campaign, morale was still high in the Army of Northern Virginia. He wrote, “it never occurred to me, and to thousands and thousands like me, that there was any occasion for uneasiness.” The men of the Army of Northern Virginia “firmly believed that ‘Marse Robert’…would bring us out of this trouble all right.” Rob was wounded at the May fighting near Spotsylvania, but he recovered and rejoined his command. In a July 1864 letter to his sister Agnes, he wrote of soldiers getting plenty to eat, and he was impatient to “turn our horses out on the fine grass in Maryland & Pennsylvania.”
Charlotte “Lottie” Taylor Haxall married Robert Jr. in November 1871 but died of tuberculosis in September 1872. (Beaux and Brains of the 60’s, G.W. Dillingham Co, 1909)
During the Petersburg siege, on August 15, 1864, he was wounded slightly in the arm at the Second Battle of Deep Bottom. The wound took Rob out of action for three weeks.
By 1865, Rob’s outlook had grown darker and he was pessimistic about his future. “I don’t know whether I shall ever see you again,” he told his sister, Mildred. But he could still be funny, warning Agnes in March: “Don’t let Sheridan get my trunk,” referring to Union Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan.
In the final days of the war, Rob had a horse shot from under him, an event he remembered happening on April 2 or 3. Thankfully for him, he was cut off from the rest of the army. He said he was “surprised” when he heard of the news of the surrender. He rejoined his command and accompanied the remnants of the Jefferson Davis government to Greensboro, N.C. That was as far as he made it. He eventually returned to Richmond and was paroled in May 1865.
With the South devastated, Rob tried his hand at farming. He settled in King William County, Va., roughly 40 miles east of Richmond. As the owner of “Romancoke,” he ran a small plantation on the Pamunkey River. The estate was left to Rob in 1857 by his grandfather, George Washington Parke Custis. At Romancoke, Rob—far from his family in Lexington—found himself a lonely bachelor and struggling farmer.
Unlike his oldest brother Custis, who became president of Washington and Lee University, and Rooney, who later became a U.S. congressman, Rob kept a low profile after the war and his racial views had not progressed beyond condescending references to African Americans. In February 1866, he told a sister about “Old Coon,” a black woman helping him keep house. A year later, he dismissed the plight of the freed people of the South, saying, they were “stirred up by baptizing & politics,” but added “that theory would never be demonstrated by Cuffee.”
He still received advice from his father. “You must have a nice wife,” the elder Lee told him in August 1867. “I do not like you being so
lonely. I fear you will fall in love with celibacy.” General Lee traveled to Romancoke several times to see his bachelor son. Rob apparently cared little about entertaining, and after one trip General Lee decided his son needed a proper set of silverware. The general last visited Rob in the spring of 1870.
The news of his father’s death on October 12, 1870, hit Rob hard. After the general’s death, he lamented his own “selfishness & weakness” and praised his father for the “example of true manliness he set me all through his life.” In contrast, he felt he had “done so little for him.”
Rob’s uncertain finances, the shabbiness of his estate, and the fact that he was far from family and city life slowed his prospects of finding a wife. After a long courtship, in November 1871 he married 23-year-old Charlotte Taylor Haxall, but the marriage to “Lottie,” as she was known, proved brief. She died of tuberculosis on September 22, 1872. “I try to believe that all is for the best,” he wrote after her death, “but it is very hard—hard to believe, harder still to feel so.” A year later, Rob lost his mother, who had suffered from debilitating ill health. A few weeks before her death, Rob’s sister, Agnes, had also died.
In 1875, Rob departed for England with his sister Mildred. He stayed there for a year. Rob eventually moved from Romancoke to Washington, D.C., where he worked in the insurance business. In March 1894, Rob married Juliet Carter, the daughter of Colonel Thomas H. Carter, a Virginian who had served in the Army of Northern Virginia’s artillery.
Rob and Juliet had two daughters, Anne Carter (1897-1978) and Mary Custis (1900-1994). In 1904, Rob published Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee. The book included transcriptions of his father’s letters, recollections of his spoken words, and anecdotes drawn from Rob’s memories of those of his older siblings. The book was well received and remains essential reading for Lee scholars.
Robert Jr. eventually moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked in the insurance business and married a second time. In 1904, Robert Jr. published Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee. (Virginia Museum of History and Culture)
Rob died on October 14, 1914, and he is buried with his family in the Lee crypt in Lexington. Robert E. Lee biographer J. William Jones wrote of him, “No braver or more chivalric man ever lived, and his death is lamented by his surviving comrades of the war, and by a host of friends.”
In many ways, Robert E. Lee Jr. was a typical Confederate soldier. He was an unmarried enlisted man in his 20s who fought in the ranks and a defender of the racial status quo. He survived the war, though he saw many of his friends and comrades killed.
In other ways, his life was atypical in that he was the son of the Confederacy’s greatest warrior and a member of one of the South’s most celebrated and elite families. An unsuccessful farmer after the war, the ex-Rebel moved, ironically, to the federal capital of Washington, D.C., to seek better financial opportunities.
Rob’s career may have been humble compared with others of his generation, but his letters provide an important link between the pre- and postwar South, and he was the liveliest and funniest writer of any member of his family. His Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee remains an important source on his famous father.
Colin Woodward is the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army During the Civil War. He lives in Richmond,
where he is host of the history and pop culture podcast “American Rambler.” He is revising a book on country singer Johnny Cash.
Unlocking History: Treasures Of Robert E. Lee Discovered
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).