Lee, Mary Custis (c. 1808–1873)

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Lee, Mary Custis (c. 1808–1873)

American aristocrat from Virginia and wife of Robert E. Lee. Born around 1808 in Arlington, Virginia; died in Virginia in 1873; daughter of George Washington Parke Custis (1781–1857, grandson of Martha Washington by her first marriage) and Mary Lee (Fitzhugh) Custis; great-granddaughter of Martha Washington (1731–1802); married Robert E. Lee (1807–1870, the Confederate general), in 1831; children: (four daughters) Mary Custis Lee (1835–1918); Anne Carter Lee (1839–1862); Eleanor Agnes, known as Agnes Lee (1841–1873); and Mildred Childe Lee (1846–1905); (three sons) Custis Lee; William Henry Fitzhugh ("Rooney") Lee; and Robert E. Lee, Jr.

Mary Custis was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington . Mary's father, George Washington Parke Custis, was Martha's grandson by her first marriage, and he was raised at Mt. Vernon by Martha and her second husband George Washington who had adopted the boy and influenced him until Washington's death in 1799. With his inherited fortune and vast landholdings (nearly 20,000 acres), George Custis began building his home, the now famous Arlington House, on a green hillside not far from the Potomac, completing the first two wings in 1804, the year of his marriage to Mary Fitzhugh Custis . Their daughter Mary, born around 1808, grew up in the stately Greek Revival house with its eight pillars, each five feet in diameter at the base.

Besides serving in the War of 1812, George Custis was a planter, painter, writer, and playwright; in 1831, he painted a still-extant portrait of his wife. His stories, published in the National Intelligencer, would be collected and released in book form by his daughter Mary as Recollections of Washington. George Custis also despised slavery, calling it "the mightiest serpent that ever infested the world." Though a slaveowner by birth, he freed a number of slaves in his lifetime. His wife and daughter held similar views. Before the slaves were released, mother and daughter conducted classes to help educate them to survive as freedmen, though it was against Vir ginia law to do so. But the Custises were gradualists, not outright abolitionists, preferring to go slow and resolve federal issues in order to save the Union.

In 1831, Mary Custis married Robert E. Lee, also of Virginia, who had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy three years previous. The couple had seven children: four daughters, Mary Custis Lee , Anne Carter Lee , Agnes Lee , and Mildred Childe Lee , and three sons, Custis Lee, William Henry Fitzhugh ("Rooney") Lee, and Robert E. Lee, Jr. They were a close-knit family. The children grew up at Arlington House, riding, sledding, skating, swimming, and playing "amid jasmine and lilac and honeysuckle and grape arbor and rose garden and herb border and woods and orchards," writes Gene Smith. The Lee girls followed in the footsteps of their mother and grandmother, teaching slaves to read.

Following her father's death in 1857, Mary Custis Lee inherited Arlington House, soon known as the Lee mansion, but war clouds were looming. South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860, and in 1861 Robert E. Lee resigned from the U.S. Army and accepted a commission as a general in the army of the Confederate States of America.

Mary's father George had remained a Federalist until the day he died, believing in a strong central government rather than states' rights. Robert E. Lee also hated slavery, considering it "a moral and political evil," and thought secession "unconstitutional," but he believed it his duty to side with his native state. His personal code of honor and duty led him to proclaim that "loyalty to Virginia ought to take precedence over what is due the federal government." In 1861, Mary Custis Lee had to abandon her house, family heirlooms and papers when she accompanied her husband south. During the war, she and her daughters knitted socks and gloves for soldiers and served the wounded in military hospitals. In 1862, Mary's 23-year-old daughter Anne contracted typhoid and died; she was buried in the Jones Springs cemetery in Warrenton, North Carolina.

Lee, Mary Custis (1835–1918)

Daughter of the Lees of Virginia. Born Mary Custis Lee in 1835; died in 1918; daughter of Robert E. Lee (1807–1870, the Confederate general) and Mary Custis Lee (c. 1808–1873); tutored at home, then attended a female academy; never married; no children.

Mary Custis Lee, born in 1835, was the bright, critical, independent daughter, who traveled to more than 24 countries, including Australia, Japan, India, Europe, Africa. She was in London at the outbreak of World War I, when she told a reporter: "I am a soldier's daughter and what I can foresee of this war and the misery which must follow have made me nearly a peace advocate at any price." Mary died soon after the armistice.

suggested reading:

Coulling, Mary P. The Lee Girls.

Lee, Anne Carter (1839–1862)

Daughter of the Lees of Virginia. Born Anne Carter Lee (named after her father's mother, Ann Carter Hill ) in 1839; died of typhoid in 1862, age 23; daughter of Robert E. Lee (1807–1870, the Confederate general) and Mary Custis Lee (c. 1808–1873); tutored at home, then attended a female academy; never married; no children.

Lee, Agnes (1841–1873)

Daughter of the Lees of Virginia. Born Eleanor Agnes Lee in 1841; died of an intestinal disorder in 1873, age 32; daughter of Robert E. Lee (1807–1870, the Confederate general) and Mary Custis Lee (c. 1808–1873); tutored at home, then attended a female academy; never married; no children.

Lee, Mildred Childe (1846–1905)

Daughter of the Lees of Virginia. Born in 1846; died of a stroke in 1905; daughter of Robert E. Lee (1807–1870, the Confederate general) and Mary Custis Lee (c. 1808–1873); tutored at home, then attended a female academy; never married; no children.

Mildred Childe Lee, who was born in 1846, adored her father and he adored her, calling her "Precious Life" which he would later shorten to "Life." They spent hours touring the countryside together on horseback. When he died, Mildred stopped riding and would not visit his beloved horse Traveller. In 1905, while in New Orleans for the Mardi Gras, Mildred was found unconscious in her room from a stroke. She died the following morning, age 59.

suggested reading:

Coulling, Mary P. The Lee Girls.

In 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. The federal government wanted to be sure the Lees of Virginia never returned to live at Arlington House, and so the house and its grounds were turned into a burial ground: Arlington National Cemetery. In 1865, Robert E. Lee was appointed president of Washington College (later Washington and Lee University), in Lexington, Virginia, and the family moved with him. Robert E. Lee died five years later, on October 12, 1870.

The general had urged his sons to marry, but not his daughters, and suitors from the all-male college were discouraged. Robert E. Lee often spoke of how his girls would stay with their parents, taking care of them into their sunset years, and, indeed, none of them would marry. Mildred, who tended the chickens, wrote a friend: "My chickens are a great comfort. I am often dreadfully lonely." In 1873, Agnes Lee died. Her mother Mary Custis Lee died one month later. She was buried at Lexington, as were all the Lees, except for Anne. Over the years, Anne's burial ground in North Carolina became a lovers' lane and the object of vandalism; her obelisk was toppled. In October 1994, the remains of Anne Carter Lee were moved to Lexington to rest beside her family.


Kennedy, Roger. "Arlington House, a Mansion That was a Monument," in Smithsonian. October 1985, pp. 157–165.

Smith, Gene. "General Lee's Daughters," in American Heritage. July–August, 1996, p. 110.

suggested reading:

Connelly, Thomas L. The Marble Man. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977.

Dowdey, Clifford. Lee. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1965.

Flood, Charles B. Lee: The Last Years. Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

Freeman, Douglas L. R.E. Lee. 4 vols. NY: Scribner, 1934–35.

Lee, Robert E., Jr. Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee. NY: Doubleday, 1909.

Sanborn, Margaret. Robert E. Lee. 2 vols. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1966–67.