Mary Anna Randolph Custis
Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the only surviving child ofand , was born at Annfield, in Frederick County, Virginia. Her birth year was thought to be 1808, but contemporary documents show that she actually was born on October 1, 1807. Her father was the grandson of Martha Custis Washington through her first marriage to , and Mary was raised in the highest social circle of the young republic. When young George’s father died unexpectedly, he was adopted by the Washingtons and raised at Mount Vernon, an experience that powerfully shaped both him and his daughter.
Mary Custis was given an unusually fine education. Her studies emphasized history, literature, and philosophy, as well as Greek and Latin. A French tutor made special mention of Mary’s “incomparable qualities,” and she also excelled at drawing, for which she had a marked talent.
Her most notable education, however, came through exposure to America’s greatest personalities at her father’s estate, Arlington. Situated across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital, Arlington was designed to house the Washington memorabilia that Custis had amassed. Custis also had a rich store of anecdotes about his grandparents, and people traveled considerable distance to hear his reminiscences. As a result, Mary grew up conversing with leaders such as John Marshall and the Marquis de Lafayette. These experiences fostered a keen interest in politics and culture that never left her.
From her father Mary inherited a heroic past; from her mother she learned ways to shape the future. “Molly” Custis, also descended from Virginia’s notable families, was a lady of unusual sympathy—a “woman in a thousand” wrote one admirer. Strongly religious, she taught her daughter the importance of spiritual values and the need to live them out. Early in the 1820s Molly Custis helped form a remarkable coalition of women who hoped to eradicate slavery. They frequently worked through the American Colonization Society, an organization that advocated gradual emancipation and the resettlement of freed slaves in Africa. The movement was supported by leaders such asand Henry Clay. Although criticized for its inability to envision a racially mixed society, it nonetheless made early strides in harnessing political power to the antislavery cause.
Molly Custis worked tirelessly for the American Colonization Society, but personally moved beyond the group’s expectations. She unconditionally freed all of her own slaves and eventually persuaded her brother, daughter, and husband to follow suit. She tried to soften the harsh conditions of slavery for those who remained in bondage, taking risks to educate them, allowing an unusual margin of personal liberty, and respecting family groups. From a young age, Molly Custis also embraced this ethos. She attended United States Supreme Court hearings on slave cases, taught slave children, and helped to raise funds for the American Colonization Society. Years later, she wrote a will leaving her personal fortune to support aging Arlington slaves and to further antislavery work.
Within Arlington’s exceptional atmosphere Mary Custis grew into a poised young woman. Friends recalled not only her artistic abilities, but her intelligence and talent to amuse. “You would love this sweet modest girl, so humble & gentle with all her classical attainments. She has wit & satire too, when they are required,” noted her aunt. Her unassailable confidence could edge into arrogance, however, and she was sometimes critical and careless. Still, her lovely dark hair and chestnut eyes—as well as her inheritance—attracted many suitors. But she called herself an “impregnable fortress” and in turn refused marriage offers from Sam Houston, distinguished cousins, and two sons of Revolutionary War hero . “There are few worthy of her I think,” remarked her aunt.
In 1830, with the death of William Henry Fitzhugh, her mother’s adored brother, Mary Custis underwent a profound transformation. Stunned at her uncle’s inexplicable demise, she began to embrace evangelical religion. For years her mother had followed the teachings of the Second Great Awakening, with its emotional surrender to a just, but inscrutable, God and rejection of transient worldly pleasures. For Mary Custis, this was the beginning of a spiritual quest that would become the guiding priority of her life, giving her an aspiration and emotional independence apart from domestic concerns.
It was during this catharsis that Mary Custis embraced the man who would become her life partner. Robert Edward Lee was a distant cousin and a childhood playmate, the younger brother of the two Lees who had already sought her hand. Newly graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, he had been jarred by the recent death of his mother. The couple shared their love of literature, nature, and horseback riding during the summer of 1830 and by September they were engaged. However, the Lees had been marked by financial and sexual scandal and George Washington Custis was reluctant to approve the marriage. After some months of agonized waiting, his daughter convinced him to let the wedding go forward. On June 30, 1831, she and Lee were married at Arlington, before their relatives and friends. The gaiety of the occasion, remarked one guest, was “a piece of Virginia life, pleasant to recall.”
Mary Custis Lee
Members of the Enslaved Community at Arlington House
Robert Lee had worried that the contrast between Arlington’s privileged lifestyle and a rough military garrison would challenge his bride, and, indeed, this proved the case. A central theme of the Lees’ successful 40-year marriage was the tension between his desire for the adventure of army life and his wife’s attachment to her childhood home. Mary Lee usually accompanied her husband to his field posts (she was absent only during the Mexican War and in times of pregnancy or illness). But she spent long periods with her parents and never stopped hoping that Lee would quit the army. The attachment to Arlington deepened for both with the arrival of seven children, all but one of whom was born there. Devoted to their lively offspring, and anxious to create a stable home, Arlington became the Lees’ base camp in an unpredictable life.
Mary Lee carried her sketchbook to Fort Monroe, Virginia; Saint Louis, Missouri; New York City; Baltimore, Maryland; and West Point, New York, always appraising the American scene with an artist’s eye. She had been raised in a creative atmosphere—George Washington Custis painted huge folkloric tableaux of Revolutionary War battles and welcomed artists such as Thomas Crawford and Raphael Peale to the family table. Mary Lee’s gift now surpassed her father’s. She was an excellent draftswoman, and painted classical studies in oil, as well as charming watercolor scenes. Her genre paintings—of children’s faces, slaves carrying market vegetables, and plantation pets—are fine enough to be included in important twenty-first-century collections. “She had the real artist temperament,” wrote a daughter, “loving the trees & fields & marvels of nature—& delighting in poetry & art!”
Caring for seven children frustrated Mary Lee’s artistic progress, and she sometimes railed against the “brats” who upset inkpots or spoiled her concentration. Though not a political feminist, she recognized the handicaps her generation suffered and counseled unmarried women to enjoy that “blessed state they should not be in a hurry to leave it.” Mary Lee pushed off societal constraint in many ways: traveling alone, reliably handling family finances, confidently proclaiming political views, and insisting on a robust education for her daughters. She exasperated her husband by ignoring prevailing fashions, sometimes appearing in old calico gowns that reminded one acquaintance of a “cracker appearance generally.” Lee referred to her affectionately as “that vixen,” and a friend later noted that although Lee tried to subordinate his wife, she “never did come to heel.”
In middle life Mary Lee faced numerous challenges. None of the Lees supported the Mexican War (1846–1848), but whereas Robert E. Lee was anxious to be part of the action, Mary Lee suffered through the conflict, fearing he would not return. After the war, Lee was appointed superintendent of West Point, and his wife shared his onerous public duties. When Molly Custis died in 1853, Mary Lee rededicated herself to the antislavery work that had defined her mother’s life, taking a special interest in the welfare of freed Arlington slaves. Increasingly suffering from impaired mobility—doctors termed it rheumatism, but there is evidence it was caused by mercury poisoning from the “Blue Mass” pills she used—she was unable to accompany Lee when in 1855 he joined the Second Cavalry in Texas. “I often suffer much pain & stiffness,” she told him. “It is fortunate for you that you have not got me in your tent at present as I could be of very little service to you.” After her father’s death in 1857, she edited his Memoirs of Washington, which was published in 1859. Through all these duties she remained the central force in the family. Recalling his parents,noted that “she was the one who kept the family together. [Father] was doing other things.”
Mrs. General Lee
As the country confronted disunion, the Lees faced a serious dilemma. They knew the entire nation as did few others, and were steeped in strong Federalist tradition. Their relatives were sharply divided about the crisis. Mary Lee hoped that the secessionists might be subdued and that Virginia would remain in the Union as peacemaker. When Virginians voted for secession in April 1861, and the family was forced to take sides, she told her husband she would support whatever decision he made. Still leaning toward the Union when Robert E. Lee accepted command of Virginia forces on April 23, 1861, she vainly hoped she could remain at Arlington. But the estate’s strategic position insured it would soon be commandeered, and finally she scrambled to secure the Washington treasures and flee. When the Union army occupied the property on May 23–24, 1861, her Confederate allegiance was sealed.
Mary Lee and her daughters were among the earliest refugees of the war. They were first harbored at relatives’ homes, sometimes falling behind enemy lines. General Lee urged them to find a remote spot, where they would be out of harm’s way. She ignored this advice, locating instead in Richmond, where she could follow the war’s progress and occasionally see her husband. Outraged in 1862 when Union troops burned her “White House” plantation, an early Washington home, her animosity toward the North grew. Eschewing the colorful social life of the Confederate capital, “Mrs. General Lee” visited hospitals and knit hundreds of socks for the ill-clad Southern soldiers. She lost numerous family members during the war, notably her daughter Annie Lee, a daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. Though her personality could be volatile, she bore these deaths and the imprisonment of her son General William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee with calm courage. A neighbor recalled that the Lee home at 707 East Franklin Street became an important meeting place. “People came to talk of victory or sorrow; they could stay here if they had nowhere to go … The brightness of her nature amidst uncertainty and pain, was wonderful.” When Richmond finally fell in April 1865, Mary Lee became a symbol of defiant dignity, reportedly knitting on her porch while flames engulfed the street. Told that her husband had surrendered, she remarked: “General Lee is not the Confederacy.”
Indeed, Mary Custis Lee never surrendered. After the war, she accompanied her husband to Lexington, where he was president of(later Washington and Lee University.) She began writing her memoirs, still railing against the “theft, murder & arson” of the Yankee troops. She was appalled that Arlington had been confiscated and turned into a cemetery, and she mourned her home in every letter. Now entirely crippled, she did not lose her faith, yet struggled to comprehend why the God she served had turned away from her. Mary Lee did, however, abandon her advocacy for African Americans. Feeling betrayed when most family slaves deserted Arlington, she now indulged in blistering speeches about the “lazy idle negroes who roam about by day marking what they may steal at night.” She continued painting, often selling pictures for Confederate charities, and received students and townspeople warmly. But her spirit was elsewhere. “I cannot take root in new soil—I am too old for that,” she noted. She stoically bore General Lee’s death in 1870, and continued work to regain her family seat. A visit to Arlington in 1873 and the death of daughter Agnes Lee a few months later proved so shocking that she could not recover. Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee died on November 5, 1873.