Washington and Lee University

George Washington Custis Lee
James Lewis Howe

Note: The following is taken from the October 1940 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 48), pp. 315–27.


GEORGE WASHINGTON CUSTIS LEE


By JAS. LEWIS HOWE


“* * * And departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.”

but evanescent as footprints washed out by the next tide, are those left by the subject of this sketch.

Greatness demands a fitting environment in which to reveal itself. Detailed for insignificant jobs; tied to an uncongenial secretarial desk when momentous issues were at stake; nominally an executive, when half a score of experienced professors were holding the reins and trying to guide an infant university along paths indistinctly marked out by his father; asked only to preside at faculty meetings and to occasionally chide unresponsive students; such was for four decades the environment of Custis Lee, the very decades in which the inherent greatness of the man should have been given opportunity to flourish and bear fruit. Not indeed a wasted life, but one which left no footprints for the admiration of posterity.

If ever a child was born with the traditional silver spoon in its mouth, that child was Custis Lee. His mother, Mary Custis, was daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, builder of the stately Arlington mansion. Parke Custis was grandson of Martha Custis, who after the death of her first husband married George Washington; he, being childless himself, adopted Parke Custis as his son. To Parke Custis and Mary Lee Fitzhugh, his wife, were born four children, three of them dying in infancy, so that Mary Custis was brought up as an only child, in a home luxurious according to the time and abounding in hospitality.

William Henry Fitzhugh of Ravensworth in Fairfax County was a cousin of Mary Custis and also of Robert Edward Lee; as children both were frequent visitors in his home and they may be said to have more or less grown up together. But when this childhood friendship began to ripen into love, the master of Arlington was slow in becoming reconciled to the idea of his heiress daughter as the wife of a West Point cadet with no livelihood beyond his income as a lieutenant in the United States Army. However, the character of Robert E. Lee soon gained the goodwill of Mr. Custis, and a brilliant wedding crowned the persistent love affair of the young folks.

According to the account of one present, there was an amusing side to the ceremony, as “the night of the wedding at Arlington happened to be one of steady rain, and much fun arose at the appearance of the Rev. Ruel Keith, who arrived drenched to the skin and, though a tall man, was compelled to conduct the nuptial service in the clothes of my cousin, Parke Custis, a very great gentleman but a small man so far as inches were concerned.” The wedding party lasted for a week and then after visits to various relatives the young lieutenant and his bride settled down to the life of an army engineer at Fort Monroe.

George Washington Custis Lee was the first child to bless this marriage and was naturally named for his grandfather, who looked upon him as the future master of Arlington. Custis Lee did not long reign as an only child, as before he was fourteen he shared his throne with four sisters and two brothers, but by his grandfather he was always looked on as an only grandchild. During the three years before his sister Mary appeared on the scene little Custis had lavished on him all the petting of a first baby, as is indicated by the wealth of pet names bestowed on him. The name of “Boo” stuck most tenaciously, even beyond his childhood days, but “Bun” and “Bunny,” “Boose” and #8220;Dunket” were quite indiscriminately used. His mother writes his grandmother Custis, “Bunny is too sweet; he is the most restless creature you ever saw and very mischievous”; and again when he was a year old: “He is the sweetest little fat creature you ever saw & obeys his father most implicitly. If he wakes up in the night and cries & Robert speaks to him, he stops immediately.” Already it is evident that it is only his father's influence which will save him from being spoiled.

When Custis was two years old, his father was ordered to Washington and the family could make their home at Arlington. Here “young Mrs. Lee delighted to show her young son to the many friends and relatives who came to spend a day or maybe a week.” “When Lieutenant Lee returned each evening from his duties in Washington, there was always an hour of play with little Custis before he was taken off to bed by his nurse.” Soon another baby was added to the family. “Little Mary was a special delight to her father; but it was Custis who always held the first place in the affection of his mother. She was inclined to spoil him; and her father, who thought of his grandson as the future master of Arlington, indulged him far more than he should have done. It was his father only who corrected him.”

Following the fortunes of an army officer, Lieutenant Lee was detailed to St. Louis and his parting charge to little Custis, then not quite five, was to “look after mother.” “The little fellow took his father's words very seriously, and felt that quite a responsibility had been laid on his shoulders.” He had always “been indulged by his grandfather, and he missed the firmness with which his father managed him. He was inclined to be willful; but in his most difficult moods he could be managed by a gentle rem[in]der that his father had left the family in his care.” On their frequent visits to relatives “Custis, a handsome and most engaging child, was soon quite spoiled by the attention he received and evidently acquired, among some members of the family, the reputation of being unmanageable. Rumors of this having reached his father, he wrote his wife: ‘Our dear little boy seems to have among his friends the reputation of being hard to manage, a distinction not at all desirable, as it indicates self-will and obstinacy. Perhaps these are qualities he really possesses, and he may have a better right to them than I am willing to acknowledge; but it is our duty, if possible, to counteract them and assist him to bring them under control. * * * you must assist me in my attempts, and we must endeavor to combine the mildness and forbearance of the mother with the sternness and perhaps unreasonableness of the father. I pray God to watch over and direct our efforts in guarding our little son, that we may bring him up in the way that he should go.’”

On his second detail to St. Louis, Lieutenant Lee took his wife, Custis and the second boy, Rooney, with him. Mrs. Lee was acting as schoolmistress to the boys and writes her mother: “Custis gets a spelling lesson by heart every day & has improved very much in his writing; but it is very hard to induce him to sit down to his lessons, tho' I think he is on the whole improving”; and a little later she writes: “I have some idea of trying Custis at school this fall * * * to see if it will stimulate him; but he is always so led away by his companions that I am a little afraid.”

The next winter Mrs. Lee and the children, now four in number, were back at Arlington, and an incident occurred that in various versions has become almost a pulpit classic, though seldom with any mention as to who the persons involved were. As recounted by Miss MacDonald in her recent Life of Mrs. Lee, the story is as follows: “Mrs. Lee consoled herself in her husband's absence by constantly talking to Custis about his father, telling him that when he grew to be a man she hoped he would follow in his father's footsteps. Custis took his mother's words literally, but could not see why he should wait until he was a man. Lee returned to Arlington in December. Taking Custis with him for a walk on a day when the ground was covered with snow, he found that Custis had dropped behind. Turning to look for his son, Lee saw that the little fellow was walking in the tracks made by him, imitating his every movement. When Mrs. Lee heard of the incident, she told her husband of the emphasis she had laid on Custis's following in his father's steps. ‘Then, said Captain Lee, 'it behooves me to walk very straight, when my son is already following in my tracks.’” At the time of this incident Custis was three months over seven years old.

When twelve years old Custis was sent to the near-by classical school of Rev. George A. Smith at Clarens, and later studied under Mr. Benjamin Hallowell, a distinguished pedagogue of Alexandria, who had prepared his father for West Point. It was now up to Custis to decide upon his life-work, and only natural that he should incline to follow his father. Appointment as cadet ‘at large’ to West Point was obtained from President Zachary Taylor, who was, until superceded by General Scott, the early hero of the Mexican war, and who was a distant relative of the Lees. At midsummer, 1850, he entered on his duties as cadet at the United States Military Academy.

Of the career of Custis Lee at West Point Freeman says: “He had abundant ability, but at first he was somewhat indolent. His father had to deal tactfully with him in order to arouse in him a determination to excel.” Under his father's admonitions, he soon began applying himself to his work, so successfully indeed that on graduation in 1854 he held the first standing in his class, with no demerits in his record. In addition he was one of the most popular cadets in the institution. All this was a great joy to his father and their mutual interest in engineering was a strong bond between them. This was of course increased by the son's winning, as the father had done twenty-five years before, appointment to the Engineer Corps.

After graduation Custis Lee served in construction and improvement of various fortifications in Florida, Georgia, and San Francisco Bay. In November 1857 Parke Custis died, completely changing the fortunes of the Lee family. The Arlington estate was left to his grandson, Custis, subject to his mother's life interest. “As soon as Custis learned that his grandfather had failed to devise Arlington to his parents, he set about to correct the error, executing and delivering a deed conveying Arlington, its paintings and furnishings, its priceless heirlooms and hereditaments, to his father.” This naturally Colonel Lee refused to accept, writing his son: “I am deeply impressed with your filial feeling of love and consideration, * * * and am equally touched by your disinterestedness, * * * but I cannot accept your offer. It is not from an unwillingness to receive from you a gift you may think proper to bestow, or to be indebted to you for any benefit great or small. But simply because it would not be right for me to do so. Your dear grandfather distributed his property as he thought best, and it is proper it should remain as he bestowed it.” Arlington was in a decidedly run-down condition, and Freeman says that “Custis probably was actuated by a desire to have his father own a property on which he, and not the son, would have to spend money.” It was rather, it seems to me, that Custis preferred his life as an engineer to that of a farmer, trying to build up a delapidated estate and make it a fitting home for his mother and sisters. Such a life had no attraction for one of his engineering tastes. On the other hand, his father, now fifty, might soon be expected to retire from the army, and there could be no better place than Arlington, which he would be engaged in restoring for his own home; it would be no congenial place for a son who had shown no inclination to settle down and lead a family life.

His father had procured for Custis an assignment in Washington, so that again he could make his home at Arlington and assist his father in managing the estate, and incidentally it gave Custis the opportunity of trying out on an experimental scale the life of a farmer and country gentleman. That type of engineering did not, however, have much fascination for him. One piece of military engineering he carried out for the Government at this time was the restoration and conditioning of the defenses of Washington along the Potomac River, especially Fort Washington. This was a little later to relieve the Government from much worry and apprehension.

In the spring of 1861 the war had broken out, Virginia had seceded, and on April 20, bitterly torn by conflicting loyalties, Robert E. Lee had tendered his resignation from the United States Army. Custis was as loath as his father to leave the service of the United States, nor did his father seek to influence him, but on May 2nd he resigned from the United States Engineers and was on the 10th appointed Major of Engineers in the Provisional Army of Virginia. When the Virginia forces were turned over to the Confederate States, he was commissioned a Captain of Engineers; in August he was made aide-de-camp to President Davis, with rank of Colonel.

In his position of aide-de-camp to the President, he was undoubtedly Mr. Davis' confidential advisor on all points which involved engineering, especially on defenses. Instances of his work may be cited: in October, 1861, he was sent to Goldsborough, North Carolina, with a regiment and battalion of Georgia Volunteers, to meet an expected attack of the United States fleet, which did not materialize. In the spring of 1863 he was sent to examine the defenses of Charleston, and here he was so successful that Charleston was one of the few ports never captured. The success of his enterprise here seems to have been due to his building his defenses some distance back from the shore, so that an invading force would be deprived of support from a fleet. In June, 1863, he was put in command of the defences of Richmond with the rank of Brigadier-General, and on October 20, 1864, was promoted to Major-General, although he had positively declined this honor when it was offered to him. He cared little for honors and titles, and several times during the spring of 1864 he still signs himself “Col. & Aide-de-Camp.”

It was in this spring of 1864 that President Davis sent a messenger to General Robert E. Lee suggesting that General Custis be put in command of a branch of the army at a certain point, adding that he would be glad to promote him and make him a Major-General or even a Lieutenant-General in carrying out this work. The father's answer is very characteristic: “I am very much obliged to the President for the high opinion he expresses of Custis Lee, and I hope that, if Custis has the opportunity, he will prove himself not entirely unworthy of the President's high opinion. But he is an untried man in the field—against his will and my own, the President has kept him on his staf—and I will not take an untried man and promote him over my veteran officers, especially when that man is my son. The President can do what he pleases, but I will not be a party to any such transaction.”

The Local Defense Troops, under Custis Lee's command, were rather a motley crew, many of them being clerks and industrial workers from the city, today at desk or foundry, tomorrow in the field. When Richmond fell April 2, 1865, he formed a skeleton division with these and those from Drewry's and Chaffin's Bluff, and joined Ewell's corps, itself a skeleton corps of the Army of Northern Virginia on the retreat from Petersburg. His first opportunity for real command, under most distressing circumstances, did not fail to add luster to his name and give to those skilled in military affairs the highest estimate of his military ability. Four days later at Sailor's Creek he was captured with his corps commander, General Ewell; his first battle in the field became his last.

There have been various conjectures as to why President Davis retained Custis Lee in Richmond as aide-de-camp, when it was his desire as well as that of his father that he should have active service in the field. It has even been suggested that it was the outcome of the President's latent animosity toward Lee. It seems to me that the explanation is far simpler. Under the Constitution of the Confederacy the President was Commander-in-Chief of the army, and he successfully resisted until February, 1865, the efforts of the Confederate Congress to deprive him of this position. Mr. Davis was a graduate of West Point, had had six years of army experience, such as it was, and he considered himself fully competent to direct the war; he often did not hesitate to go contrary to the advice of his military staff. Here was at hand a recent graduate of West Point who stood first in his class and had had six years of practical training in military engineering, especially valuable in defense; a man very quiet and self-effacing, who could be absolutely depended on in every confidential relation, and whose advice and judgment in military matters would be invaluable. In other words, Custis Lee was for three and a half years actually chief-of-staff of the Confederate Army and Navy. How much of the credit and blame received by Mr. Davis for success and failure of Confederate arms belongs to him and how much to Custis Lee, history will never reveal. Mr. Davis' high regard for him is indicated by his statement to Major Jed Hotchkiss that should anything happen to General Robert E. Lee, he proposed putting General Custis Lee in his place. While from time to time Custis Lee was assigned to engineering work, as on the Goldsborough and Charleston fortifications, his position must have been in general to him exceedingly onerous and unsatisfactory.

In reorganizing their staff after the war, the Board of the Virginia Military Institute had little hesitation in electing General Custis Lee to the Chair of Military and Civil Engineering. In accepting the position he says: “* * * I am willing to undertake any branch that you think I am capable of teaching, and if I do not equal the expectations formed of my ability, I can of course resign and make way for some one better suited for the position. * * * The question of salary is of no consequence, so that I can live, as I have lost every thing by the war. My chief desire is to be useful and do something for my native state.” This letter is very characteristic of the man; a very low rating of his own ability, and a willingness to be of any possible service to others. As a matter of fact, his teaching at the Institute was by no means confined to engineering. The record shows that for two years at least he had the entire charge of the two upper classes in chemistry.

His father had become President of Washington College and his first development to meet the physical needs of the institution was the building of a College Chapel, as there was no place where any considerable number of the rapidly increasing student body could assemble. Two years later it was strongly felt that another faculty house was imperative, and that it should be a larger house than any on the campus, to give General Lee more room for his family and especially for the many guests he desired to entertain. It has been generally considered that both these buildings were planned by General Lee and constructed under his direct supervision. However, the plans for both have recently come to light, and both were drawn by Custis Lee, having a few pencil annotations by his father. In a letter to Professor David C. Humphreys written in 1909, General Custis Lee tells of the book from which he got the Chapel design and says it was selected “because it was simple and comparatively inexpensive.” Father and son must have spent many pleasant hours over these plans, but most of the detailed work was evidently done by the son, and the same is undoubtedly true of the supervision of construction. In this work Custis Lee was in his true element as engineer. In spite of gradually increasing infirmities on the part of both General and Mrs. Lee, the weakness of Miss Agnes and occasional recurrence of Custis' rheumatism, these five years were undoubtedly the happiest the family had ever enjoyed, for all were there except Rooney and Robert, Jr., and these made frequent visits, the former with his new wife, who was a great favorite with all the family.

The fall of 1870 had begun auspiciously in spite of the growing weakness of General Lee, but the dreaded blow came in October with his fatal stroke, quickly followed by his death. As the question of his successor arose, the feeling on the part of both students and community was very strong that Custis Lee was the logical man to take his father's place, and in spite of misgivings on the part of one or two of the Board, the Trustees enthusiastically elected him President of Washington College.

One of the objections raised to electing Custis Lee as President was that he was not connected with any church, and it is interesting to note that at the first visit of the Bishop to Lexington after his assumption of the Presidency, General Custis Lee was confirmed in the Episcopal Church by Bishop F. M. Whittle. Ever after he took great interest in the church, which he later remembered generously in his will.

While Custis Lee had never had experience as executive, he had been sufficiently close to his father to be familiar with the duties required of a college president of that day. His father's plans for the college were well on their way, as far as its resources permitted, and were in charge of a competent faculty; there were no new plans for him to suggest. Students occasionally came to him for advice as to their studies, but these generally he referred to members of the faculty who had had long experience with student direction. Cases of discipline were in extreme cases referred to him by the faculty, and these were always a source of embarrassment, both to him and to the student. A typical instance is recounted by an old student that is worth quoting. “My one personal contact with General Custis,” says this student (John Ingles, '95), “is one of the pleasantest memories of my life. For some student prank, I think it was for making a raid on the V.M.I. and rolling their cannon into the ravine, the faculty sent me up before General Lee. * * * I will never forget the contrast in the way I felt that afternoon when I went up to General Lee's house and the way I felt when I came out. * * * I do not remember all that was said but I do remember that there was never a word of reproof and that for some reason I felt sorry for him instead of feeling sorry for myself, and the impression of his gentleness and kindliness mixed with his dignity and even austereness remains with me. When he dismissed me these were his parting words which I think I can quote verbatim ‘Son, have all the fun you can. I have never had any fun in my life.’ I have tried to remember whether or not he said innocent fun and while, of course, he meant that I don't think he said it.”

General Lee's necessary University correspondence was conscientiously attended to, but as far as it involved courses of study was generally referred to members of the faculty. At the close of the session of 1872–3, Professor William Allan had resigned from the Department of Applied Mathematics (as Engineering was then called), and General Lee volunteered to take his place, and carried at least two of the Engineering classes through the year, and somewhat later he taught the classes regularly. At the faculty meetings, when his health permitted, he was always present and presided, but rarely had any observations to offer. Solicitation for much needed funds for the University was impossible to his nature; if he had the funds himself, he would give them and often did, but he could never ask another for them, even for the University. Nor was it in him to solicit students. Student attendance, which reached a high-water mark of 410 in the session of 1867–68, had dropped to 336 in 1870–71, the last session which opened with General Robert E. Lee as President, and was continuing to drop rapidly; three years later it was only 226, and it fell to its low-water mark of 96 in the session of 1881–82.

In 1873 his mother's health was steadily growing worse and that of his sister Agnes was becoming more serious. On October 15 Miss Agnes passed away, followed just three weeks later by Mrs. Lee. His own health, which was not good throughout the war and had continued to trouble him ever since, was now becoming still more impaired, aggravated by worry and sorrow and most of all by the recognition of his apparent failure as a University President. At their meeting at the close of this year he presented to the Board of Trustees his resignation, written in his own hand and marked “Confidential.” This placed the Trustees in somewhat of a dilemma. On the one hand, it was recognized that as a University executive General Custis Lee must be considered a failure; he had, as had been foreseen by some of the Board at his election none of the needful qualifications for that office; under his administration the University was steadily going down, both in attendance and in resources. On the other hand, he was contributing its greatest asset, the name of Lee; and through him. the University was helping the South pay just tribute to the family of its devoted idol. It would be throwing away this asset to sever connection with the Lee family. They decided to decline the resignation but grant him a year's leave of absence. From then on for several years he lived quietly at home, with occasional visits to relatives, now and then resuming his work, and several times renewing his resignation. Late in 1878 he writes from Romancoke to a friend: “I was very unwell after leaving White Sulphur, suffered a great deal, and passed many miserable, lonely days in my bed and room. * * * Under the good offices of my brother (Robert, Jr.) and the quiet of the country, I have improved very much, and, as I believe, am quite well again, except in my wrist, which is still stiff and good for nothing. * * * I suppose I shall have to go back to Lexington, where I can always find something to do, whether regularly on duty or not.”

By the spring of 1879 his health had decidedly improved and he again took up his duties as President, and until 1889 as acting-Professor of Applied Mathematics. That year David C. Humphreys was made full professor and from then on General Lee was relieved of all professorial work. He was regularly present at the Faculty meetings, where he quietly presided but rarely took any part in the discussions. In a letter to Col. Marshall McDonald in 1887 he concludes rather pathetically: “I should like very much to get away from my present duties, and have several times made an earnest effort to do so, but without success. It seems to be intended that I should end my days here, and possibly it is just as well, even from my standpoint, as I am too good for nothing, now, I take it, to undertake anything else.”

Finally at the close of 1896 he again sent in his resignation, with these words: “I am utterly useless here, with but little probability of ever being more useful to the University, and therefore desire to be relieved from duty as its president. I should like my resignation—which is hereby tendered—to take effect on the first of July next, or at any prior date that may be deemed best by the Board. I have no faults to find, nor complaints to make, and only wish to vacate my office, to which I was appointed by your Honorable Body nearly twenty-five years ago, because I am unable to perform its duties.”

This time his resignation was regretfully accepted and he was made President Emeritus. Two years later the Board elected him Trustee, but he declined to accept this position. At the close of the academic year of 1896–97 he moved to Ravensworth, the old Fitzhugh estate, then occupied by Mrs. Fitzhugh (Tabb) Lee, her sister Miss Melville Boiling, and Fitzhugh's elder son, Robert E. Lee, III. The younger son, George Bolling Lee was then studying medicine in New York.

Of his life at Ravensworth I draw from letters of Dr. Bolling Lee and from the old caretaker of the estate. He led a quiet, more or less secluded life, receiving comparatively few visitors, although quite a few of his old friends and professors from Washington and Lee came there from time to time. He exercised in the gardens and around the farm every day, visiting the stables and cow-barns, and took great interest in building cisterns and sewers which are today of great service to the place. His afternoons and evenings were spent in the library, poring over scientific books, mostly pertaining to engineering. He drove frequently around the neighborhood but rarely got out to visit with anyone. His sisters, Miss Mary and Miss Mildred were frequent visitors, but the only time he ever left the place over night was a two week's visit to his brother Robert at Romancoke. His life at Ravensworth was very happy and he took great interest in all the farmers and servants, helping them in many ways. He built a bellfry for the Good Shepherd Church, where his nephew Robert was for many years Sunday School superintendent. He kept an engineering table in his apartment and busied himself with drawings for the dairy, stables, sewers and cisterns. Perhaps these sixteen years were the happiest period of his life, free from all care and worry over undone work that he felt he should have done, free to exercise his engineering talents without compulsion, enjoying his loved retirement from people.

In December, 1911, in his eightieth year, he slipped on the stairs and fractured his hip. For more than a year he was confined to his bed and a wheeled chair, but while never again able to walk, he never uttered a complaint. He passed quietly away on February 18, 1913, and was laid in the family mausoleum he had himself constructed, beside the remains of his loved and honored father.