Very often, the correspondence and other papers of historical figures get scattered within a generation or two of their creation. The dispersal of some papers may result in the loss of important information. Such is the case with the papers of the Lee Family of Virginia. Fortunately, however, the Lees had the foresight to preserve many of their papers, starting in the 1600s. Their wealth and prominent status spurred them to preserve many documents for later generations. The importance of the Lees also led many other families to keep documents written by the Lees.

As the papers of the Lee Family of Virginia are collected online, they will number in the many thousands, spanning the first three hundred years of American history. They will document the political, military, and personal lives of many prominent actors on the historical stage, men like the immigrant founder Richard Lee who was Virginia Governor Berkeley’s assistant; Thomas Lee the President of Virginia; two Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee as well as Revolutionary War Patriots, including Arthur Lee, William Lee, and Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Jr.; and Civil War Confederate officers Robert E. Lee, George Washington Custis Lee, William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee, and Robert E. Lee, Jr.

The Lee family papers also document more than just military or political events. Discussion of agricultural, money matters, and architecture frequently arises in letters, as do records of the family estates, like Stratford Hall, Cobb’s Hall, and Arlington House (which provided the land for the Arlington National Cemetery). The Lee Family papers provide a rich resource for those interested in major historical figures in United States history as well as the lives of more underrepresented groups, such as women and African Americans.

Holdings at Stratford Hall

Stratford Hall Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia, hosts the Lee Family Digital Archive. It owns important original material, including a collection of William Lee letterbooks and significant correspondence by Richard Henry Lee, Robert E. Lee, Mary Custis Lee, Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and Mildred Childe Lee. Stratford has carte de vistes of Robert E. Lee and his wife as well as financial papers and an engineering map drafted by Robert E. Lee. Stratford also houses the papers of Walter H. Taylor, who served on Lee’s staff during the Civil War.

Related Collections

Lee Family papers are in numerous repositories and in private hands. The Virginia Historical Society in Richmond (VHS) contains by far the largest number of Lee Family documents in existence. One VHS collection alone, for instance, covering the period from 1810-1914, contains 842 items and includes diaries, commonplace books, and correspondence and other writings by Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee, Robert E. Lee, Jr., George Washington Custis Lee, Mary Custis Lee, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, Eleanor Agnes Lee, Mildred Childe Lee, and Fitzhugh Lee.

Washington and Lee University in Lexington has a wealth of Lee Family material, including the Robert E. Lee Papers (16 linear feet), which cover Lee’s five-year tenure as president of Washington College as well as part of his illustrious military career; the George Washington Custis Lee Papers; the Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee Papers; and collections of the Lee Memorial Association and the Lee-Jackson Foundation.

The Society of the Lees of Virginia has its own papers on deposit at the Alexandria Library in Alexandria, Virginia, some seventy-nine boxes (38 linear feet) of documents related to the family history, divided into thirteen sections. The detailed finding aid alone numbers one hundred pages and the subjects of the records of the Society include family papers and history; genealogy; English ancestry; property records; photographs; maps; articles and correspondence related to family antiques; American Civil War; and unrelated Lees.

Other sizeable collections of Lee Family documents are at the University of Virginia, the Library of Congress, the National Archives in Washington, the Virginia State Library and Archives, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the American Philosophical Society, the Pennsylvania Historical Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Duke University, Harvard University, Yale University, Arlington House, and the Minnesota Historical Society. And, finally, much Lee Family correspondence exists in collections of papers of prominent individuals, like George Washington or members of the Adams, Stuart, or Cocke families. Smaller numbers of documents of the Lees are in other primary source collections at various unexpected locations like Tudor Place in Washington, D.C., and the National Archives in Chicago.

Printed Sources

Many of the Lee Family’s papers have found their way into print. Richard Henry Lee II’s Memoir of the Life of Richard Henry Lee (Philadelphia, 1825) and Life of Arthur Lee, L.L.D. (Boston, 1829), two volumes each, were the earliest attempts to publish family documents, and are flawed by the editorial methods of the time. Worthington Chauncey Ford’s three-volume Letters of William Lee (Brooklyn, 1891), and Edmund Jennings Lee’s genealogical work, Lee of Virginia (Philadelphia, 1895), were two useful but incomplete late nineteenth-century publications that made available some family documents for the first time.

In the twentieth century, James Curtis Ballagh’s two-volume Letters of Richard Henry Lee (New York, 1911, 1914) built on the 1825 work but is also incomplete. Ethel Armes’s Nancy Shippen, Her Journal Book (Philadelphia, 1935), contains both the diary and letters of the colonial Philadelphia daughter of William Shippen, Jr., and his wife Alice Lee, the sister of the six famous Revolutionary War Lee brothers. John C. Fitzpatrick’s thirty-nine volume Writings of Washington (Washington, D.C., 1931-44) published most of the letters written by George Washington to members of the Lee family, and the edition that is replacing Fitzpatrick’s, The Papers of George Washington (Charlottesville, Virginia, 1983-), will when complete in an estimated ninety volumes contain not only the letters written by Washington to the Lees but also all the letters written by the Lees to Washington.

Paul H. Smith’s twenty-six volume Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington, D.C., 1976-2000), presents letters by several Lees of Virginia relevant to their service in the Continental and Confederation Congresses. (It replaced E. C. Burnett’s six volume Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, published in Washington, D.C., 1921-33, which also made available Lee letters.) Edward Lee Childe’s The Life and Campaigns of General Lee (London, 1875), Robert E. Lee, Jr.’s Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee (New York, 1905), William Jones’s Life and Letters of Robert Edward Lee (New York and Washington, D.C., 1906), and Avery Craven’s “To Markie” (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1934), as well as Clifford Dowdey and Louis Manarin’s The Wartime Papers of R. E. Lee (Boston, 1961), together count for a respectable but still very incomplete corpus of General Lee’s outgoing correspondence.

Mary Custis Lee deButts’s Growing Up in the 1850s: The Journal of Agnes Lee (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1984) presents a side of the family heretofore unfound in the published record. Aside from these is Paul P. Hoffman’s microfilm edition of The Lee Family Papers, 1742-1795 (Charlottesville, 1966), which pulls together in eight reels the papers that once belonged to Richard Henry Lee II. Its lack of a detailed guide makes it difficult to use.

In addition to the manuscript material and above-mentioned published works are some other published works by Lee Family members, including Henry Lee’s two-volume Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States (Philadelphia, 1812) and a second edition of the same work with a biography of Lee prepared by his son Robert E. Lee after the Civil War (New York, 1869); two books by Henry Lee IV, Observations on the Writings of Thomas Jeffersonwith Particular Reference to the Attack They Contain on the Memory of the Late General Henry Lee (edited by Charles Carter Lee; Philadelphia, 1831, 1839), and The Life of the Emperor Napoleon (New York, 1839); and Charles Carter Lee’s volume of poetry, Virginia Georgics (Richmond, 1858).

Secondary works on the Lees of Virginia are voluminous, owing to the prominent role of several Lee family members in the American Revolution and Civil War, and too numerous to list other than the few on the family itself. All valuable, they include Burton J. Hendrick’s The Lees of Virginia (Boston, 1935); Ethel Armes’s Stratford Hall, the Great House of the Lees (Richmond, 1936); Cazenove Gardner Lee, Jr.’s Lee Chronicle (edited by Dorothy Mills Parker; New York, 1957); Eleanor Lee Templeman’s Virginia Homes of the Lees (Arlington, Virginia, 1973, 1985); and, most recently, Paul C. Nagel’s The Lees of Virginia: Seven Generations of an American Family (New York and Oxford, 1990).