• The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia

The Lee Family Digital Archive is the largest online source for primary source materials concerning the Lee family of Virginia. It contains published and unpublished items, some well known to historians, others that are rare or have never before been put online. We are always looking for new letters, diaries, and books to add to our website. Do you have a rare item that you would like to donate or share with us? If so, please contact our editor, Colin Woodward, at  (804) 493-1940, about how you can contribute to this historic project.


 

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Robert Edward Lee was born January 19th 1807 at Stratford in Westmoreland County Virginia on the Potomac where that noble river is so broad that the opposite shore is scarcely visible. This had been a grand old Place & was built in A.D. 1756 for Thomas Lee by the East India Company.1 Some time afterward when injured by a fire, Queen Caroline sent him a large sum of money to aid in rebuilding it from her own privy purse with an autograph letter.

Stratford was the great centre of genial Virginia hospitality & there was said to have been room in its stable for a hundred horses.

Robert left there at so early an age that his recollections of it were not very distinct. The circumstance which made the deepest impression on his youthful mind was riding out with his Mother to visit her neighbors in a coach drawn by 4 horses, where he knelt on the front seat to enjoy a sight so congenial to his tastes.

In the year 1811 the family removed to Alexandria for the purpose of educating the children & during his residence there Genl Harry Lee was called to Baltimore in the heat of a great political excitement & so severely injured by the mob assembled on that occasion that he was unable to participate in the war of 1812 & sailed to the West Indies for the purpose to recruit his health. He had previously placed the eldest son C. C. Lee of his second marriage at Cambridge. The next, Sydney Smith obtained a midshipman’s warrant in the U.S. Navy & Robert was left in sole charge of his mother & younger sister, the elder one being absent in Phila. under the care of the celebrated Dr. Physick. His mother’s health was so delicate she was obliged to entrust to his care all her out door concerns. He went to market, made all the purchases for the household, so that her horses, cow, and poultry were well attended and yet was always diligent and faithful in his studies at the Alexandria Academy, the principal of which was Mr. Wm. B. Leary then considered an accomplished classical scholar. He won the love & esteem both of his teacher & his schoolmates from his gentle quiet demeanor. He was genial too, & ready to join in their sports. His mother’s income was limited rendering it necessary for her to observe a very exact economy & yet she was so methodical & elegant a manager always. So cheerful & dignified that her home was graced by a refined hospitality. To the principles of strict integrity in all financial matters instilled order & punctuality, early instilled in to his mind by that noble mother, he always said he owed everything of his comfort and success in life. Tenderly as she loved him he was never injured by any weak indulgence, the diet and habits of her children were simple in the extreme. Their supper was served early in summer on the piazza & consisted of a cedar noggin of milk with loaves of corn bread without even the stimulus of tea or coffee. The luxury of shoes was reserved for Sundays & the future hero of the South traversed the streets with bare feet & clothes made of what was then called Virginia cloth spun & woven in the country. Those well formed feet were very active in all boyish sports & in running skating & swimming he had few equals. Part of his summer vacation was often spent at Arlington where the young heiress of the house was scarcely noticed in the superior attractions of the farm & the delight of riding in a mule cart. As he advanced in years his desire to obtain a military education was so decided that his mother decided that he should consented that he should apply for an appointment as at West Point & Mrs. E. P. Lewis the granddaughter of Mrs. Washington & a great friend of Gen Andrew Jackson took him to the White House & introduced him. The President was so prepossessed in his favor during this brief interview that he at once gave him the appointment. Robert Lee commenced at once preparing himself diligently for the course at the Military academy at the School of Benjamin Hallowell in Alexa which had considerable reputation, but even while there he arranged his studies so as to ride out every five days with his Mother & greatly enhance the pleasure & advantage of the exercise by his presence. She said to a friend, “How can I part with him he is all to me both son & daughter.” In one of Genl H. Lee’s to his wife Mrs. Lee at this time period from Nassau in which he sends the most tender messages of love to his children he writes, “Robert is as good as ever I trust, it is his nature, he always seemed to me to be a copy of your brother Edward.” These letters breathe the deepest love & admiration of his wife & unceasing effort to make some of his property available for her benefit & by every opportunity he sent her supplies & delicacies such as could be procured in the West Indies. The deepest affection & interest in his children

It was in 1824 that Mrs. Lee removed to Georgetown in order to furnish her eldest son Carter with a house, while practicing Law in Washington. Robert went to W. Point & her eldest daughter Anne married a nephew of Chief Justice Marshall & remained with her. When Robert returned home during his first vacation from west point he made every arrangement to accompany his Mother & young sister Mildred on her usual summer tour to the mountains where she visited her many relatives. The first stage of her journey was to Ravensworth the residence of Mr. & Mrs. Wm. H. Fitzhugh. While here, she became so ill as to be unable to proceed & tho surrounded with every attention which the warmest love & friendship could bestow, Robert scarcely left her bedside day or night, & mixed & administered every dose of medicine. Her eyes rested on her with indescribable affection & if he left the rooms she kept her eyes fixed on the door until he reentered. She died trusting in the merits & intercession of her Savior, & the son whose self control was so remarkable in all hours of danger & trial was so overwhelmed with grief that he was unable to be present at the internment. The eldest son Carter was present there but her daughter could not be summoned in time. Robert returned to West Point & his career & deportment there is well known. When he graduated in 1829, he was in the corps in the Corps of Engineers he was ordered to cockspur in the Savannah near the site of Fort Pulaski as assistant of Major Babcock but found time to visit in Savannah & enjoy the society company of many charming ladies there with whom he was became a great favorite. He had learned to appreciate female society through his affections had for some time been fixed on one object & during a visit to Virginia the ensuing summer his engagement was announced to Miss Custis of Arlington. He returned to Cockspur as soon [as] the season allowed permitted his operations to be carried resumed & was ordered early in the following Spring to Fortress Monroe as assistant to Col Talcott in completing the defences of that Fort, & also of the Rip Raps. He applied while there for a month’s furlough, the only one he ever solicited for his own Pleasure during his long & arduous service in the U.S. Army & was married at Arlington to Miss Custis on the 30th of June 1831 a week passed in all the festivities of a Virginia wedding & the young pair proceeded in their own carriage to visit some old friends near the blue Ridge Mountains & returned in time to make all their arrangements to report punctually at Old Point Comfort when the leave of absence expired. They remained there 3 years & their first child G. W. C. Lee was born there the in the Fortress 16th September 1832. The young officers of the Fort, many of their friends & classmates of Lieut. Lee were absent at this time on the Black Hawk expedition & on their return the infant then a month old was reunited to them & great was the disappointment of the Mother that he was not welcomed with the delight she had anticipated & which she thought the occasion the subject merited.

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Their small quarters consisting of only four rooms of very moderate dimensions were always bright & cheerful & the favorite resort of their friends. Mr. & Mrs. Custis invited them every summer & members also of the Lee family & few families none were more regretted when they left for a new station.

In 1835 Lieut. Lee was appointed assistant astronomer to Capt. Talcott Engineer Corps for determining the boundary lines between Ohio & Michigan. Mrs. Lee remained at Arlington, her health very much impaired after the birth of a second child in July & during the autumn & the winter of 1838 Lee was engaged in the Engineer bureau in Washington & went over daily to his duties there. The following summer it was necessarily that he should take Mrs. Lee to the springs at Warrenton & Berkeley & on his return to Arlington resumed his duties at Washington & was detached from the bureau to take charge of the improvements in the navigation of the river at St. Louis & remove the obstructions in the way of Steamboats crossing the Des Moines rapids. He returned to Arlington during the winter & in April Mrs. Lee & her two sons, Custis & W. H. Fitzhugh then an infant accompanied him on his return to St. Louis taking the Harrisburgh routes & crossing the Alleghany on an inclined plane then through Pittsburgh Cincinnatti & Louisville at that time a journey of at least 10 days. They furnished two small rooms in the old house formerly occupied by Genl. Clarke & much frequented by Indians whose gay blankets & headdresses charmed the boys whom they frequently caressed. All the Gratiot connection welcomed with great kindness Lieut. Lee & family as well as many other of the most prominent citizens. Dr. & Mrs. Beaumont received them into their household & took charge of Mrs. Lee during the frequent absence of her husband at the Des Moines Rapids & elsewhere. Their sojourn in St. Louis was a very pleasant one but early in the summer of 1839 they returned to Arlington where they all remained except Lieut. Lee who was obliged to go back to St. Louis to settle up his affairs & those of the government as he was withdrawn from the work & employed in making more surveys on the Southern coasts. In 1841 he was ordered to Fort Hamilton to put those forts in order & also Fort Richmond on Staten Island. here they remained about 5 years returning to Arlington in the winter when the works were closed enjoying in the summer the visits of many Southern friends especially Mr. & Mrs. Custis, the sea battery & the beautiful scenery on the Narrows. They also had great pleasure in the society of the officers of the Artillery & their families stationed & in the fort many kind neighbors in the surrounding country. While there the Mexican war broke out & on receiving orders to join Genl. Wool who had already started. The pleasant little cottage at the Narrows was dismantled promptly & all returned to Arlington where soon came the sad parting with the husband & father whose presence & example was so important to his children, then seven in number. His career in Mexico is well known; perhaps the many prayers offered in that little home circle were registered in Heaven & upheld him in his arduous duties. In his letters he seemed impressed with this belief after his long services in Mexico with only a few weeks of recreation to spend with his wife & children he was ordered to duty at Sollers point near Baltimore a very unhealthy creation & remaining there alone & after the first season he removed his family to Baltimore where they lived 3 years & during that time Capt. Lee was made extremely ill by his exposure to the atmosphere at Sollers & was forced to join his wife at Arlington where she was on a visit. This illness was very severe & it was long ere he recovered from its effects. It was during his residence in Baltimore that he was appointed Superintendent at West Point an appointment which gave general satisfaction & on the formation of a new Regiment of Cavalry for duty in Texas in which he was offered the rank of Col. On the principle that an officer must never refuse promotion. He left his honourable position & comfortable quarters at West Point & his family to join the regiment in Texas country in the Spring of 1855. He was recalled by the death of Mr. Custis in the autumn of 1857 being appointed one of the executors of his estate & remained some time e’re he rejoined the regiment.#

While in Texas he received an order from Genl Sct to repair to Washington & was quietly superintending the improvements on the Arlington estate when the war broke out & it was necessary for him either to receive the tempting offers made by government or to leave all & cast his lot with his State & his people with his strict sense of duty & his opinion that there was no necessity for war, to resign a commission he had held so long was the severest a struggle of his life. Only those who witnessed it can conceive of its intensity, but truth & honor prevailed.

In a letter of the 27th July 1861 from Richmond he writes of the 1st battle of Manassas “That indeed was a glorious victory & had lightened the pressure upon our front amazingly. Do not grieve for the brave dead. Sorrow for those they left behind, friends, relatives, & families. The former are at rest, the latter must suffer. The battle will be repeated there in greater force. I hope god will again smile on us & strengthen our hearts & arms. I wish to partake in the struggle & am mortified at my absence but the President it more important for me to be here. I could not have done as well as has been done but I could have helped & taken part in the struggle for my house & neighborhood. So the work is done I care not by whom. I leave tomorrow for the N. W. army. xxxx I have not time to write. All my thoughts & strength are given to the Cause to which my life be it long or short will be devoted.”

13th May 1861 at Richmond, this letter should come first “Do not put faith in rumors of adjustment. I see no prospect for it. it cannot be while passions on both sides are so infuriated. Make your plans for a several years war. xxxx The times are indeed calamitous. The brightness of god’s countenance seems turned from us & his mercy stopped in its blissful current. It may not always be so dark. He may in time pardon us & take us under his protection. May that time soon came. Tell Custis he must consult his own judgment, reason & conscience as to the course he may take. xxxx The present is a momentous question which every man must settle for himself & upon principle.”

25 December 1861

“I cannot let this day of grateful rejoicing pass without some communion with you. The remembrance of those (times) we have pressed together fills me with pleasure. We must not repine at our separation. If it will make us more resigned and better prepared for what is in store for us we should rejoice. You must not build your hopes of peace on account of the U. S. going to war with England. We will be loath to do that in spite of the bluster of the Northern papers. Her rulers are not entirely mad & if they find England is in lament & that war or restitution of their captives must be the consequence they will adopt the latter. We must make up our mind to fight our won battles & win our independence alone. No one will help us. We require no extraneous aid if true to ourselves. But one must be patient. It is our light at home & cannot be accomplished at once. I have had a day of labor instead of rest but have written to my children.”

 

 

Source: Checked against original letter, Helen M. Taylor Collections, Mss1 T2144 a, Section 6, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2019 May 14    

 

 

1. This date is too late. Best estimates put the construction of Stratford beginning in ca. 1738-1739 and being completed in the 1740s. The East India Company, furthermore, had nothing to do with the house's construction.

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