• The Lees of Virginia
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  • 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 It contains published and unpublished items, some well known to historians, others that are rare or have never before been put online.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.



Arlington May 9th 1861

                I suppose ere this dear Robert you have heard of the arrival of our valuables in Richmond. We have sent, many others to Ravensworth & all our wine & stones & pictures piano &c. I was very unwilling to do this, but Orton[1] was so urgent & even intimated that the day was fixed for taking possession of these heights that I did not feel it was prudent to risk articles that could never be replaced. Aunt Maria[2] has been very kind in offering us an asylum there & in taking care of all our things. Nannie is there for the present & I sent the girls up last evening as Aunt M had been expecting us for Thursday. I thought they could return if all was quiet. Custis was not ready to go, so I determined to remain with him being very uneasy lest he should be arrested. I begin now to think tho’ it is all suspicion that Orton was made the tool of some of the authorities in Washington to alarm us, either to bring you out to defend your home, or get us out of the House. They are anxious at present to keep us appearances & would gladly I believe have a pretext for invading Virginia’s, soil I do not mean to intimate that Orton leut himself to the deception but was himself deemed. Poor fellow he appeared here very early a few mornings since, said he could stand it no longer had intimated his intention of resigning to his friends Capt Townsend & Col Thomas who had remonstrated with him in the most urgent manner, told him he would be branded as a traitor of the deepest dye & no one would believe that he had not done so to betray, all their plan of operations of which he had been made cognisant. He went to the general who sent word he was sick & would not see him. Custis advised him to return boldly to Washington & write to the General or Lee himself.  He did so & was immediately placed under arrest. The secretary & Mr. Seward both came to see him & offered him every inducements in their power rank &c to be sent either to Columbus or as an instructor in Calvary tactics West Point, but failing to move him. He is sent to Govenors Island on parole for a month at the end of which time if he does not accept their proposals he is to be kept a prisoner of war. All his assurances that he considered himself bound in honour not to reveal any thing & that you & I had advised him to remain in the U.S service as long as he could be of any use to Genl Scott were not credited. He had brought over his sword & accoutrements & given them to Custis to keep for him, & I believe he had sold his horse. He said John Lee had also talked with him & said under the circumstances he ought not to resign & that it was possible he might accept the situation as West Point [illegible] if he is continued a prisoner. He hoped you would be able to make an exchange for him as at the expiration of the month he supposed they would either have carried out their present plans or abandoned them. Lolo has been sent to Cincinnatti & we hear that Fitzhugh Lee had applied for orders to go to Carlisle we suppose to get possession of his horse, but we have heard nothing of his horse. All day yesterday large government steamers were going up to Georgetown, transports, steam tugs, & all kinds of craft. I have not yet heard for what purpose but it is rumored here that Harpers Ferry is to be retaken  I hope it is well prepared for resistance for I think a decided rebuff now would dampen their ardor amazingly. I pray daily for the aid of protection of the Almighty. Custis astonishes me with his calmness with a possibility of having his early & beautiful home destroyed. The present necessity of abandoning it he never indulges in invective or a word of reflection on the cruel course of the administration. He leaves all that to his Mama & sisters. This is a lovely morning I never saw the country more beautiful, perfectly radiant. The yellow Jesamine in full bloom & perfuming all the air, but a death like illness prevails everywhere you hear no sounds from Washington, not a soul moving about. we may well exclaim, Can such things be? Can man thus trample upon all his Creator has lavished upon him of love & beauty? I think the thousand and years must be commencing when Satan is to be let loose upon earth, to blacken & mar its fair surface & while we must feel that our sins to the personal & national merit the chastisment of the Almighty we may still implore him to spare us with mercy not in wrath to visit us. I have not time now to write more, as Custis is going to Alexa, May God bless & preserve you now & forever.

Your affectionate wife

M C Lee



Source: Photocopy of original letter, Lee Family Papers. Mss1 L51c 289, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond

Transcribed by Katie Gibson, 2017 June 22


[1] William Orton Williams (1839-1863).

[2] Maria Carter Custis (1804-1868).

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