One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 10, Number 9
September 2002

Edward Porter Alexander, one of the more scholarly and perceptive Civil War participants, and later historian, described Robert E. Lee as a complex man who possessed a combination of extraordinary character, military brilliance, and leadership. Douglas Southall Freeman and Clifford Dowdey on the other hand, portrayed the idol of the Confederacy as a relatively uncomplicated and simple Christian gentleman of great character, who possessed stunning military talents. As much as Alexander, Freeman, and Dowdey admired Lee, however, they and other historians have noted that Lee was not without his faults. The common theme to these criticisms is that some of the more attractive elements of his personality hindered his performance as a general because, among other things, they rendered him unable to deal harshly with wayward subordinates. But, even with all his flaws, and after all the legends and myths are stripped away, Lee still remains the embodiment of the Confederacy and an American legend. Much of this admiration stems from the fact that he was a man who stuck to his principles against all odds and made a monstrous effort to achieve the near impossible.

Lee was more than a war hero, however. He came from an old and distinguished Virginia family, inculcated with a sense of noblesse oblige, and was a devoted family man. The many years that he spent away from his wife and children were especially onerous for a man so family conscious. Separated from them he often suffered loneliness and, sometimes, acute nostalgia. Letters, as well as diary and journal entries, offer insight into the strong familial relationship between Lee and his children, and especially his daughters. Compounding the problem of prolonged family separations resulting from numerous military transfers and assignments was the poor health of his wife Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee. With her physical disabilities, Lee probably felt an even greater obligation to communicate with his children frequently during his prolonged absences, and to relieve her as much as possible of the responsibilities of maintaining a home and large family. What follows is a brief overview of the Lee siblings.

Robert Edward and Mary Custis Lee had seven children: four daughters and three boys over a period of 14 years from 1832 to 1846. George Washington Custis Lee, named after his wife’s father, was the oldest. Known as “Custis,” he graduated from West Point in 1854, ranked 1st in his class, much to the gratification of his proud father who was then superintendent of the academy. Custis served in the old army until the Civil War broke out, when he was named as a captain in the Confederate Army. By June of 1863 he was a brigadier general, then named as major general in October of 1864. He served as a member of Jefferson Davis’s staff for much of the war, but in the final retreat he commanded a collection of clerks and naval personnel attached to Ewell’s Corps and was captured at Saylor’s Creek. After the war he became a professor at V.M.I. in Lexington and, following his father’s death, was named President of Washington and Lee College in 1870 where he served until 1897. Custis is believed to have suffered from depression for much of his later life. He never married and he died in 1913.

The eldest daughter, Mary Custis Lee, was born in 1835. Very different from her sisters, she was assertive, independent, had a zest for new adventures, and over the years moved in a divergent path from the rest of the family. She lived abroad most of the time between 1873 and the outbreak of World War I, and traveled extensively to Europe, Australia and other places. Uninhibited, she once refused to attend a dinner party given by American officials in Egypt in honor of former President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, saying that “she wouldn’t sit down at the same table with General Grant to save his life.”

Because of her travels and other reasons, she managed to miss the funerals of her father and mother, as well as her three sisters. The last surviving child of Robert E. Lee, she died in 1918 while living at the Homestead in Hot Springs.

William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, otherwise known as “Rooney,” was born in 1837. Rooney withdrew from Harvard in 1857 before completing his degree, but was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the army shortly thereafter. He entered the Confederate army as a captain of cavalry in 1861, and subsequently rose through the ranks to Major General of Cavalry in 1864. Wounded at Brandy Station on June 9, 1863, he was captured soon afterward by a Federal raiding party while recuperating with family at “Hickory Hill” in Hanover County. Finally exchanged in March of 1864, he rejoined the army and surrendered with his father at Appomattox. A great bear of a man, probably sis feet three or four inches tall, he was one of the finest generals in the cavalry corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.

After the war, Rooney served in the state senate for four years, and in 1887 he was elected to the House of Representatives. He died in 1891.

Anne Carter Lee, better known as “Annie,” was born in 1839. An unfortunate childhood accident involving scissors is said to have damaged an eye and disfigured her. Perhaps for that reason, she is the only Lee sibling for which no authenticated portrait or photograph is known to exist. She died from typhoid fever in October of 1862 at age 23 at Jones Springs near Warrenton, North Carolina, the only one of Lee’s children to die before his death. Annie’s death greatly saddened her father, and caused him to weep openly in grief when he heard the news in camp near Martinsburg. Lee visited his daughter’s grave for the first and only time in 1870 when he traveled south. Annie’s remains were exhumed a few years ago, and she was re-interred in the Lee family crypt in the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee.

Eleanor Agnes Lee, the third daughter and fifth child, was born in 1841. In his letters, Lee often referred to her as “Daughter.” Although said to be somewhat aloof and reserved, contemporary photographs show she was by far the most attractive of the four daughters. She was the only one who apparently seriously contemplated marriage. Some have speculated that her father may have influenced Agnes to reject a soldier with whom she was romantically involved.

Agnes was both a companion and a nurse for her ailing father on his last grand, but wearying tour of the South in the spring of 1870. Never in robust health, Agnes died of cholera at age 32 in October 1873, only three weeks before her mother’s death.

Robert E. Lee, Jr., born in 1843, was a student at the University of Virginia at the beginning of the war. With youthful exuberance he very much wanted to join the army at the beginning of the war, but his father insisted that he remain in school. The general relented a year later, and he enlisted as a private in the Rockbridge Artillery, in March 1862. He was promoted to 2nd lieutenant in the autumn of 1862, and transferred to the cavalry where he served as an aide on the staff of his brother Rooney. He was later made captain.

Young “Rob” had the dubious distinction of being un-recognized by his father at least twice in his life. The first such event occurred in the summer of 1848 when Lee returned from Mexico after a two-year absence from home. As he walked into Arlington and greeted the assembled family and friends, he asked, “Where is my little boy?” Answering his own question, he picked up the nearest youngster from the floor and kissed him joyfully. To the distress of his five-year-old son and namesake, Lee had mistakenly picked up Rob’s best friend who happened to be visiting at the time!

The second case of non-recognition took place on the last day of the Battle of Second Manassas on August 30, 1862. As the battle ended, General Lee had ridden forward on “Traveller” to the most advanced artillery unit in order to study the ground in front of the position. Not fifteen feet from him was a silent gun. “General,” said Captain Mason of his staff, when Lee at last dropped his glasses, “here is some one who wants to speak to you.”

Lee looked and saw a powder-blackened, and begrimed gunner, his sponge staff in his hand. He was accustomed to receive all manner of requests from all ranks of his army, so with no surprise in his voice he said, “Well, my man, what can I do for you?” “Why, General,” said the cannoneer in aggrieved and familiar tones, “don’t you know me?” It was his son Rob!

Always somewhat in awe of the illustrious general who was his father, Robert E. Lee, Jr., became the family chronicler with the publication of Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee in 1904. He inherited property in King William County from his grandfather and farmed there after the war, along with other ventures in mining and real estate. He died in 1914 at age 71.

When Lee wrote to his youngest daughter Mildred Childe, he addressed her as “My precious Life,” sometimes shortened to “Life.” Born in 1846, she was said to be her father’s favorite, and after the war took frequent rides on horseback with the general about Lexington and vicinity. Like her other sisters, she never married. The most compelling explanation for Mildred’s not marrying is that she was unable to find a young man who could match her father. “To me,” she wrote, “he seems a Hero—and all other men small in comparison.”

In 1905 Mildred went to New Orleans for Mardis Gras and to visit friends. The day after meeting with a group of admiring old soldiers she was found dead of a stroke in her hotel room at age 59.

Of the seven children of Robert and Mary Custis Lee, only Rooney and Rob married, and many of their descendants survive today. However, in the direct family line, the Lee name continues only with Robert E. Lee IV and his son Robert E. Lee V who are descendants of Rooney Lee. Both live today in northern Virginia. The former (along with his sister) was our honored guest in Charlottesville several years ago to help celebrate the restoration of the Lee statue.