One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 15, Number 5
May 2007

For the past few months this column has explored the life of Robert E. Lee from his earliest days through his final “sentimental journey” in 1870 and his death on October 12th of that year at age 63. As a conclusion to this series, it seems fitting to review briefly what happened to his family after his death.

Lee and Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the daughters of George Washington Parke Custis married in 1831. Over the next fifteen years they would have seven children—four daughters and three sons.

Mary’s health continued to deteriorate after her husband’s death in the fall of 1870, and the frail lady was either bedridden or confined to a wheel chair for long periods and an invalid in her last years. She died in Lexington three years later on November 5, 1873, age 65, only three weeks after the sorrowful death of her daughter Agnes. The cause of her death was listed as “rheumatism.” Unforgiving to the very end, she went to her grave with a loathing for all things Northern, and especially the loss of her beloved home “Arlington.”

The following is a brief review of the postwar history of the Lee children listed in the order of their death.

Six of the siblings were alive when Robert E. Lee died in 1870. Anne Carter Lee (1839–1862), the fourth of the Lee children, and named for her father’s mother had died prematurely on October 20, 1862, from typhoid fever at age 23 in Warrenton, North Carolina. Known as “gentle Annie,” she is the only one of the children for which no photograph is known to exist. She had accidentally disfigured and scarred her face with scissors at an early age, and was apparently very self-conscious for the rest of her life. Her father called her “the purest and best” of his children, but was not able to visit her grave in North Carolina until he traveled south on his final journey in 1870.

Eleanor Agnes, the fifth child, was born in 1841 and was called “Wig,” “Wiggie,” and “Aggie” by her family, and was said to be her mother’s favorite. She was clearly the prettiest of Lee’s daughters, but apparently had only one serious romantic inclination. To many young men she seemed aloof and reserved. She kept a journal form 1852—1858 and recorded many of her own as well as the family’s activities during that time including her experience at Virginia Female Institute. She spent considerable time caring for both parents when they were ill, and accompanied her father on his last major trip through the South in 1870. Never very healthy, she suffered from recurring symptoms from what was probably rheumatic fever, and perhaps a heart condition, and died a painful death on October 15, 1873, at the president’s house at Washington College in Lexington, the Lee’s last home. Her mother died in the same house about three weeks later.

William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, who was named after his mother’s brother, was the first of Lee’s sons to die. Born in 1837, the third child and second son, he died in 1891 at the age of 54. “Rooney,” as the family called him, resigned from the prewar army in 1859 and began farming at the “White House,” a plantation on the Pamunkey River that had been willed to him by his maternal grandfather. He resumed farming there when the war was over.

An immense physical specimen of a man about six feet four inches tall, he capitalized on his wartime fame and served in the state senate for four years. In 1887 he was elected to the House of Representatives, but died during his third term on October 15, 1891, at “Ravensworth,” a family home that he had inherited from his grandfather. Two of his grandchildren, Robert E. Lee IV and Mary Walker Lee Bowman were in Charlottesville a few years ago for the rededication of the Lee and Jackson statues. Robert E. Lee V, the last male heir of General Lee bearing the name, descends from this branch of the family.

Mildred Childe Lee, named for her father’s youngest sister, was the youngest of Lee’s children. She was born in 1846 and died in 1905 at age 59. She was called “Life,” or “Precious Life” and was described with such adjectives as “outgoing,” “effervescent,” “vivacious,” and “appealing.” In spite of these attributes she never married, although she is said to have had several serious romantic attachments. But she kept active, and played the role of a hostess for some of her brother Custis’s social functions when he became president of the college. She took a number of trips abroad and also lived at times with her brother Rob.

Mildred and her older sister Mary Custis were never close and seldom crossed paths, and indeed the two were not often in the United States simultaneously. Both, however, attended the unveiling of a statue of their father in New Orleans in 1884, and six years later were present in Richmond for the dedication of the famous Lee Memorial.

In 1905 Mildred went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. While there for several weeks she visited friends, alumni of Washington and Lee, and was warmly received by several Confederate veterans groups. She was found in her room on the morning of March 27, 1905, unconscious and was pronounced dead soon after, probably as a result of a massive stroke at age 59.

George Washington Custis Lee was the eldest of the Lee children. He was born at Fort Monroe in 1832 and named after his maternal grandfather who owned the “Arlington” estate. The family called him “Boo,” or simply “Custis,” and he was the only one of the seven children not born at Arlington.

He became professor of mathematics at V.M.I. at war’s end, and when his father died in 1870, Custis was named to succeed his as president of Washington College. He held that position for over a quarter of a century before resigning in 1897. In poor health and apparently suffering from depression bordering on melancholia, the old bachelor moved to the family property near Alexandria that his brother Rooney inherited known as “Ravenscroft.”

One historian described Custis as a shy, reticent, reserved, and fastidious man who never got out from under the shadow of his father. But he did have one significant accomplishment after the war to his credit. In 1874 he brought suit against the Federal government to reclaim the family’s treasured ancestral home “Arlington.” The issue was finally decided in 1882 when the Supreme Court ruled that the national government had acted illegally in seizing “Arlington,” and must either return the property or pay indemnity. With forty thousand graves already present at the estate, Custis accepted Congress’s offer of $150,000 which he divided between his tow remaining sisters—Mildred and Mary Custis.

Custis Lee died at “Ravenscroft” on February 18, 1913, at age 81.

Robert E. Lee, Jr., was born in 1843 and was the youngest son in the family. He had been a student at the University of Virginia prior to the war, and his father offered to pay his tuition for his final year in the fall of 1865. However, he had inherited a plantation on the Pamunkey River form his maternal grandfather called “Romancoke,” and instead of returning to the university after the war, he decided to try to make a living farming. He and his sister Mildred were close, and they took a trip to Europe together in 1875.

“Rob” married twice, first in 1871 and again in 1894 as a widower. He lived near Lexington in 1891 as an executive of the Rockbridge Mining Company, but left in 1893 and moved to Washington to work in the real estate business. However, after his second marriage in 1894 he moved back to “Romancoke” and resumed his agricultural pursuits. He died on October 19, 1914, at age 71 at his summer home in Fauquier County called “Nordley.” He had two daughters and numerous descendants, but no male heirs.

He is perhaps best known for the comprehensive biography that he wrote in 1904 about his father that includes much personal and anecdotal material.

The last of the Lee children to die was Mary Custis who was born in 1835 and lived to the ripe old age of 83 before dying in 1918. Known as “Daughter,” she was the one “who marched to the tune of a different drummer.” The least feminine of the girls, like her sisters, she never married, was semi-estranged from the rest of the family, traveled all over the world, and was described as a “rebellious and obstinate” child. Although absent from Virginia and the family for extended periods, she nevertheless retained her devotion to the Confederacy and to her father as exemplified by an incident in Egypt. Invited to attend a dinner given by the American consul in honor of former President Grant, she declined, saying: “I wouldn’t sit at the same table with General Grant to save his life.”

Mary Custis died November 22, 1918, at the age of eighty-three at the Homestead Hotel in Hot Springs, Virginia. She refused to be bound by convention even in death, and directed that her body be cremated, and that her ashes be returned to Lexington in a container and be inscribed with the words: “The last surviving child of General Robert E. Lee.”

All of the Lees are buried in the family crypt at Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University in Lexington. Annie’s body was “returned home” in 1994 from her original grave in North Carolina.

An odd statistic about the nine members of the family including both father and mother is that seven of them died within a six-week period in October and November over the 56 years extending from 1862 to 1918. Five died during the month of October alone, and two, Agnes and Rooney, died on October 15.

On another subject: The V.M.I. New Market Day Memorial ceremony is at 2 P.M. Wednesday May 16 in Lexington. I strongly recommend the hour’s drive to witness this very emotional event.