Robert E. Lee and His Family, by John W. Wayland, Chapter 8

Robert E. Lee and His Family

Chapter VIII

Photo by Miley of Lexington.

General Robert E. Lee about 1870

Mrs. Lee, born October 1, 1808, was a little more than a year and eight months younger than her husband; she outlived him by a few days over three years, dying November 5, 1873. Her name is associated especially with three famous homes: Arlington, Richmond, and Lexington. Her father, George Washington Parke Custis, at 23, married Mary Lee Fitzhugh, aged 16, on July 7, 1804. G. W. P. Custis was the son of John Parke Custis and a grandson of Martha Washington: he and his sister Nelly were the adopted children of General Washington and his wife. Mary Lee Fitzhugh was a daughter of William of Chatham, near Fredericksburg; later, of Ravensworth, not far from Alexandria. William was succeeded at Ravensworth by his son, William Henry Fitzhugh. For the latter his niece, Mrs. Robert E. Lee, named her second son.

The splendid house at Arlington, where Mary Custis Lee had her home most of the time until 1861, was finished by her father, George Washington Parke Custis, about the time of his marriage, in 1804. He and his wife, Mary Fitzhugh Custis, had four children, all of whom except the third, Mary Anne Randolph (Mrs. Lee), died in infancy. She and her brother, Edward Hill Custis, younger than herself, were born at Annfield in what is now Clarke County, Va., according to the showing in Miss Rose M. MacDonald’s detailed biography of Mrs. Lee, published in 1939. Some of the Tidewater families spent portions of the year in the lower Shenandoah Valley, the region now embraced in Clarke County, Va., and Jefferson County, W. Va.

Photo by André Studio, Lexington.

Early in her married life
From the walls of Lee Chapel, Washington and Lee University;
from a painting; artist unknown.

The marriage of Mary Custis and Robert E. Lee in 1831 has been chronicled in Chapter IV. Arlington was their home until 1861, but they resided for intervals at Fortress Monroe, Va., Fort Hamilton on Long Island, in Baltimore, and at West Point, N.Y. When Colonel Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army and went to Richmond to offer his services to Virginia in April, 1861, Mrs. Lee and her daughters did not go with him. They remained at Arlington until the next month when the Federals took possession of Arlington. During the next year and a half they sojourned at different places in Virginia, most of the time with friends and relatives. Letters of General Lee to his wife show that she was at the following places at the times indicated: at Ravensworth in May; at Edward Turner’s in Fauquier County, in June; at Audley in August; at Hot Springs in September and October; at Shirley on the James River in November—all in 1861.

Clarke County, Virginia
Present home of Mr. and Mrs. William B. Watkins.

Audley, in Clarke County near to Annfield, had been the home of Warner Washington II for twenty years or more prior to 1818. The place then went into the hands of Lawrence Lewis whose wife was Nelly Custis, Mrs. Lee’s aunt. Following the death of her husband, Nelly Custis Lewis in or about 1840 went to live at Audley with her son, Lorenzo Lewis, and his family. She died at Audley in 1852. Her son Lorenzo had died in 1847, but his widow, Esther Coxe Lewis, continued living at Audley until her death in 1885. (See “The Washingtons and Their Homes,” by John W. Wayland, 1944, pages 201–210.) From his camp in western Virginia, September 1, 1861, General Lee wrote to his wife:

AUDLEY, near Berryville, Clarke County, Va., where Mrs. Lee
spent some time in the summer of 1861.

I have received, dearest Mary, your letter of August 18th from Audley, and am very glad to get news of your whereabouts. . . . I am very glad you are enabled to see so many of your friends. I hope you have found all well in your tour, and am very glad that our cousin Esther bears the separation from all her sons so bravely.[1]

Mrs. Esther Lewis, Mrs. Lee’s hostess at Audley, had recently sent her six sons into the Confederate service.

For some time in 1862 Mrs. Lee was at the White House on the Pamunkey River, but in the latter part of that year she went to Richmond. For a part of the time there she evidently lived on Clay Street, but later her home was on Franklin Street in the house now occupied by the Virginia Historical Society. There General Lee found her and her daughters when he came hack to Richmond in April, 1865.

From a photograph by A. H. Plecker about 1865. From the
walls of Lee Chapel Washington and Lee University.

The sojourn at Derwent and Oakland, in the counties of Powhatan and Cumberland, and the establishment of the home in Lexington have already been outlined. During the last ten years of her, life Mrs. Lee was much afflicted with rheumatism, and considerable periods in the summers were spent at Rockbridge Baths, Warm Springs, and Hot Springs. In later years she was moved about in a wheeled chair, and General Lee was unfailing in his attentions to her, entertaining her with conversation and reading. His youthful care of his mother was duplicated in the constant and devoted care of his wife. In spite of her afflictions, Mrs. Lee maintained a fine spirit and exerted herself in every way possible in behalf of those about her. Her efforts were directed especially towards aiding the men who had been crippled in battle and towards promoting the welfare of their families.


[1] “Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee,” by Captain Robert E. Lee, 1924, page 43.

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