Robert E. Lee and His Family, by John W. Wayland, Chapter 9

Robert E. Lee and His Family

Chapter IX

George Washington Custis Lee, horn September 16, 1832, was named for his mother’s father. He attended a classical school in Fairfax County, Va., of which Rev. George A. Smith was principal; later he received instruction in the celebrated school of Benjamin Hallowell in Alexandria, where his father had studied just before entering West Point Military Academy. On July 1, 1850, he was admitted as a cadet at West Point, at the age of 17 years and six months, having been appointed from At Large by President Taylor. His legal residence at that time was Baltimore, Md., where his father was then constructing Fort Carroll. He graduated No. 1 in a class of 46 members and was commissioned in the U.S. Army as Bvt. 2d Lieutenant, Engineers, July 1, 1854. During the next year or two he served as assistant engineer in the construction of Fort Clinch on Amelia Island, Florida. In 1856 he was engaged in the building of forts, Pulaski and Jackson, in Georgia, and in the improvement of the Savannah River. During the latter part of the same year and for a part of 1857 he took part again in construction work at Fort Clinch. From 1857 to 1859 he was employed in building the defenses at Fort Point at the entrance to San Francisco Bay, California. On October 20, 1859, he was made a 1st lieutenant of engineers. From the latter part of 1859 to 1861 he was assistant in the Engineer Bureau at Washington, and within that period he served as superintending engineer of the repairs made on Fort Washington on the Potomac below Washington City.

On May 2, 1861, Custis Lee resigned from the U.S. Army and went to Richmond where he served as aide-de-camp to President Davis. The latter at one time offered to make him a general in the field if his father, Gen. Robert E. Lee, would appoint him to a responsible position, but the General declined, saying that he would not put his son in an untried position or promote him over veteran officers. When his brother Rooney, who had been captured while severely wounded, was being held a prisoner in Fort Lafayette, Custis offered to take his place because Rooney was married and his wife was ill. Near the end of the war in 1865 he was promoted to the rank of major-general and put in command of the defenses of Richmond. A few days before the surrender at Appomattox he was captured at Sailor’s Creek, with General Ewell and other Con-federate officers.


From the autumn of 1865 to February 1, 1871, General Custis Lee was professor of applied mechanics and engineering in Virginia Military Institute at Lexington. After the death of his father on October 12, 1870, he was elected president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, and took up the duties of that office early in 1871, continuing until July 1, 1897, when his resignation became effective. He was then made president emeritus for life. His remaining years were spent at Ravensworth, in Fairfax County, Va., the home of his sister-in-law, the widow of his brother Rooney, and her sons, Robert and Bolling. He died at Ravensworth on Tuesday morning, February 18, 1913. The next day his body was taken to Lexington to rest beside those of his father and mother in the Lee mausoleum.

General Custis Lee never married. In disposition and habit he was quiet and retiring, not given much to conversation. He shrank from publicity, and I have heard it said, by one who knew him, that he did not seem to be comfortable at commencement times and on other occasions when he had to appear before large audiences. Tulane University conferred upon him the degree of LL.D., and he was given an honorary degree also by an English scientific society.



I, G. W. C. Lee of Ravemsworth, in the County of Fairfax, State of Virginia, being of sound and disposing mind, do hereby make publish and declare this to be my last will and testament, hereby revoking all other wills by me at any time made.

First: I give and bequeath to the Washington and Lee University, to be held by the trustees thereof, the original portrait in oil of General George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale, painted in 1772, the original portrait in oil of General La Fayette by the same artist, painted for General Washington in 1779; all my books and office furniture that I left in Lexington upon my departure therefrom in the summer of 1897, and all my interest in a certain claim against the United States Government on account of wood gotten from Ravensworth by representatives of the Government during the Civil War. By an agreement in writing this claim was placed in the hands of Mr. Charles Kerr, an attorney, for collection. I am advised that it has been allowed by the United States Court of Claims and will be paid as soon as the money is appropriated by Congress. I also give and bequeath to the Washington and Lee University, to be held by the Trustees thereof, the sum of Five Thousand Dollars ($5000.00), which sum is to be invested and the interest used in the preservation and improvement of the Lee Memorial Chapel. Should this bequest to the Chapel be held in violation of any rule of law, T give and bequeath the said sum of Five Thousand Dollars ($5000.00) to the said Trustees absolutely.

Second: All my pictures and portraits, of every kind and description, except the two given to the Washington and Lee University, are to be divided as nearly as may be, into three equal lots, considering number and value, both intrinsic and from the standpoint of sentiment: and I give and bequeath to my sister, Mary Custis Lee, one of the said lots; to my brother, Robert Edward Lee, one of said lots; and to my two Nephews, Robert Edward Lee Jr. and George Bolling Lee, the remaining lot, to he equally divided between them.

I have heretofore given to my said sister, Mary Custis Lee, the “Mount Vernon Relics,” and as further evidence of her title to them I now give and bequeath the same to her absolutely.

Third: I give and bequeath to my sister-in-law, Mary Tabb Lee, widow of my deceased brother, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, the sum of Five Thousand Dollars ($5000.00) and all the furniture of which I may die possessed, except the office furniture given the Washington and Lee University.

Fourth: I give and bequeath to my nephew, Robert Edward Lee, Jr., the sum of Ten Thousand Dollars ($10,000.00) in cash, and a like sum to my nephew, George Bulling Lee.

Fifth: L give and devise to my said nephews, Robert Edward Lee, Jr. and George Bolling Lee, in fee simple, all of my land in Fairfax County, Virginia, howsoever acquired, of which I may die seized, each of said nephews to have a one-half interest therein. I think said land will consist of between twenty-four and twenty-five hundred acres.

Sixth: All the rest and residue of my estate, real, personal, and mixed, wheresoever located, I give, devise, and bequeath to my brother, Robert Edward Lee, absolutely and in fee simple.

Seventh: I hereby nominate and appoint my nephew, Robert Edward Lee, Jr., executor of this my last will and testament, and having perfect confidence in his judgment and integrity, I direct that the said executor shall not be required to give security upon his executorial bond.

Witness my hand this 1st day of February, 1912. G. W. C. Lee.

Signed, published, and declared by G. W. C. Lee as and for his last will and testament, in the presence of us, who in his presence and in the presence of each other, all being present together at the same time, have, at his request, hereunto subscribed our names as witnesses.

Samuel Ayres
F. S. McCandlish
John F. Johnston

Probated in the clerk’s office of Fairfax Circuit Court, Va., Feb. 26, 1913.—F. W. Richardson, clerk.

(See Fairfax County Will Box 5, page 132.)

Soon after I had at Fairfax Court House copied from the records there the will of General Custis Lee, as above, I wrote to his nephew, Dr. George Bolling Lee, The Plaza, New York City, asking him about the “Mount Vernon Relics.” Replying under date of December 18, 1935, Dr. Lee said:

These so called “relics” were pictures, furniture, etc., taken from Arlington at the beginning of the war and stored in Washington, by the United States Government. They originally came from Mount Vernon but were in Arlington, and therefore the property of my Uncle Custis, he having inherited Arlington from his mother. These “relics” were returned to my aunt, Mary Custis Lee, by President McKinley, by the advice of his Attorney-General, and were in her possession at the time of her death.

It is said that Custis Lee at one time made a deed of Arlington to his father and mother, but they refused to accept it. He never was actually in possession of Arlington, which was confiscated by the U.S. Government, but in 1896 Congress appropriated $150,000 to settle with him for the property.

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