Robert E. Lee and His Children
Virginia Louise Lee


“How Firm a Foundation”

Title of Robert E. Lee’s Favorite Hymn

Now that he was so close to Arlington, naturally the eager young officer made another call on Miss Custis and the date was set for the wedding, reluctant consent having been obtained from her father.

The wedding preparations were a time of gay activity at the stately mansion as its only child and heiress made ready for her nuptial day.

Married, at Arlington House, by the Reverend Dr. Keith, Lieutenant ROBERT LEE, of the United States Corps of Engineers, to Miss MARY A. R. CUSTIS, only daughter of G. W. P. Custis, Esq.1

With this brief announcement of his wedding Robert E. Lee entered a new phase of his life. It was to be a long and happy marriage, blessed with seven children. From the close companionship with his mother during childhood he had learned to enjoy the company of women, and all his life he appreciated pretty girls, but he always cherished the sweet, intelligent girl he married, even though she was anything but a beauty herself, having a rather sharp chin and a too prominent nose.2

The bride had six of her cousins, Catherine Mason, Mary Goldsborough, Marietta Turner, Angela Lewis, Julia Calvert, and Brittania Peter as bridesmaids. The groom had his brother Smith as his best man, while the escorts for the bridesmaids included Lts. John P. Kennedy, James A. Chambers, Richard Tilghman, James A. Prentiss and Thomas Turner.3

The ceremony took place in the room to the right of the entrance to Arlington, under the center, flower-draped arch. The bride was pale and nervous, the groom felt as if he were at the blackboard at West Point, waiting to recite a problem. Lee wrote to a friend, “The clergyman had a few words to say, though he dwelt upon them as if he had been reading my Death warrant, and there was a tremulousness in the hand I held that made me anxious for him to end.”4

The match was considered a brilliant one for Lieutenant Lee, his wife being looked upon as a great heiress, possessed of large estates, and a multitude of slaves. But in the person of Mary Custis herself he got more than could be estimated in worldly terms. Though an only child, and the object of tender and absorbing love from her parents, she was unspoiled. Not beautiful, she had a charming manner, wit, and was intensely interested in, and thoughtful of, others. She enjoyed society and was as popular in Washington as in Virginia.5

Like his mother before her, she was to be one of the major influences in the life of Robert E. Lee. Childbirth and illness were to make her a semi-invalid for years, progressing to almost complete immobility in later life, and he was to become nurse and attendant to her as he had been to his mother. This dependence served to further strengthen the self-control which a mother’s love and need had bred in him when a young boy. Mary Custis had much the same religious nature as Anne Carter Lee also, and she and her husband shared a deep spiritual love. Often apart because of his duties, yet rarely was a woman more fully a part of her husband’s life. She loved him and was never awed by him, but in time she developed a respect for his character that became reverence. Like her father she was a little inclined towards untidiness in dress and was a poor housekeeper. Habitually late for appointments, which must have sorely tried her punctual husband,6 she was nevertheless thrifty and by her diligence in sewing she managed to stretch a meager budget.

As a girl at Arlington she had been in the center of a social life which often included distinguished guests from Washington officialdom and she retained a keen if uncritical interest in public affairs all her life. She was outspoken in her opinions and did not hesitate to differ with her husband in no uncertain terms, when his natural reserve prompted him to say little. Mary Custis, like her mother, was an avid horticulturist and kept records of her plants and flowers with an almost scientific precision, and like her father, she had some talent in painting. Her friends pictured her as cheerful, industrious and talkative, with a quick and understanding sympathy, a ready smile, and an alertness that made friends and brought admiring attention. She was wholly without personal ambition, keenly aware of the needs of others, and patient and devout in the face of her afflictions.7

Such was the woman Robert E. Lee married that warm night in June, 1831. The service was followed by a sumptuous bridal supper and after the custom of the day, the entire wedding party stayed on at the mansion for several days, prolonging the festivities. Then the couple made a round of visits to kinsmen, extending into August. Stratford was not one of the places visited. It had been sold under the sheriff’s hammer by order of the Westmoreland Court, and had passed out of the Lee family.8

Early in August the newlyweds had to give up their pleasant journeying and return to duty at Fort Monroe. They shared quarters with Captain Andrew Talcott, and after the spaciousness of Arlington, the tiny rooms seemed cramped and stuffy. But Mary Lee determined she would live within the means of her soldier husband and not complain. Lieutenant Lee was very popular at the fort and a series of entertainments was given to meet his wife and honor the pair. Mrs. Lee quickly made many friends herself as her sincere interest in others and her open, friendly manner attracted people to her.

She worked hard to brighten the dismal quarters, sewing colorful curtains and trying to plant flowers in the uncooperative soil around their building. She sewed and read and studied and sent back to Arlington for her Latin grammar. She attended church services held in a vacant room and soon was teaching Sunday School. Activities to raise funds for the purchase of books and lessons for its students and Bible lessons with Cassy, the maid who had come with her from Arlington, also absorbed some of her time. Another interest was the progress of the Colonization Society to which her father had been a generous contributor. The lack of privacy depressed her and she was satiated with the incessant tea drinking but the prospect of going home to Arlington for Christmas cheered her immensely.

Christmas at the old home was a happy time and Mary luxuriated in the life she had known before her marriage. As the time for return to the fort drew near, her happiness at being at home again, the poor conditions for travel, and the evident loneliness of her parents, induced her husband to consent to her remaining some time longer. She lingered on, seemingly in no hurry to return until Robert, impatient, wrote to her in May, saying he could not consent to her staying longer than the first of June.9 On June 6, he wrote again, urging her to come and requesting her to arrange for an eighth of a cask of good wine to be sent to him.10

When she was back at Fort Monroe the Lees moved into their own home. Soon it was time to curtail the endless succession of teas and parties and concentrate on the sewing of sacks and wrappers. For on September 16, 1832, the first child, a son, was born to Lieutenant and Mrs. Robert E. Lee.

He was named George Washington Custis Lee, for her father, and was a fat, healthy baby. Her parents were overjoyed and considered him the heir to Arlington, while the young mother now had a much more interesting task to look forward to each day and centered most of her activity on her little son. He was given various nicknames, Bun, Bunny, Boose, Dunket, among them but “Boo” remained with him all his life. Mary wrote of him to her mother, “I asked Bouse just now what I should say to grandmother and he replied ‘loodle, loodle’.”11

His father was jubilant over the birth of the baby and loved him to distraction, confessing “Master Custis is the most darling boy in the world.”12 These early years of marriage and parenthood were among the happiest years of Robert Lee’s life. “I would not be unmarried for all you could offer me,” he summed it up later in a letter to a friend of West Point days. Perhaps because at last he had the security of a home and love that he had not had in childhood?

He and his friend Talcott, whose lovely wife was a cousin of Mrs. Lee, entered on a mock race to provide each other’s offspring with future marriage partners. But since “the beautiful Talcott” almost yearly entered another candidate in the race, Lee soon avowed his intention of withdrawing, leaving the lists open to others more ambitious than he.13 After he was transferred back to Washington the badinage about the babies continued in letters back and forth between the two friends. For in Andrew Talcott Lee had found a man wholly congenial to his nature. Refined, handsome and artistic, Talcott, a Connecticut Yankee, was a Whig like Lee, attended the same church, both enjoyed quiet fun and drollery, both were devoted to duty, and both were masters of the science of engineering.

Duty in Washington meant that once more Arlington was home. As an assistant to the Chief of Engineers, Lee rode back and forth to his office in Washington over the Long Bridge. Mr. Custis grew reconciled to his daughter’s marriage, aided by the charms of his little namesake, and came to admire and respect his son-in-law. Robert had always had the greatest esteem for his wife’s parents and looked upon Mrs. Custis as his mother. Mary was overjoyed to be home again to show off her winsome son, and to give her parents the joy of their companionship, and all would have been well except that Lieutenant Lee was unhappy doing a desk job.

In the spring of 1835 relief came with orders to proceed west to assist his old friend Talcott in settling a dispute about the boundary between the territory of Michigan and Ohio.14 It was anticipated that he would be gone only for a few weeks but the mission took the entire summer. It was during his absence that his second child and first daughter, Mary Custis Lee, was born. Mrs. Lee had suffered a pelvic infection which had been improperly treated and was in wretched health when he returned. She was confined to bed for four months, but “my little Mary Custis has become quite a beauty,” she wrote cousin Harriet Talcott, “She is a clear brunette with brown hair, very fine large black eyes, a perfect little mouth and respectable nose and is perfectly fat and healthy.”15

Mary was a special delight to her father. He declared she was a beauty and as brown as a berry. He tried to put a curl in her hair by constantly oiling it but without much success. Writing to a friend to describe the beauties of Arlington, he says, “But the brightest flower there blooming is my daughter. Oh, she is a dear one and if only sweet sixteen I would wish myself a cannibal that I might eat her!”16 Her nickname became “Mee” although when she was grown and the other children had come along, her father usually referred to her as Daughter and the others called her Sister.

Duty in the Chief Engineer’s office was resumed after his tour out west and when Mary was not quite two years old a second son was born. He was named William Henry Fitzhugh after Mrs. Lee’s uncle. This son was given the nickname “Rooney.”17

A month after Rooney’s birth, Lee received welcome orders to go to St. Louis to assist in opening up Mississippi for navigation. He was disgusted with office politics and the spirit that prevailed in official Washington. Mrs. Lee’s health had improved a great deal, so he entrusted the care of his family to five year old Custis and left in July 1837. Winter prevented accomplishing much and he came back to Arlington where he was partly on leave and partly on duty in the engineer’s office. When the weather was favorable for the resumption of the work he started back for St. Louis, this time taking his family with him. While in St. Louis he received a promotion to captain and felt he could “handle with pleasure” the additional pay of his new rank for the Lees were expecting another baby in early summer.

Winter again brought the work to a halt and the family was free to go home but navigation was closed on the river and to ride overland was out of the question with Mary in a delicate condition. So they stayed in St. Louis for the winter, the first Christmas they had been away from Arlington since 1834. In the spring Captain Lee took his wife and family home but almost immediately had to leave and return to St. Louis. The next month, on June 18, 1839) (sic), the fourth child, Anne Carter Lee, was born.

It was during this period of his first prolonged absence from his family and Virginia friends that he began to write those letters revealing the deep affection in his heart for his wife, children and friends. He particularly missed his children and felt that nothing could compensate him for being parted from them. He worried that they were not receiving sufficient discipline from their easy-going mother. He admonished Mary to be careful of the dear children and wrote longingly, “If I could only get a squeeze at that little fellow turning up his sweet mouth to ‘keeze Baba’.”18

Another winter over meant another leave and the father hurried home to see his new baby. He had been gone seven months and was elated to be home again. Although only thirty years old he was beginning to feel patriarchal as he surveyed his brood. Happily his time at home extended long beyond the period he had anticipated and he had an opportunity to enjoy the company of his children and to observe their individual traits and temperaments. It was a pleasant winter. Each night between the setting of the sun and the lighting of the candles was the children’s hour. Mr. and Mrs. Custis sat on one side of the big fireplace which lighted the room with its great flames and cast grotesque shadows on the ceiling. On the other side of the hearth sat Captain Lee and his wife, she holding little Rooney in her arms. Mary perched on a stool at her grandmother’s feet while Custis stood by his father’s side, round-eyed and entranced as his father regaled them all with tales of his life in the west. But soon it was time to leave again.

The period of close association with his children only made him more homesick for them when he saw children out west. One day, feeling lonesome, he went for a ride. He saw a number of little girls all dressed up in white frocks and pantalets, their hair plaited and tied with ribbons, running and chasing each other in all directions. There were about twenty-three of them, all nearly the same size, the oldest not over seven or eight. He wrote Mary that it was the prettiest sight he ever saw in the west and perhaps in all his life.19

October found Captain Lee finishing up the work in St. Louis and anxious to be home again for the usual reason. He felt that the babies were arriving a little too regularly and this time he did not like the idea of another one while Annie was still under two years of age. He wrote that he could have dispensed with her approach for another year or two more, but since she was in such haste to greet her Pa, he was very glad to see her. She was named Eleanor Agnes, but always called Agnes, although her nickname became “Wig” for no known reason.20

A brief inspection trip south occupied him for some time then in April 1841 he was sent to Fort Hamilton, New York to strengthen the coast defenses, and the family went with him. The house assigned to them was in a wretched condition, requiring much renovation, but as in the early days of her married life at Fort Monroe, Mrs. Lee set about improving it as best she could.

Five happy years were spent in New York, marred only by Captain Lee’s growing dissatisfaction with his work as it proved progressively less challenging. But every winter the family went back to Arlington to spend Christmas in the old way. The beautiful mansion would be garlanded with ropes of pine and cedar draped over mirrors and doors and stairways. A piece of last year’s Yule log was placed in the fireplace in the drawing room ready to be lighted when the new Yule log was brought in, as Mr. Custis had seen General Washington light it many times at Mount Vernon. Long before daylight on Christmas morning the children would be up and chattering, eager to get at their presents. After breakfast came the bundling up as those old enough prepared to go into town to church. In the afternoon outdoor sports was the order of the day, with the fortunate recipients of new skates and sleds trying them out on the snowy slopes or on the frozen canal. Many visitors would call to extend the greetings of the season. In the evening a sumptuous dinner of roast turkey, browned and steaming, old Virginia ham, plum pudding, mince pies and all the other delicacies usual for the holiday would be served around the festive board. Carol singing and prayers closed the happy, joyous day.21

In the autumn of 1843 the family started back to Virginia earlier than usual in order that the sixth child, Robert Edward Lee, Jr., might be born at Arlington. He made his appearance on October 27, and as usual the father made fun of his looks. Whenever a boy was born he always joked about its long nose, “like his Pa’s,” and how in spite of it Mrs. Lee expected the child to become beautiful.22 Robert’s nickname became Robertus, Rob, and mainly “Bertus.”

Lee somewhat grimly welcomed these newcomers who seemed to arrive much faster than they should have, even if expected. When his fourth child had been born he had written somewhat philosophically

Do you know how many little Lees there are now? It is astonishing with what facility the precious creatures are dressed up for the return of their Papa! I am sure to be introduced to a new one every Christmas. They are the dearest annuals of the season. . . . With what a bountiful hand are these little responsibilities distributed.23

Although he sometimes felt overwhelmed by these additions, mainly because his salary had not kept pace with them, he did not take lightly his responsibility for rearing them. Every sickness of his children was an anxiety, each injury to them was an agony to him. Once, while in New York, Rooney climbed into a hayloft and cut of the ends of the fore and middle fingers of his left hand on a hay cutter. The doctor sewed the finger tips back on, hoping they would reknit, but the father suffered even more than the son lest he be maimed for life. He stayed by the boy’s bedside for several nights so that he would not toss in his sleep, or move the bandages, and thus undo all that the doctor had done.24 As a man and as a parent, Lee was singularly sensitive to personal beauty, and had an inward shuddering at any deformity. In this case Rooney’s fingers were saved and he grew to manhood physically as handsome as his father.

It was at Fort Hamilton that Captain Lee rescued the little dog Dart that was to become the mother of the family’s loved pet, Spec. Lee loved animals and the Lee home was never without a pet of some kind. When Mrs. Lee and the family were away Spec and the cats kept him company. When he was away he would always write about the pets as if they were members of the family.

Even though the pets kept him company when Mrs. Lee and the children were at Arlington, he was lonesome. His manner must have depressed the servants for he tells Mrs. Lee in a letter revealing his ever present sense of humor, “I do not know whether it was your departure or my somber phiz which brought Miss Leary (the maid) out Sunday in a full set of mourning.”25

In February, 1846, Mildred Childe Lee, the seventh and last child of the Lees, was born. She became so lively and vivacious that her father gave her the pet name “Life.” He was then thirty-nine, Mrs. Lee thirty-eight. There were new four girls and three boys in the family. Custis, the oldest, was fourteen, Mary was eleven, Rooney was nearing nine, Annie was six and a half, Agnes was five, Robert was two and half, and Mildred in the cradle.

Robert E. Lee felt increasing responsibility for his children now that they were growing older. He considered his wife too lenient with them, and though harsh discipline was contrary to his nature, nevertheless he felt that he must take a hand in the rearing of the youngsters, especially the boys. With Custis old enough to do battle with algebra, he started the long series of letters to his sons in which he sought, like his father before him to his sons, to give guidance, help, admonition and counsel in forming their characters and their careers. He wanted to make sure, in so far as it lay in his power to do so, that his children’s lives would be built on a foundation firm enough to withstand all the shocks that might assail them, and that they might prove by their example that “human virtue was equal to human calamity.”

Then, too, having known a father’s lack, he wanted his sons to feel that he was always behind them, caring and interested. Perhaps he felt a little guilty that his absence from them, justifiable though it was, nevertheless paralleled his own sense of loss as a child, so through his letters and when he was with them he tried to express how much he loved them regardless of circumstances.

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