Robert E. Lee and His Children
Virginia Louise Lee


One father is more than a hundred schoolmasters.


Robert E. Lee had been instructed by both his father and his mother in the art of letter writing. He himself remarked concerning letters, “It has been said that out (sic) letters are good representations of our minds. They certainly present a good criterion for judgment of the character of the individual.”1

And it is mainly through the very large number of letters that he wrote to his children that he best reveals, in his role of father, how noble was his character and how simple and sweet was his mind.

The letters are full of advice and admonition, but behind the sometimes solemn preachments was a devoted tenderness and a watchful care founded not only on parental duty but on deep and abiding affection as well.

Perhaps the earliest is the one he wrote to Custis, aged fourteen, away at school, and needing a father’s counsel. He had received news of the boy’s grades and compliments him on his good standing. Then he says, characteristically, “You must endeavor to learn, in order to compensate me for the pain I suffer in being separated from you.” He then relates Rooney’s sad experience with the cutting knife and points you, “You see the fruits of disobedience.” Then again, the loving bantering note replaces the moralizing, “Rob says I must tell Boo that Yob’s coming to ee him.”2

All the Lee children were somewhat imperious and headstrong and it was this trait that most worried the strongly self-controlled father, although he was much more lenient in this respect with his daughters than with his sons. The theme of self-discipline and obedience is reiterated in all his correspondence.

As the boys grew up he addressed himself directly to them on these and other subjects so that his letters smack rather of the heavy father. But these do not give a true picture of the family life, for his children were devoted to him.3 They were wise enough to see beneath the preaching and moralizing the deep love that prompted it.

His love and affection was not a matter of feeling only but remembering his father’s failing, and its unhappy results, took practical forms of care and sacrifice.4 Before he left for the Mexican War he prepared his will so that his wife and children would be provided for in the event of his death.5

Whenever it was possible he shared in the activities of his sons. He encouraged his boys in every healthy outdoor exercise and sport. He taught them to ride, and gave them skates and sleds, often coming out to watch as they and their companions enjoyed the ice and snow. He was anxious that they learn how to swim, and took an interest in every detail of their lives.

Sometimes the boys would hold races and high jumps out in the back yard and he would join in the fun, with such a gracious manner that his sons’ friends were never ill at ease with him as is usually the case when adults attempt to join children at play.

He had a well developed sense of humor of a quiet kind, and adopted a bantering, teasing manner with his children and all those he liked. This humor breaks through the sententiousness of some of his letters revealing behind the father who took his fatherhood seriously the essential humaneness and childlike gayety (sic) of the man.

He had a fondness for pet names and bestowed one on everyone he knew. His children were Boo, Rooney, Bertus, Mee, Wig, and Life, while his wife he called Mim.6 His brother Smith was Rose. The pets were not left out; there was Tom the Nipper and Baxter and Mrs. Smith and Gustavus Adolphus and Tom Tits, among the many cats at one time or another ensconced in the Lee household. His horses were Lucy Long, Creole, Grace Darling, and Tom and Jerry, for a favorite drink indulged in by the cadets at West Point, and of course the famous Traveller.7

Nothing shows him in a more attractive, more genuinely human aspect than the picture of him as his son Rob tells us:

He was very fond of having his hands tickled, and what was still more curious, it pleased and delighted him to take of his slippers and place his feet in our laps in order to have them tickled. He would often tell us the most delightful stories, and then there was no nodding. Sometimes, however, our interest in his wonderful tales became so engrossing that we would forget to do our duty, when he would declare, “No tickling, no story!”8

Lee not only loved his children, he enjoyed them, which is not always the same thing. He enjoyed them in their childishness, their sports, their gayety. He was always full of jests and kindly teasing, and whatever preaching and advice he gave proceeded from his great love and burning desire for their welfare and happiness. To Rooney he excuses it this way: “You see I am following my old habit of giving advice. You must pardon the fault . . . when I think of your youth, impulsiveness, and the ease (and even innocence) with which you might commence an erroneous course, my heart quails within me.”9

Another trait he desired his boys to acquire was neatness. When Rob was old enough to have a room of his own he had to keep it as neat and orderly as the cadets did in their quarters. His father would even inspect it from time to time until what was a game at first became a habit which the son said he kept through life.

Much to his regret the two older boys had grown up when their father was away from home most of the time so he could not help them much with their lessons. However, when they went away to school he corresponded with them about their progress and evinced a keen interest and knowledge of every detail concerning them. He repeated the precepts his father had written to his brother Carter and constantly admonished them to seek virtue and truth above all else.10

With Rob he would go over his lessons patiently, not giving him the answers, but showing him step by step how to arrive at them by his own thinking. He always wanted his children to achieve the maximum and not be satisfied with anything less.11 This insistence on the highest of standards even unto the third generation was a natural result of his determination to offset as much as possible the blot on the family scutcheon the two Henry Lees had placed there.

All the time he was in Mexico he wrote long letters to the boys, giving descriptions of the animals he saw, the scenery and the activities of the military and the people; letters so detailed and vivid that the reader can instantly visualize the subject. Yet they were full of compassion for the innocent victims of the war, especially the children.

To Custis and Fitzhugh he wrote from Saltillo, on Christmas Eve, 1846, to “hope that good Santa Claus will fill my Rob’s stocking tonight. I have frequently thought that if I had one of you on each side of me riding on ponies . . . I would be comparatively happy.”12

After his return from the Mexican War, in June of 1846, Captain Lee became Colonel Lee, as he had been made brevet major for Gerro Gordo, brevet lieutenant colonel for Contreras-Churubusco, and brevet colonel for Chapultepec, and was entitled to be addressed by the rank of his highest brevet.13

He returned briefly to office work in Washington before being assigned to build up the port of Baltimore. The family went with him, moving into a three-story house on Madison Street which was quite pleasant although the rooms were so small that Lee said his room was “hardly big enough to swing a cat in.” But it was a happy time, with the father home safe after the war enjoying the companionship of his children again, and the children proud of their papa, now a colonel and so distinguished with the furrows in his face and the touch of white in his hair that the war had given him. There was an active social life for the parents and the older children had numerous cousins to share their activities with. The younger ones were old enough to be left in the care of a nurse.

In June, 1850, Boo entered West Point.14 George Washington Custis Lee was a handsome lad. Tall, well-built and dark like his father, he had a brilliant mind. He had been taught by his mother at home, then gone to school at Clarens, in Fairfax County, a classical school, and later to his father’s old school, Hallowell’s in Alexandria.15 He was appointed a cadet at large by President Zachary Taylor, a distant kinsman, and was not quite eighteen when he entered the academy.

Colonel Lee eagerly watched Custis’s career with continuing interest. At first the boy did not make much of an effort and the ever watchful father wrote tactful letters containing much practical wisdom in order to arouse in him a determination to excel. After ten months he must have succeeded to some extent for in reply to one of Custis’s letters Lee wrote

I cannot express my pleasure at hearing you declare your determination to shake off the listless fit that has seized you, and arouse all your faculties into activity and exertion. . . . Hold yourself above every mean action. Be strictly honorable in every act, and be not ashamed to do right. I feel too so much obliged to you for the candid avowal of all your feelings. Between us let there be no concealment. I may give you advice and encouragement and you will give me pleasure.16

The letter concludes with family matters written in his usual jesting tone.

Steadily thereafter Custis’s academic standing rose and at the end of the second year the father wrote in a more playful mood, “My dear Mr. Boo: Only four months have to fly by . . . before the June examinations. Have you thought of that? Why, man, it will be upon you before you are aware. You must prepare, too. You must be No. 1. It is a fine number. Easily found and remembered. Simple and unique. Jump to it, fellow.”17

Custis “jumped.” He graduated number one in his class, and like his father twenty-five years before, he was adjutant of the corps, had not received a single demerit, and was commissioned a Brevet Second Lieutenant in the Engineer Corps, 1 July 1854.18 His first assignment was similar to his father’s also. He was sent to construct forts in Florida and Georgia, and to make improvements in the Savannah River.

Colonel Lee was very proud of his eldest son and especially delighted in his company since both were of a similar turn of mind and shared a love of science and engineering. But in temperament they were quite different. Where Lee was always friendly and congenial, whatever his own concerns, Custis was moody and rather dour. Always at ease and making others so, Lee enjoyed society while Custis seemed uneasy in a group and kept aloof from people as much as he could.

Lee’s second son, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, called Rooney, was more like his father, if not downright ebullient. He was educated at home by his mother, then at the same school Custis had attended, Clarens in Fairfax County. In Baltimore he studied under a Mr. McNally. His father was pleased to report to Custis, then at West Point, that Mr. McNally had written to him saying Rooney was one of the hardest workers at the school, at the head of his class in Greek, read well in French, but his pronunciation was anything but Parisian! Rooney wanted to go to West Point also, thinking there was no life like that of a dragoon and thought he might get through even if he did not do as well as Boo. His father told him he would get over two hundred demerits in the first year and there would be an end of all his military aspirations.19

Instead Rooney went to New York and studied under a Mr. Nugent, after finishing at Baltimore. Here, too, Rooney was a good student, as his brother Custis, in a letter from Arlington where Boo was on leave, congratulates him on doing so well in his studies.20

In the autumn of 1854 Rooney entered Harvard College. He was the cause of some concern to his father as he was warmhearted and affectionate, inclined to irresponsibility, and his father felt he was not applying himself to his studies. Colonel Lee wrote to his wife about him saying, “It was time for him to begin to think of something else besides running about amusing himself and I wish him to do so at once.”21 Rooney was a great favorite with Boston society because of his social, genial nature and his antecedents gave him entree to all its best homes. He was handsome, like his father and brother, tall, well-built, with dark sparkling eyes, but hair more brown than black like theirs.

His old dream of being a soldier still with him, after he left Harvard he applied for a commission in the army. General Winfield Scott himself wrote the endorsement, based primarily, as Robert E. Lee’s application had been thirty years earlier, on the military achievements of the candidate’s father.22

He was appointed a Second Lieutenant in the Sixth Infantry Regiment, 31 May 1857,23 and his first duty was in the southwest where his father was stationed at the time. But as Rooney went south his father came north to settle the estate of Mr. Custis, his father-in-law, who had just died, leaving Mrs. Lee alone and ill. Rooney’s regiment undertook a difficult expedition to Utah, and from Utah it marched to the Pacific Coast. He had decided that the life of a dragoon was not to his liking and besides he wished to resign from the army to marry his cousin Charlotte Wickham. His father had always had misgivings about Rooney as a soldier, but was proud of his progress when he became one. He heard good accounts of him from many officers and wrote to him to express the gratification he felt. He tried tactfully to dissuade Rooney from resigning in order to marry but after offering his advice he left the decision up to his son.

In 1859 Rooney resigned and married Charlotte and settled down as a planter on the estate left to him by his grandfather Custis, the White House, on the Pamunkey River, in New Kent County. In due time a son arrived and was named in honor of his protesting grandfather, Robert E. Lee.24

At this time the youngest son, Robert E. Lee, Jr., was attending the Clifton School. Only four when his father had returned from the Mexican War, he had to become accustomed to the distinguished soldier who had embraced the wrong little boy on his welcome home, much to his namesake’s hurt and chagrin.25 Rob had been taught at home, like all the Lee children, and when his father transferred to Baltimore he attended his first school. It was on the homework from this day school and the one he later attended when his father was transferred to West Point as Superintendent in 1852, that Colonel Lee spent many hours with him patiently pointing out the steps to take to arrive at the correct solution. And it was during these years that his father saw to his education in sports and exercises, sharing his experiences as he learned to hunt, shoot, coast, skate, swim, and especially ride. The two would often go on a five or ten mile ride, the stately, erect officer on Grace Darling and little Rob beside him on the pony, Santa Anna, that his father had sent him from Mexico, sore and uncomfortable from the trotting, but his father would not let him canter, saying the hammering was good for him.

After West Point Lee was given command of a cavalry regiment in the southwest and Mrs. Lee and the younger children returned to Arlington to live. The mother decided to send her youngest son to a boarding school in the vicinity of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She wrote to her husband in Texas, “I have just sent my poor little Rob to school at Mr. Ambler’s. He is very highly recommended and his school is in . . . a fine healthy situation, near a church and among religious and moral people.”26

For the next several years father and son saw little of each other, the one being away in Texas most of the time and the other at boarding school. The death of Mr. Custis in 1857 brought Colonel Lee back to Virginia to look after Mrs. Lee and the estate, of which he was named executor and Custis principal beneficiary. The estate was in such poor condition that he had to ask for repeated leaves of absence which stretched into almost two years.27 He felt guilty about being away from his regiment on personal business but General Scott, the Chief of Staff, was his good friend and granted his requests, meanwhile from time to time he was sent on missions to sit on court-martial boards at various places.

As usual during separations he kept up his flow of long, interesting, lovingly tender letters to his children but the tone had changed. The condition of Mrs. Lee’s health, heavy responsibilities, army politics, age and a sense of frustration with his career and with the estate, all served to season and mature a simple nature so that if some of the easy badinage and gayety of the earlier correspondence disappeared it was replaced by a deeper, more tolerant, even sweeter spirit.

This is reflected in the letters he now writes to his sons. Where the former ones were heavily paternal, now he addresses them more as equals, in comradely fashion, and while he may suggest certain courses he leaves the decisions up to them, even apologizing for giving advice.28

Custis Lee felt an injustice had been done in leaving Arlington to him and not to his mother and father. He felt that it was unfair that his father should sacrifice so much time from his career to put the neglected estate in condition to meet the terms of the will, which would of course benefit Custis. His father offered to resign from the army to devote all his energies to that task. In the face of such love and devotion Custis executed a deed delivering Arlington, and all the other property he had inherited under his grandfather’s will, over to his father.

Rooney offered to resign from the army and come to his father’s aid, too, but Lee would not hear of it. He was deeply touched by these evidences of filial affection and wrote thanking Custis for his offer but declining the gift. The weight of his burdens is revealed in the same letter. Speaking of Rooney’s imminent departure for the west he wrote, “If I could only have my children around me, I could be happy.”29

In spite of his depression and cares he continue to write to his absent sons, and Rob at boarding school; letters relating intimate family matters and full of sincere, loving interest in their activities and welfare. Finally, in early 1860, he had improved the estate to the point where he felt he could leave it and resume his army career in Texas.

In October of the same year Rob entered the University of Virginia. He was handsome, as all the Lee boys were, well-formed, tall, dark-eyed and dark-haired like his father.30 And very much like his father in temperament, not as silent as Custis nor as effervescent as Rooney, but “quiet and retiring in public, though genial, lively and with a delightful sense of humor among his friends.”31

When the Civil War broke out and Colonel Lee tendered his resignation from the United States Army,32 he made no attempt to influence his sons as to the course they should take.

From Richmond where he had gone to offer his services to the South, he wrote Mrs. Lee to “Tell Custis he must consult his own judgment, reason and conscience as to the course he must take. I do not wish him to be guided by my wishes or example. If I have done wrong, let him do better. The present is a momentous question which every man must settle for himself upon principle.”33 Custis was then stationed in Washington, at the Engineer Bureau, and living at Arlington. He resigned May 2, 1861 and went immediately to Richmond to join his father and the Southern forces.34

Rooney and Rob also went with the South. Rooney promptly enlisted and was made a captain of cavalry.35 Rob became captain of Company A of the student corps at the University of Virginia until the spring of 1862, when with his father’s consent, since he was only eighteen, he enlisted as a private in the Rockbridge Artillery.36 His father wrote him to come to Richmond where he would outfit him, from where, resplendent in his new uniform, Rob left to join Jackson’s corps in the valley. Thereafter during the war years meetings of father and son were infrequent, mostly by chance during the course of battle.37 Custis was stationed in Richmond, on President Davis’s staff, so he saw his father much more often. Rooney, later commander of a cavalry brigade, met his father from time to time on the battle lines, and sometimes two of the sons together cheered their father with their presence, especially after Rob became an aide on Rooney’s staff.38

Throughout the war wherever he was stationed, or in the field, General Lee managed to keep up a fairly continuous correspondence with his wife and children, despite the staggering demands made upon him. Beside his own immediate responsibilities he was consulted by the officials of the Confederate Government, sent on various missions and inspection trips, and when on active field duty, in addition to planning and staff work, he devoted himself to the welfare of the troops. He bombarded the authorities with requests for shoes, clothes and rations for his ill-clad, half-starved men.39 He answered all letters addressed to him, from whatever source, if it was at all possible. The amount and variety of his correspondence was astonishing. There were always the official army communications to read and pass on, orders, dispatches, commands and coordinating papers to prepare and review, a task he did not much enjoy.40 And all this undertaken alike in the midst of crucial battles, when under the stress of responsibility for the lives of his soldiers and the outcome, as in the midst of some measure of peace that a lull between battles gave him. Even then, says John Esten Cooke, he would remain in his saddle all day and at his desk half the night, seemingly made of iron.41

Deeply spiritual as he was what mental anguish he also suffered may only be imagined. Coupled with these physical hardships, endured for four long arduous years, even his iron constitution could not remain unimpaired, and the “rheumatism” he developed during the Fredericksburg campaign was the onset of heart trouble which was to result in his death five years after the close of the war.42

Yet with all this, he wrote lovingly and tenderly to his family, his religious faith unshaken, his sense of humor and his bantering, teasing manner toward them still the same. Mildred Lee describes his letters thus: “In them one has glimpses of a great war raging mercilessly, while the chief actor sits down, to the sound of shot and cannon, and pours out his heart in affection.”43

During a short furlough in Richmond in 1862 Rob had a reunion with his parents and sisters. General Lee had recently been appointed commander of the newly-named Army of Northern Virginia and was fresh from the triumph of the Seven Days battles which he had successfully concluded.45 Even then, says Rob, “he was the same loving father to us all, as kind and thoughtful of my mother, who was an invalid, and of us, his children, as if our comfort and happiness were all he had to care for.”

By intermittent visits or chance encounters and through letters General Lee kept a close watch on his sons. When he wrote he always inquired after their health, “You say nothing of your health, and I hope you are well and able to do good service to the cause so dear to us all”;47 notes their progress in the army, “I am very glad to hear that you . . . have attained such a high position on your own merit”;48 observes their movements, “Fitzhugh reached here yesterday from the valley and joined his brigade now in my front”;49 quotes some maxims, “I know that . . . you will do your duty. That is all the pleasure, all the comfort, all the glory we can enjoy in this world”;50 tells of family matters, “Your poor mother who was in Charlottesville Saturday was going to Richmond to join Charlotte and accompany her to the White House”;51 jokes and teases them about private affairs, “Kiss Chass for me and tell her that daughters are not prohibited from visiting their papas”;52 and in all ways shows his continued affection and abiding love for them, “Good-by, my dear son, remember me in your prayers and always keep me in your heart.”53

Once, breaking camp near Richmond, he had time for only a brief note to Custis and Mary, in the city. There had been too much to do to visit them, “Good-by, my dear children. May God bless and guard you both . . . .”54 wrote the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia to his thirty-two year old Colonel son and twenty-seven year old daughter!

His sons still regarded him, in spite of their rank and age, with the same love and respect they had had for him as children, and reciprocated his care and affection in equal measure. After the battle of Chancellorville, where Lee had several times exposed himself on the field, Fitzhugh wrote to him remonstrating at taking such risks, “You must recollect, if anything should happen to you the cause would be very much jeopardized. I want very much to see you. May God preserve you, my dear father, is the earnest prayer of your devoted son.”55

Personal sorrow and anguish added to the burdens of the commanding general when his son Rooney, whom he now called Fitzhugh, was severely wounded at the battle of Brandy Station, then captured and interned in Fort Monroe. After nine months imprisonment, during which time his wife and two children had died, he was released in March 1864.56 His wife had been as a daughter to General Lee and he was grief stricken at her death.57

Never in any way did General Lee attempt to use his influence or his position to advance the military careers of his sons. President Davis had considered putting Custis Lee in command of the Army of Northern Virginia to succeed his father if and when the President transferred General Lee to command the western army, so impressed was he with Custis’s abilities. When a vacancy later occurred in a field command and Custis was suggested by Davis an officer was sent to General Lee to ascertain his views on the appointment. He did not favor it as Custis, against his own and his father’s wishes, had been assigned to the staff of President Davis as a Colonel almost at the beginning of the war and had never had any field experience. General Lee appreciated the high regard Mr. Davis had for his son’s talents but said he could not pass over tried officers for a new one, even his own son.58 Custis advanced to the ranks of brigadier general and major general, in command of troops for the defense of Richmond, and this was his post and rank at war’s end.59

Fitzhugh Lee was an excellent soldier and served in every grade successfully from captain to major general of cavalry.60 His rise was based on his own merit and gallantry and his father was very proud of the boy he had doubted would last through West Point. The deaths of his wife and children while a prisoner and unable to aid or even see them had sobered his rather carefree outlook on life, but when he was finally exchanged he returned to duty and finished the war out in his old command.

Rob enlisted as a private but was later made an aide to his brother Fitzhugh, in the cavalry, with the rank of Lieutenant.61 Although General Lee did not approve it gave him an opportunity to see a great deal more of Rob as the cavalry got about much more than the artillery did. He wanted his sons to rise or fall on their own merit. In 1864, Mrs. Lee, worried about Rob, had suggested putting him on his father’s staff. The general opposed the idea as he felt officers should not surround themselves with sons and relatives.62 Rob was wounded during the battles around Petersburg. The wound was enough to earn him a furlough but he soon returned to duty. At the time of the surrender he was only twenty-two years old. He returned to Richmond, April, 1865, a captain.

General Lee’s three sons acquitted themselves well in the service of the Confederacy. The watchful father’s years of anxious care and strict but loving training, immeasurably strengthened by his own example, had produced the results he sought, men of character, bravery and devotion to duty to add further luster to the name of Lee.63

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