“Life is waning away, and with the exception of my own immediate family, I am cut off from all I have ever known & loved in my youth & my dear old Arlington I cannot bear to think of that used as it is now & so little hope of my ever getting there again. I do not think I can die in peace until I have seen it once more.”
797: Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee
Her Connections Are a Whose Who of American Genealogy
Born: 1 October 1807 (or 1808, sources differ), Annfield, Virginia, United States of America
Died: 5 November 1873, Alexandria, Virginia, United States of America
Mary was Robert E Lee’s wife and the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, making her a step-descendant of George Washington. These connections put Mary in an extraordinary position within the history of the United States, but they also ensured her story was overshadowed by her more famous relatives.
The Custis family was incredibly wealthy (in terms of property and valuables, not necessarily hard cash). Mary’s great-great-grandmother was Martha Custis Washington, the first First Lady of the United States. Martha’s first husband had been wealthy in not just land, but slaves as well. When George Washington married Martha, he inherited control of her lands and wealth. Though they never had children together, the Custis-Washington estate did pass on to future generations through Martha biological’s grandchildren. One of those grandchildren was George Washington Parke Custis, Mary’s father. Mary was the only surviving child of her parents, meaning the entire estate her father had inherited would pass on to her. Mary’s father, called Wash by family members, was so enamored with the man who had raised him, he spent much of his inheritance buying up artifacts that had once belonged to George Washington upon Martha’s death. Wash spent so much money buying the family valuables the Custis estate never really recovered financially. But to other genealogists out there, you probably recognize as well as I do the desire to own and protect the things your family used and cherished before you.
This is the family dynasty Mary was born into (and that's without going into details on her mother's family, who were high ranking socially in Virginian society as well). The Custis family owned Arlington House in Virginia; within sight of the nation’s capital, Washington DC. By the time Mary was born, the attitude of the Custis family had changed. Her parents owned slaves but didn’t believe in the practice itself. They kept their slaves because they were fearful for how the slaves would support themselves once freed. When Mary was a child, she played with the children of other slaves as her playmates. And so when Mary and Robert took over the estate, Mary saw to it her slaves were educated like her mother before her, to prepare them for the day they would be free. Mary’s mother also ensured the slaves were able to attend Sunday School lessons if they chose.
Mary’s father was a founding member of the American Colonization Society, which freed over 6,000 slaves and returned them to Africa. Mary’s mother, Molly, was also a firm believer in the emancipation of slaves and fought for that goal her entire life. She freed her own slaves in her own lifetime and asked family members to do the same, including her husband. Molly’s Will also stipulated a part of her fortune be used to continue the education of Arlington’s slaves in the hopes of them being able to support themselves once freed. The idea of returning people of African descent to a random spot in Africa may seem distasteful today, but many abolitionists in America believed in such a practice, including President Lincoln, and the American Colonization Society helped found the nation of Liberia in Africa as a result.
Mary knew French, Latin, and Greek and always read the newspapers to keep up to date on current events. Her education allowed Mary to edit her father’s Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, his memoir of sorts of the memories he had from growing up at Mount Vernon with George and Martha. Though the book was published after her father's death, it is seen today as a treasure of information on the family life within the Washington home.
Mary was a mother of seven children and suffered from ill health her entire adult life. She was a painter, like her father, and the landscape depictions she created can still be viewed in Arlington House today. Mary’s other main hobby was gardening; she grew eleven different varieties of roses just outside her home. She also ensured she was well versed in politics, though she didn’t like them. Mary could always have a discussion with her father or husband about politics but preferred more domestic pursuits. Mary was also very religious and involved in the Episcopal church.
Mary and Robert spent the early years of their marriage on the move. Robert, a graduate of West Point and an army man, was assigned to various forts across the eastern seaboard. Though he didn't see any military action in the beginning years of his career, he was still beholden to his duties--wherever they sent him. Mary and their seemingly ever-growing brood of children followed along with him some of the time but stayed in Arlington the rest. Mary struggled at the outset, unused to keeping a home without the assistance of her mother or the slaves, and Robert often teased her for this. Mary also experienced intense homesickness in these years, missing the Arlington she had loved and spent so much of her time growing up. The first few years were spent at Old Point Comfort; where Mary cared for her own family as well as spending her own money to purchase books for the slave children who were barred from attending religious services. Mary also opened her own home to teach the children religion. The next few years saw Robert assigned to numerous places. In 1837, Mary was filled with dread when she learned they were headed to St. Louis, so far from their beloved Arlington.
Mary did go to St. Louis with Robert, but returned to Arlington soon after, where their fourth child was born. Mary was perfectly content to stay at Arlington and raise her children but realized without Robert it wasn’t a content life there after all. In 1841, their fifth child was born at Arlington, and soon after the family relocated to Robert’s new assignment—New York. By now, Mary was feeling increasing pressure as she tried to raise the children on her own. With Robert largely absent and her parents far away at times, Mary was left to raise the children under her own steam.
Even before she married, Mary had been beset by ill health. A fever nearly took her life in the months before her nuptials, though she gradually recovered. Soon after the wedding, the symptoms returned, and Mary nearly died once again. She was also ill during her first pregnancy and in the months following her second. The next few years saw Mary’s health increasingly failing, and the near-constant state of being pregnant and rearing children did nothing to improve things. No wonder Mary felt so worn out! 1843 saw the birth of Mary and Robert’s sixth child and two years later, the older children were leaving to head to boarding school. In 1846, Mary gave birth to her seventh and final child, but the taxing nature of the pregnancy had taken its toll on her fragile health, and she spent months after bedridden.
A few months later, Robert received a field commission in the war with Mexico, and Mary and the children returned to Arlington. All seven of the children were home with Mary, but for once she wasn’t overwhelmed. Being home at Arlington was a huge mental relief to Mary, and she finally found the happy idyllic life she’d been looking for—though still in constant pain. When the war with Mexico ended, Robert received a commission at West Point, and the family returned to New York. Soon after, Mary’s mother died, and Mary became the new lady of Arlington Estate. Mary returned to West Point and saw her oldest son graduate first in his class, but soon after it was back to Arlington after Robert received his new commission in Texas. This is when Mary and Robert realized and became concerned by the dire financial straights Mary’s father Wash had left Arlington in. Though Wash was still alive, it was clear he needed his daughter’s help to get the estate back in working order.
By the 1850’s, Mary began to be even more debilitated by severe rheumatoid arthritis. She visited spas and did her best to keep her spirits up but lived in constant pain. Mary was now the lady of Arlington, caretaker to her father and younger children, and overseer of the family’s estate (which included several properties beside Arlington) while Robert was off in Texas. In 1857, Wash died, and Mary inherited the estate. When Wash’s Will was read, Mary learned she and Robert now owned the 1,100-acre estate at Arlington, all the slaves that lived there (but were to be freed within five years of Wash’s death) and the other Custis properties scattered around Virginia. The Will also stipulated how the estate was to be split to Mary’s children.
Robert spent the years of 1857 to 1859 attempting to straighten out the family’s financial situation. His two month leave from Texas had turned to two years, and when he finally deemed things settled, he was reassigned to Harper’s Ferry, then in Virginia. It was here that Robert E Lee was cemented an American hero thanks to him overseeing the capture and execution of the wayward thinking John Brown.
By 1861, Mary was confined to a wheelchair. That same year, in April, Robert wrote to Mary urging her to abandon Arlington for her own safety, but Mary delayed. By now, the War Between the States was on the horizon. Robert had resigned his commission with the Union Army and joined the Confederate. Mary was torn, wanting to ensure her husband she was safe but also anxious at the very idea of leaving behind her family’s property and memories. Finally, in May, Mary and her daughters still living at home fled. They would never live at Arlington House again.
Mary and her daughters spent the war years knitting socks for the Confederate soldiers; hoping Robert and their other male relatives would come home alive. She also helped nurse the wounded after the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas). In quick succession, Mary lost her twenty-three-year-old daughter Annie, as well as two grandchildren and their mother Charlotte (Mary’s daughter-in-law). Also lost during the war was the home at White House Plantation. Union soldiers had burned the home to the ground after learning it belonged to the Custis/Lee Family. Unfortunately for lovers of American history, the home had been owned by the Washingtons when still alive, and so the loss was a great one not just to the Custis/Lee Family. White House Plantation was the home in which Martha Dandridge married her first husband Daniel Parke Custis. Mary also had to watch as her son “Rooney” (Henry) was imprisoned for much of the war. It was Rooney’s wife and children that had died in 1862.
After the war, Mary moved with her husband to Lexington, where Robert became president of Washington College (now named Washington and Lee University). She petitioned for the return of Arlington but failed. By that point, her health was in such a state she needed constant care. Around this time, Mary returned to the location where she had buried the Washington letters at the start of the war in the hopes of recovering them. Instead, she found the letters and papers had been exposed to the elements and were ruined. Mary burned the remains herself, the very action as heartbreaking to the world at large as it was to her. In 1869, President Johnson authorized the return of all of Mary’s personal belongings that had been sacked from inside Arlington House, however, Congress stopped her from recovering them. Congress declared the items were the belongings of the Father of the United States and as such belonged to the people, not Mary Custis Lee.
Mary never recovered from the loss of her beloved home. By the time Robert died in 1870, she was so ill she could not attend his service, and instead stayed home and reread his letters. Mary also became incensed at this time after learning the Arlington slaves, freed with the passage of the thirteenth amendment, had largely abandoned Arlington. Mary wrote a series of nasty letters after learning this, and unfortunately abandoned her earlier efforts to support the people who were now former slaves.
A few months before she died in 1873, Mary returned to Arlington for the first time since she fled twelve years before. She was unable to get out of the carriage but was able to view the property from the window. One of her former slaves, who still worked the land, brought her a drink of water from the well. Mary later wrote she did not recognize her home save for a few of the trees she and Robert had planted so many years before. Though she was able to visit that one time, Mary was never able to recover her family’s home. A few months later, her daughter Agnes died. In November of that same year, Mary’s crippled body and tired soul finally gave out and she passed away.
So how did the Custis-Lee Family lose Arlington during the war? The truth may come as a shock to you, in fact, I hope it angers more than shocks.
The Arlington Estate was seized in a tax scheme by the United States federal government in 1864, after the property taxes had become delinquent. The government demanded the property taxes be paid in person, knowing the Custis/Lee family could not take that risk. If Robert had appeared, he would have been taken captive by the Union Army. Mary was physically unable to return because of her ill health. Mary instead sent her cousin to pay the tax, but the tax commissioner refused to accept a payment from anyone other than the owner. When the Lees failed to appear, the federal government seized the property (technically they bought it at auction for a mere $26,800 but is it a coincidence they ended up winning the bid at auction?). The government then used Arlington as a burial ground for Union Soldiers as a final up yours to the Lee Family for fighting for the Confederacy. That’s right, the federal government was so incensed Robert E Lee had left to fight for his native Virginia; the government literally seized his wife’s property—the property that belonged to the family of the first president of the United States—and used it to bury the “enemy” soldiers of the Lee family. And make no mistake, the soldiers were not buried on the property because it was the only option available; they were literally buried there in the hopes of ensuring the Lee family never returned.* The government succeeded.
After Mary’s death, her oldest son Custis took up the fight to recover the family home. Finally, in 1882, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Arlington had indeed been illegally seized. The deed and property were returned to Custis, but he did not want to live at Arlington, amongst the generations of his family’s shadows and the ghosts of dead soldiers. Custis sold the Arlington estate back to the government for $150,000—half the property’s estimated value. In 1901, President Woodrow Wilson finally allowed Mary to rest in peace. The president ordered all other artifacts seized from the Custis/Lee home were to be returned to the family.
Today, the property is known as Arlington National Cemetery; the most hallowed ground in all the United States. Most visitors to the cemetery have no idea of the true history behind America’s most beloved cemetery; the final resting place of hundreds of thousands of our soldiers and their families. Arlington is a beautiful property. Having visited myself, I can tell you just walking around and seeing all those thousands and thousands of white headstones fills you with a sense of awe and respect, but I won’t ever trick myself into believing what happened to the Custis/Lee Family was justified. And though things were finally “set right” in the end, the fact that the government did something so inexcusable to a family so important to the history of our country in the first place leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Arlington Estate is described as having been built by George Washington Parke Custis (Mary's father) as a "living memorial to the first president" (Arlington National Cemetery). Instead, today the property is a memorial to our nation's best and bravest, but the way it came to be just that was anything but the best humanity had to offer.
*According to the Arlington National Cemetery website, the Arlington estate was not seized from the Custis Lee family to punish them, but it was instead seized for its strategic value. Sounds like an excuse to me, but hey, if that's the stance they take, I'll include it here.
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Legends & Lies: The Civil War by Bill O'Reilly and David Fisher