By David A. Carrino
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017, All Rights Reserved
Part 2 of a 6-part article about the daughters of Robert E. Lee
Mary Custis Lee
Birth and Childhood
Mary Custis Lee, the first daughter and second child of Robert E. and Mrs. Lee, was born on July 12, 1835 in a small room on the second floor of Arlington House. Mary was the first of the Lee children to be born at Arlington, and all of Mary’s five younger siblings were also born there. Mary’s older brother, Custis, was born three years earlier at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. This was the location of Robert E. Lee’s military assignment at the time of Custis’ birth, which occurred on September 16, 1832, although Mrs. Lee and her infant son went to Arlington soon after the birth so that Mrs. Lee’s parents could help their daughter with her recovery. Late in 1834 Lee received a new assignment in the Chief Engineer’s Office in Washington, which allowed the Lees to live at Arlington. This would have permitted Lee to be present at the birth of his first daughter, Mary, but Lee received an assignment shortly before Mary’s birth to be a member of a survey party, which was sent to survey the border between Ohio and Michigan because of a border dispute. Because of this, Lee was not at Arlington when Mary was born.
Mrs. Lee had asked her husband in a letter to return to Arlington for the birth, and her primary reason for making this request was that she was suffering an episode of the rheumatic disease that afflicted her throughout her life. However, Lee refused to return to Arlington, and his letter to his wife shows some evidence of the profound sense of duty for which Lee is famous. In that letter Lee chided Mrs. Lee, “But why do you urge my immediate return, & tempt one in the strongest manner, to endeavor to get excused from the performance of a duty, imposed on me by my Profession for the pure gratification of my private feelings? Do you not think…that I rather require to be strengthened & encouraged to the full performance of what I am called on to execute, rather than excited to a dereliction, which even our affection could not palliate, or our judgement excuse?” Fortunately for Mrs. Lee, she had her parents to care for her. A few months after Mary’s birth, Mrs. Lee described her daughter in a letter to a friend as having “brown hair very fine large black eyes a perfect little mouth & respectable nose.” That winter Mary became ill with croup, and her father, who had returned from his assignment on the Ohio-Michigan border, held Mary through the night to ease the baby’s congestion. The daughter at whose birth Lee declined to be present grew up to be a fiercely independent woman with sharp features, a sharp tongue, and a pointed temperament. Mary’s independent nature and outspoken demeanor became especially evident in her post-Civil War life.
In the spring of 1837, Lee received his next assignment, which was in St. Louis to improve the harbor there. At that time, Mrs. Lee was close to delivering the third of the Lee children, Rooney. Lee left for St. Louis soon after Rooney’s birth on May 31, 1837 and remained there without his family until work could no longer be done due to the onset of winter. The following spring, after Lee had rejoined his family at Arlington for the winter, Mrs. Lee, Rooney, and older brother, Custis, who was five years old, returned with Lee to St. Louis. Mary, who was nearing her third birthday, remained at Arlington with her grandparents because of illness. Mary’s bedroom in Arlington House was called the Lafayette room, because the Marquis had stayed in that room when he visited in 1824.
When Mary was living at Arlington with her family away in St. Louis, Mary began to be educated by her grandfather, G.W.P. Custis, about family portraits and Mount Vernon artifacts that were at Arlington. Many years later Mary claimed to be the most knowledgeable member of the family about those paintings and artifacts, because she “received my knowledge of them first hand from my grandfather himself.” About a year after his return to St. Louis, in a letter dated March 20, 1839, Lee expressed concern to his mother-in-law about Mary’s rebelliousness and wrote that he hoped that the reason for this trait could be “laid to the door of her vivacity” rather than to a “harsher name.” The concern that Lee voiced in this letter indicates that he recognized that Mary, even at the young age of four, was defiant and assertive. Young Mary’s behavior was a harbinger of the self-reliant and independent woman that she became. A few months after Lee sent this letter, Mrs. Lee, Custis, and Rooney returned to Arlington for the birth of the next Lee child, Annie, who was born in the summer of 1839. At this time Custis (age seven) and Mary (age four) began to be schooled by their mother, while their father continued his work in St. Louis.
Lee’s next assignment brought him back east, but not close enough to Arlington for the family to live there. Lee was assigned to New York City to repair harbor defenses. In late 1840 Lee rejoined his family, which did not return to St. Louis after the birth of Annie. Only two months into the new year, the parents of four children, aged eight years, five years, four years, and 20 months, welcomed another child, daughter Agnes. Lee confided in a letter to a friend that he was beginning to feel the stress of being the father of such a large family, because he described Agnes’ birth as “the arrival of another little Lee, whose approach, however long foreseen, I could have dispensed with for a year or two more.” Lee left for Fort Hamilton in New York City in May 1841. His family, such as it was at that time with Rob and Mildred not yet born, joined him in the summer. The Lees lived at Fort Hamilton for the next five years except for short trips to Arlington. One such trip was for the birth of son, Rob, on October 27, 1843, and another, near the end of the Lee family’s time in New York City, was for the birth of the last Lee child, daughter Mildred, on February 10, 1846. For Mary, the time in New York City was the first time in her life that she lived for an extended period away from Arlington. Mary continued to be schooled by her mother and was introduced by Mrs. Lee to the latest fashions.
After Mrs. Lee and the children returned to Arlington in early 1846 for Mildred’s birth, Lee lived alone at Fort Hamilton until the summer. Several months earlier, when war with Mexico was a looming possibility, Lee sent a letter to the commander of the Corps of Engineers, Joseph Totten, in which he stated, “In the event of war with any foreign government I should desire to be brought into active service in the field.” Lee’s wish was granted in August 1846 when he was ordered to report for duty in the war with Mexico. Lee returned to Arlington, saw Mildred for the first time, wrote the only will he ever prepared, and traveled to Mexico for the first combat in which he was ever engaged. Due to his widespread military assignments and his wife’s strong attachment to her home at Arlington, Lee spent a great deal of time living away from his family. But this time the patriarch of the Lee family was leaving for the most dangerous assignment of his military career, and his family no doubt prayed for his safe return as much as it prayed for victory. Lee saw to it that both of those prayers were answered. He returned from the war so highly regarded by his commanding officer, Winfield Scott, that Scott recommended that Lee’s life be insured in the event of a war. After his return from Mexico, Lee was able to live with his family at Arlington through the summer of 1848, because he was attached to the Corps of Engineers office in Washington while he awaited his next assignment. He was now the father of seven children, who ranged in ages from 16 to two.
“Knowing and Opinionated”
Not too long after Lee’s return from Mexico, he received an assignment to Baltimore. His primary duty was construction of a fort to replace Fort McHenry. Lee left for Baltimore in November, returned to Arlington for Christmas, and then went back to Baltimore early in 1849. His family joined him in August, except for Custis, who was attending school in Alexandria. Mary, now 14 years old and able to truly appreciate her surroundings in a large metropolitan environment, came to thoroughly enjoy life in Baltimore. She was enthralled by life in a big city, and she attended an all-girls school, which allowed her for the first time to spend extensive time with girls her own age. Although Baltimore was far behind New York City in population, it was the second most populous U.S. city in 1850, and Mary’s experiences in a vibrant, cosmopolitan area whet her appetite for this lifestyle and for travel.
The Lee family’s stay in Baltimore lasted less than three full years, because in the spring of 1852 Lee was named the superintendent of West Point. Custis had entered the U.S. Military Academy in 1850, and his family would soon relocate there after a short stay at Arlington. Initially Mary attended the post school at West Point, but she soon transferred to an all-girls school named Pelham Priory that was near New York City. This school was unusual in that the curriculum included much more than the typical women’s subjects of art and piano. Mary and the other students had classes in European history, Latin, and Greek in addition to strong biblical studies. During this time, Mary, who was in her late teens, began to sign her letters Marielle, which suggests that she was beginning to express her own identity. Mary had grown to be a poised, self-assured young woman with dark, curly hair and dark, penetrating eyes. One of Custis’ classmates at West Point, Jeb Stuart, who would go on to fame in the Civil War, described Mary as attractive “both as regards beauty and sprightliness,” but Stuart had no romantic intentions toward the eldest Lee daughter.
In the spring of 1855 Lee received a new assignment that would again require that he be separated from his family. Lee’s new assignment was in Texas as a member of a cavalry regiment. On the last day of March in 1855, Lee’s tenure as West Point superintendent officially came to an end. After packing their belongings and making other preparations, the Lee family left West Point on April 9, which was to be the day ten years later on which Lee, as he, himself, said, “would rather die a thousand deaths” than do what he actually did, that is, meet with General Ulysses S. Grant in a small town in central Virginia. While Lee journeyed to his new assignment, Mrs. Lee, Annie, Agnes, Rob, and Mildred lived at Arlington with Mrs. Lee’s father, G.W.P. Custis. Mrs. Lee’s mother had died two years earlier. Mary went to Baltimore, the city which she had enjoyed so much a few years earlier, to care for Lee’s sister, Anne Marshall.
After Mary rejoined the family at Arlington, she took on the duty of schooling Rob and Mildred, ages 12 and nine, respectively. Lee fretted about this in a letter to Mrs. Lee. He stated that, while he felt that Mary would do well in instructing her siblings, he was worried that she might be too overbearing. Lee wrote, “She must exert her self control & ingenuity by making it agreable [sic] as well as instructive.” Lee loved his daughter, Mary, as he loved all his children, but he was not shy about expressing an opinion regarding what he perceived as flaws. In a letter, Lee said that Mary was “knowing and opinionated” and added, “All the experience of others is lost on her.” These statements about his daughter indicate that Lee felt that Mary was not at all inclined to take advice, including, most likely, the advice of her father.
The Gathering Storm
For his new assignment, Lee was made second in command of the newly formed Second Cavalry, which would serve in Texas protecting residents on the frontier from Indians. The commander of this cavalry regiment was Albert Sydney Johnston, who, six years later in the Civil War, outranked Lee again and was one of only two such officers in the Confederate army to do so, at least until the Battle of Shiloh when every general in the Confederate hierarchy moved up a notch after Johnston was removed from the roster of Confederate generals by a bullet that may have been fired by someone in Johnston’s own army. (The only other Confederate general who outranked Lee, and who, in fact, was the highest ranking officer in the Confederate army, was Samuel Cooper, who is described in the history brief of March 2013, which is titled The Highest Ranking Officer in the Confederate Army and is archived on the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable’s website.
While Lee was in Texas, he had an extended encounter with another future Civil War general, one who was a fellow Virginian, but who made the opposite decision as Lee did and instead fought for the Union. In the fall of 1856 Lee was assigned to court-martial duty in San Antonio, and one person who accompanied him was Major George H. Thomas. Chasing after marauding Comanches and Kiowas was certainly frustrating for Lee, but a respite for court-martial duty was hardly welcome, because Lee had little enthusiasm for this. In a letter to his wife, Lee wrote about one specific aspect that annoyed him. Complaining about the legal maneuverings of the two lawyers who were defending the accused officer at the court-martial, Lee wrote that the lawyers were “accustomed to the tricks and stratagems of special pleadings, which, of no other avail, absorb time and stave off the question.”
Lee’s assignment with the Second Cavalry had kept him away from his family for more than two and a half years when Lee received word of the unexpected death of his father-in-law, G.W.P. Custis, in October 1857. Because Lee was executor of the estate, he asked for and received a furlough and returned to Arlington. The difficulties in handling the will caused Lee to remain at Arlington for almost two years, although there were some short trips for various military duties, such as court-martial duty at West Point and heading the mission to suppress John Brown’s raid. Lee departed Arlington for his return to Texas on February 10, 1860. Ten months and ten days later South Carolina seceded from the United States.
Lee was recalled to Washington, arrived at Arlington three days before the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, had meetings which failed to sway him into fighting for the Union, and then made his decision to fight for Virginia and the Confederacy. On Sunday, April 21, 1861 Lee attended church services with one of his daughters, whose identity is not known with complete certainty, but is thought to most likely be Mary. After the services a group of people gathered around Lee to speak with him. The discussion went on for so long that Mary and one of her friends decided to go to the friend’s house, which was near the church. Mary watched through an upstairs window and could only speculate about the conversation, which probably involved a discussion of Lee taking command of Virginia’s forces now that the Old Dominion had officially declared its intention to secede. After some time Lee came for his daughter, and they returned to Arlington.
The War Years
Three and a half weeks after Mary watched her father engage in this discussion, she and her family were forced to leave their home at Arlington. With Annie still at White House on the Pamunkey River and Mildred still at school in Winchester, Mrs. Lee, Mary, and Agnes moved west to an estate owned by relatives. Shortly thereafter Agnes went to White House to be with Annie, and Mrs. Lee and Mary moved west to stay at another estate. In the fall of 1861, Mrs. Lee and Mary also went to live at White House. In the winter Mary moved to Richmond, and she took a brief trip from there to visit the winter camp of Jeb Stuart near Fairfax Court House. Stuart, who had described Mary as attractive when he was a student at West Point, wrote to his wife about Mary’s visit and said, “Miss Mary Lee spent a few days…during a fine spell of weather…Poor Gen Ewell is desperately but hopelessly smitten.” If Stuart’s impression about Richard Ewell was correct, then this future corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia was infatuated with the eldest daughter of his future army commander.
At Christmastime that winter, Mary received a letter from her father, who had been sent to the southeastern part of the Confederacy to oversee the organization of coastal defenses there. The letter contains a warmth of emotion that is not typically associated with the man who is perceived as perpetually austere. Lee wrote to his eldest daughter, “Having distributed such poor Christmas gifts as I had to those around me, I have been looking for something for you…I send you some sweet violets, that I gathered for you this morning, while covered with dense white frost, whose chrystals [sic] glittered in the bright sun like diamonds, and formed a brooch of rare beauty and sweetness, which could not be fabricated by the expenditure of a world of money.” Lee contrasted the invaluable beauty of the violets with their paltry monetary value by adding, “Yet how little will it purchase! But see how God provides for our pleasure in every way.” Lee also included a wish for both Mary and himself. “May God guard and preserve you for me, my dear daughter! Among the calamities of war, the hardest to bear perhaps, is the separation of families and friends.” Lee’s emotion shifted when he continued his letter by writing about the loss of Arlington. “Your old home, if not destroyed by our enemies, has been so desecrated, that I cannot bear to think of it. I should have preferred it to have been wiped from the earth, its beautiful hill sunk, and its sacred trees buried, rather than to have been degraded by the presence of those who revel in the ill they do for their own selfish purposes.”
Mary was still living in Richmond when her father returned to that city in the spring of 1862 after his mission to organize defenses in the southeastern region of the Confederacy. This not only gave Mary an opportunity to visit with her father, but also to ride Lee’s horse, Traveller. The spring of 1862 was also the time when Mary received an unexpected package from an unknown sender. The package contained a copybook that belonged to Mary, into which, as a young girl, she had transcribed various texts such as poetry to practice her penmanship, as was customary at that time. On some pages of the copybook that had been blank, Mary saw two poems which were written in handwriting that was not her own and which explained how the copybook had found its way back to her. One poem, dated March 20, 1862, was signed by her cousin, Fitzhugh Lee. In the final stanza of the poem, Fitzhugh found a way to incorporate a paraphrase of the famous quote that Mary’s paternal grandfather had uttered in his eulogy of George Washington. This stanza, which served as a message to reveal the identity of the person who had composed the poem, read, “From one who like the ‘Father / of his Country’ is ‘first in war / first in peace,’ first in the / heart of his country cousin. / —& her first cousin.”
The other poem, written by Jeb Stuart and dated a day earlier than Fitzhugh’s, gave some indication of how the copybook had come into their possession, although the explanation lacked specific details and stated only that he had found the book. In the final stanza of Stuart’s poem, he declared triumphantly that Mary’s copybook was, “Snatched from the foul invader’s touch— / Restored, unsullied to Marielle! / Be thou, pure page,—I beg this much— / A still reminder, some day to tell— / That one too true to be discreet— / Here laid his off’ring at her feet.” Stuart’s poem was signed “Jeb” and addressed “To Marielle,” a name which also appeared in the poem’s final stanza. That was the name which Mary had used for herself when she met Jeb Stuart at West Point. It is unclear how the copybook had fallen into the hands of “the foul invader” or how Jeb Stuart had come upon it, but it is interesting to think of one of the greatest cavalry commanders of the Civil War sitting in camp composing poetry to a woman he had met while he was a student at West Point. Mary kept the copybook for the rest of her life, and in May 1864 she pasted a copy of Jeb Stuart’s obituary next to the poem that he wrote for her.
Jeb Stuart entered Mary’s life again later that year, while Mary was living with relatives at an estate near the Potomac River. When Ambrose Burnside moved the Army of the Potomac to the Rappahannock River prior to the Battle of Fredericksburg, the estate where Mary was staying fell behind enemy lines. Stuart sent two of his scouts into enemy territory to extricate Mary, but she refused to leave, and the scouts returned without her. Mary remained at the estate into 1863 and then traveled to Richmond and rejoined her mother and her sisters, Agnes and Mildred, after the Army of the Potomac withdrew in order to counteract Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania.
For most of the remainder of the Civil War, Mary lived with Mrs. Lee, Agnes, and Mildred, much of the time in Richmond. Mary was in Richmond with her mother and sisters when the Confederate capital fell. Although Mrs. Lee’s rheumatic disease made it difficult for her to be moved, Mrs. Lee’s refusal to leave rather than her physical incapacity was the reason that the Lee women stayed in their rented house, even though some of the flames in the burning city came dangerously close to that house. When the Union army occupied Richmond, an officer offered to have Mrs. Lee moved to a safer place, but she again refused, and the officer had guards posted at the house. Less than a week later, the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered, and less than a week after the surrender, the Army of Northern Virginia’s commander joined his family in the rented house in Richmond.
“Unconventional in Her Conduct”
In the early summer of 1865, when the Lee family moved to Derwent, the cottage on the James River that had been offered to them as a temporary residence, Mary went with her family. But very soon thereafter Mary moved to Staunton, Virginia to live with relatives, because she was not enthusiastic about living in the cramped, remote cottage. Lee enjoyed having his daughters near him, and this would have been of particular comfort to him in the aftermath of the Civil War. He was probably not pleased when Mary chose to move to Staunton, but he was also probably not surprised, since Mary had long before shown her independence and her tendency to do as she wanted.
As it happened, Mary attended a social gathering in Staunton, where she commented to another guest, most likely in her typical blunt way, that Southerners were offering her father many things, but not employment, which was the thing he wanted most. That guest was a friend of one of the trustees of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, which was in the process of searching for a new president. This guest conveyed the information to the trustee, and the trustee mentioned Mary’s comment at a subsequent meeting at which possible candidates for the open position were being discussed. The board of trustees voted unanimously to offer the position to Lee and dispatched someone to deliver the offer. By the end of August 1865 Lee accepted the offer, although he and his family had never been to Lexington, and moving there would take them further from familiar people and places. But the position of president came with the use of a house, which allowed Lee to provide his family a place to live.
Shortly after accepting the position at Washington College, Lee went to Lexington alone. His family remained at Derwent, because the president’s house needed to be refurbished before the rest of his family could move. Lee learned on his trip to Lexington that his new city of residence was not easily reached. There was no direct railroad, and travel to Lexington was typically by packet boat or stagecoach. Regarding the various routes for traveling to Lexington, Lee reputedly said that “whichever [route]…you select, you will wish you had taken the other.” In spite of the travel difficulties, which must have been especially hard for Mrs. Lee due to her rheumatic disease, Lee’s family came in November after the president’s house was ready, and Lee settled in for the only post-war job he ever had. Thus it was that Robert E. Lee came upon his post-war career as a college president. In this instance Mary’s assertiveness and outspokenness, traits which Lee had criticized, worked to great advantage for her father.
While Lee’s post-war years were focused on running a college, Mary began to travel extensively and continued to do so for the rest of her life. That Mary traveled on her own for many years and to many places fits with her daring and independent nature. For most of the time from 1870 until the beginning of World War I, Mary lived outside of the U.S. During this time she went to more than 26 countries, with only brief trips back to the U.S. When she was in Europe she stayed most often in London, Paris, or Rome and traveled from those cites to the places she wanted to visit. She spent a whole year in Australia and moved around the country by rail. She visited India, Ceylon, Java, Hong Kong, and Japan, had an audience with Pope Leo XIII, and also spent a week as a guest of an Indian maharaja, which she described as “a piece out of the Arabian Nights!” Mary used a bribe to gain entry into the Hagia Sofia mosque in Istanbul, which was a perilous undertaking for her due to both her gender and her religion.
During her stay in Istanbul, Mary tried to join a group that was going on an excursion to Egypt, but for some reason she was excluded. Mary contacted a prominent British official whom she had met, and he sent a private ship to transport Mary to Egypt. When the people in the excursion party realized that this had happened, one of them reputedly complained about Mary’s special treatment with the caustic comment, “What in the world is she—merely the daughter of a defeated General?” Another member of the group provided the explanation for this treatment by replying to the question, “That is the reason. She is the daughter of that defeated General.”
Mary’s travels, however, were not without problems. She once accidentally started a fire in a hotel in Naples, and she fell through a ceiling of an old cathedral in England. When Mary was in Egypt, she was invited by an American official to attend a dinner honoring Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, who were on their world tour following Grant’s presidency. Mary declined the invitation, reputedly with the brusque statement, “I wouldn’t sit down at the same table with General Grant to save his life.” This led someone who heard about Mary’s remark to characterize Mary as “uninhibited,” having “a mind of her own,” and “as unrestrained in her speech as she was unconventional in her conduct.” This person’s intent may have been to hurl an insult at Mary because of Mary’s refusal to attend the dinner, but the comments were not only an accurate description of Mary, but may also have been something that Mary would have agreed with and been proud of. The daughter of the American official who invited Mary to the dinner responded to Mary’s refusal with much greater invective by writing in a letter that Mary was “a horribly ugly old maid, and very queer.”
Not everyone, however, considered Mary ugly. One person described Mary as having a “strong, but somewhat eccentric character” and further described her as “wholly devoid of fear.” To someone else, Mary was a “very masterful type, not afraid of anything or anybody.” The descriptions of Mary by these two people seem appropriate in light of Mary’s willingness to travel to so many places and once there to undertake so many risky endeavors. One newspaper reporter who interviewed Mary described her as “brilliant, original, and cultivated” with a “handsome and intellectual personality,” and also stated that whomever Mary came in contact with, she made them “warm friends as well as ardent admirers.” Another reporter’s description was less complimentary. To him, Mary was “large and masculine-looking,” and he added that Mary had a “proud, calm face” and “a reputation for extreme hautiness [sic].”
During a visit to the U.S. in 1902, Mary was arrested in Alexandria, Virginia for staying in the back of a streetcar with her black maid in the section where blacks were required to sit. She had to post a five-dollar bond and was summoned to court, but she ignored the summons and forfeited the bond. Perhaps surprisingly, in light of her independent nature, Mary was not a supporter of women’s suffrage. In a statement that would be considered sexist if it were uttered by a man, Mary once remarked that “a woman, if she is reasonably attractive, can get everything she wants from men without a vote.”
“The Last Surviving Child of General Robert E. Lee”
Mary, who was 79 years old at the time, was in Germany when World War I started, but she was able to go to London and then to the U.S. While Mary was in London, a reporter interviewed her, and the woman who had lived through the first modern war and was excruciatingly aware of the devastation and human toll that such a war inflicts, gave her thoughts about the war that was beginning to be fought in Europe. Mary said, in a horribly prescient assessment drawn from what she had witnessed in the past, “I am a soldier’s daughter…What I have seen of this war, and what I can foresee of the misery which must follow, have made me nearly a peace advocate at any price. My father often used to say that war is a terrible alternative, and should be the very last…I often wonder, with many misgivings, if, in this case, war was the last alternative…My sympathy is with suffering wherever it exists, with the brave men who are fighting and suffering in the trenches and with the brave women who in practically all homes in Europe are waiting and suffering.” Mary could see that Europe was about to learn the terrible lessons of modern warfare which the U.S. discovered half a century before.
When Mary returned to the U.S. in 1914, she took up residence in Washington and lived there for three years. During that time, she became the last surviving child of Robert E. and Mrs. Lee after the death of her younger brother, Rob. The other Lee children had died at various times before then. Mary was proud of her distinction as the last surviving child of Robert E. Lee, and it was to be, by her own instructions, her epitaph. It is ironic that Mary, who of all the Lee children was the most distant from the family, both literally and figuratively, came to relish her distinction as the last of Lee’s surviving children. Adding to this irony was the fact that Mary, due to her extensive traveling, was not present at the funerals of either of her parents.
After living in Washington for three years, Mary, now 82 years old, went to Lexington in 1917. Her physical health was beginning to fail, but her mental faculties were still strong. She made a catalog of the portraits from Arlington, which were then at the college where her father had been president. She corrected what she called “so many stupid mistakes” and prepared “a new & more correct list” that included the name of the painter and when the portraits were done. For this task, Mary drew on the knowledge of the portraits that she had received many years before from her grandfather, when she was living at Arlington while her family was in St. Louis.
During the last few years of Mary’s life, when she was the only member of the immediate family still alive, she developed a closeness to her family that she previously never had. Mary’s younger sister, Mildred, once wrote in a letter to a friend that Mary “is always absorbed in self, first and foremost.” One of the tragedies of Mary’s life was that after she had spent so much of her adult life away from her family, it was not until after all of the members of her immediate family had died that Mary developed an attachment to her family. As such, she became devoted to the memory of her family, when it was too late to be devoted to the members of her family.
In the fall of 1918 Mary moved to the last place where she would ever live, the Homestead Hotel at Hot Springs, Virginia, which is where Mrs. Lee had gone several times to seek relief from her rheumatic symptoms. Shortly after the armistice that ended the war whose horrors Mary had predicted, Mary became ill, and she died on November 22, 1918 at the age of 83. Mary was the only one of the Lee daughters to leave a will, and, as stipulated in that will, she was cremated rather than buried, even though cremation at that time was an uncommon practice in the U.S. and was considered eccentric and even religiously unacceptable. She wrote in her will that this choice was because of her “life long horrow [sic] of being boxed up in a coffin.” She also stipulated in her will that her ashes be placed in an urn inscribed with her name, date of death, and the recognition that she was “the last surviving child of General Robert E. Lee.” The urn was placed in the Lee family crypt, which is in the chapel on the campus of the university where Lee had been president. Mary’s will included a bequest to that university. Her estate was $156,000 (almost $3.5 million in 2017 dollars), and her will also included bequests to charitable causes, to historical preservation, and to her relatives.
Mary’s Long Life
In light of the status of the U.S. at the time of Mary’s birth and at the time of her death, it can be argued that the country transformed to a greater degree during the 83-year span of Mary’s life than during any other 83-year span of time in the country’s history. At the time of Mary’s birth in 1835, Andrew Jackson was nearing the end of his presidency. Jackson led a nation of 24 states and a population of 15 million, of which fewer than 10% lived in cities. Two of the leading architects of U.S. independence, including the author of the Declaration of Independence, had died less than ten years earlier, and the man who has been called the Father of the Constitution was not to die until one year after Mary’s birth. When Mary died in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson oversaw a country of 48 states, 11 of which had to be retained forcibly by means of a war in which Mary’s father played a prominent role in support of the cause to remove those 11 stars from the American flag. The population had increased almost seven-fold to 100 million with half now living in cities. In the year that Mary died, the U.S. Post Office initiated regular airmail service, automobiles were being produced commercially in the U.S., and women’s suffrage, an issue for which Mary had little enthusiasm, had gained the momentum that would carry it into becoming the law of the land. The U.S. which Mary departed in death was far different from the U.S. into which Mary was born.
To use a biological analogy, Mary’s life spanned the period when the U.S. went through puberty, that is, when it transitioned from its childhood as a relatively undeveloped, uninfluential country to its adulthood as a world power, which stood among the world’s other powerful nations and which was involved in and was affecting world affairs. At the time of Mary’s birth, the U.S. had gone through its embryonic period, been born, and was at the end of its childhood. The prepubescent U.S. that existed at the time when Mary was born had aged past a childhood when it was guided by those who had brought the country into existence. Now those people, like the nation’s childhood, were gone. At the time when Mary was born, the U.S. was entering a phase of maturing beyond the nascent country that it had been, and it began a period when it underwent prodigious growth, geographically, socially, and culturally. By the time of Mary’s death, the U.S. had gone through the intense growing pains of becoming an adult, in particular the war that drastically altered the lives of Mary and her family. The country still had much more maturing ahead, but when Mary died, the U.S. was the young adult which bore a much closer resemblance to the older, more mature country that exists today than the U.S. in 1835 bore to the U.S. of 1918. Mary Lee’s long life, which she lived in the way that she wanted, coincided with the vital period of national maturation that was critical in shaping the country that the U.S. has become.
During Mary’s long life, she had a vast number of extraordinary experiences, including a youth at one of the most scenic estates in the U.S., sleeping in a room that was used by the Marquis de Lafayette, living through the Civil War, and traveling extensively to a large and widespread number of enticing places. Of all the members of the immediate Lee family, Mary was the one who was least connected to the family. Unlike Dorothy in the movie The Wizard of Oz, who reached the conclusion that if she wanted to search for her “heart’s desire,” she need not “look any further than my own backyard,” Mary chased her “heart’s desire” all over the world. It was Mary’s independence which allowed her to enjoy many of her experiences, but this independence also came with a cost, in that she was in some ways estranged from her family. In contrast to her younger sister, Mildred, who was so dedicated to her family that it led to an adulthood that was despondent and unfulfilling, Mary focused most of her attention and energy on living her life as she wanted, which led Mildred to describe Mary as being “always absorbed in self, first and foremost.”
Regrettably for both Mary and Mildred, neither one was able to find a balance between self and family. Mary was so focused on the former that she sacrificed the latter, and for Mildred the reverse was true. There is evidence from Mildred’s writings that she came to regret the decisions that led to her sacrificing her own needs in favor of her family’s needs. It is not known if Mary came to regret the decisions that led to her becoming distant from her family. She seemed to feel a closeness to her family late in her life, but by that time all of the other family members had died and it was too late for Mary to develop a closeness to any of them. Even from an early time in Mary’s life, it was her way to do as she wanted, a characteristic that her father described kindly as “her vivacity” and more harshly as “knowing and opinionated.” Perhaps Mary wished late in her life that she had made some changes that would have brought her closer to her family, but whether or not she did, she had to live with the decisions that she made. In light of Mary’s fiercely independent nature, she most likely was willing to live with those decisions. The epitaph that Mary composed for herself indicates that she was the last surviving child of Robert E. Lee. Had Mary known the lyrics of a particular song that was popular more than half a century after Mary’s death, she might have added a line from that song to her epitaph in order to emphasize a trait and a lifestyle that made her unique among the four Lee daughters: “I did it my way.”