The Women of the Civil War: Mary Custis Lee
Mary Anna Randolph Custis, daughter of landed gentry, and Robert E. Lee, son of a destitute family, at first glance appeared to be an odd match — not unlike the partnership of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln (see Coastal Point’s April 26, 2019, issue). Yet third-cousins Mary Custis and Robert E. Lee were raised in the ambiance and luxury of the First Families of Virginia before Lee’s parents fell on hard times.
Mary Custis was the great-granddaughter of Martha Custis Washington — the wife of Gen., and later President, George Washington. Mary’s father, George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted son of George Washington, in 1831 reluctantly permitted his daughter to marry West Point graduate and promising young army officer Robert E. Lee.
Mary, a well-to-do heiress reared in a slave-dependent society, did not adapt well to the rigor and demands of army life. When an opportunity or excuse availed itself, she decamped to her family home, “Arlington,” while Robert soldiered on alone at their modest military quarters on base.
Following her father’s death in 1857, Mary Lee inherited the beautiful mansion at Arlington, along with its 63 slaves and surrounding 1,100 acres. In the interim, Mary had given birth to four girls and three boys, most delivered at Arlington while Robert was away on duty.
From a personality point of view, Mary Custis was intelligent, introspective and a devout born-again Christian who developed a deep religious faith and experienced God in her life. Socially, she preferred her own intimate circle of family and friends.
Her biographer, John Perry, wrote in “Lady of Arlington,” she was “immersed from her earliest days in the traditions, patriotism, and pride that the memory of [George] Washington nurtured in her family.”
Her patriotism was severely tested when Virginia joined 10 other states in separating from the Union in 1861. This soon led to Mary’s removal from her beloved Arlington, never to live there again.
Mary’s faith sustained her during these trying times. Her prayers over the years that her husband would “turn your heart to Him” had finally borne fruit a few years earlier, when Robert decided to be confirmed at Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria.
Mary would not see her husband for more than a year after Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. army to join the newly established Confederate States of America in April 1861. Forced to flee her Arlington home, which was located directly across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., Mary wandered through Virginia and North Carolina, staying for brief periods with family and friends to avoid the advancing Yankee army.
During the Civil War, Mary lost her daughter Anne to typhoid fever at age 23. More sadness came when her son William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee fell wounded during a cavalry battle at Brandy Station, Va., was captured, and remained a prisoner of the Union army for seven months, prior to being exchanged in February 1864.
During her lifetime, Mary Custis Lee made the most of her talents and coped with her limitations. Her health deteriorated over the years, and as John Perry described, causing her “knees and ankles swollen once again, hands painful and twisted, unable to take a single step unassisted.”
Her legacy is an enduring partnership with her husband, Robert, during the trauma of sectional conflict, and in the aftermath as the Southern people recovered from four years of destruction and dislocation.
As quoted in “Intimate Strategies of the Civil War: Military Commanders and Their Wives,” edited by Carol K. Bleser and Lesley J. Gordon, Mary describes her final visit to Arlington in 1873, three years after the death of her husband, Robert, and five months prior to her own passing: “I rode out to my dear old home but so changed it seemed but as a dream of the past.”
Upon arrival, Mary viewed the landscape, including Union soldiers’ headstones within a few paces of her parents’ graves. Stunned by the dramatic transformation, she refused to get out of the carriage, and soon left with the image of the Arlington of old in her mind’s eye.
Ironically, in 1955, Congress designated the beautiful Greek revival-style Custis-Lee Mansion, now known as Arlington House, as a memorial — not to Mary Custis, but to her husband, Robert E. Lee. Over the years, the building and surrounding grounds have undergone continual rehabilitation, and are open to the public.
To obtain additional information or plan a visit, call (703) 235-1530.
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” available at Bethany Beach Books, Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and Cardsmart in Milford. His latest book, “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” is due out in August 2019, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point