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Mrs. Robert E. Lee: The Lady of Arlington

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Many know about her husband, Robert E. Lee, and her great-grandmother, Martha Washington and many have visited the cemetery that now occupies her family estate. But few today know much about Mary Custis Lee herself.

Lee inherited Arlington House from her father after he died in 1857. The estate had long been the couple’s home whenever they were in the area during her husband’s military career. Deeply religious, Lee attended Episcopal services when there was one near the army post. From Arlington, Virginia, the Lees attended Christ Church (Alexandria, Virginia) in Alexandria, which she and Robert had both attended in childhood.  Lee taught her female slaves to read and write and was an advocate of eventual emancipation, but she did not free her slaves, even though she could have under state law of the time. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, which became increasingly debilitating with advancing age. By 1861, she was using a wheelchair.

With the advent of the American Civil War, and her husband’s acceptance of a command in the Confederate army, Mary Custis Lee delayed evacuating Arlington House until May 15, 1861. Lee and her daughters initially moved among the several family plantations. In May 1862, she was caught at her son Rooney’s White House Plantation in New Kent County behind the Federal lines, as Union forces moved up the York and the Pamunkey rivers toward Richmond. The Union commander, George B. McClellan, allowed her passage through the lines in order to take up residence in Richmond—the city which was also McClellan’s campaign goal.  After the war, the Lees lived in Powhatan County for a short time before moving to Lexington where Robert E. Lee became president of the Washington College, later renamed Washington and Lee University. Mary Anna Custis Lee visited her beloved Arlington House one last time in 1873, a few months before her death.

A generally sympathetic account by author John Perry, who nevertheless takes a scholarly and factual approach focused on Mrs. Lee, and not on the people–enslaved or free–who surrounded her.

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Multnomah, 2001

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