Mary Anna Randolph Custis 1
- Born: 1 Oct 1808
- Marriage (1): Robert Edward Lee on 30 Jun 1831
- Died: 5 Nov 1873 at age 65
Mary Anna Custis Lee was the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington's step-grandson and adopted son and founder of Arlington House, and Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, daughter of William Fitzhugh and Ann Bolling Randolph Fitzhugh. Her godmother, Mary Randolph, the first person recorded buried at Arlington, wrote an early book on housekeeping and cooking. Lee's birth year is usually given as 1808, but it appears in the Custis family Bible and in records kept by her mother as 1807, and is also referred to in a letter her mother wrote in the autumn of 1807. She was well educated, having learned both Latin and Greek. She enjoyed discussing politics with her father, and later with her husband. She kept current with the new literature and, after her father's death, edited and published his writings as "Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, by his Adopted Son George Washington Parke Custis, with a Memoir of this Author by his Daughter" in 1859.
Lee was diminutive and vivacious and had known her second cousin, Robert E. Lee, from childhood; her mother and Robert's mother were first cousins, and Lee's father Henry had delivered the famous eulogy to a crowd of 4000 at George Washington's 1799 funeral. Among Lee's other suitors was Sam Houston. She and Robert were married at her parents' home, Arlington House, on June 30, 1831, and had three sons and four daughters: George Washington Custis "Custis", William H. Fitzhugh "Rooney", Robert Edward Jr., Mary, Eleanor Agnes (called Agnes), Anne, and Mildred.
Engraving of Mary Anna Custis Lee, 1854
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. She was a gracious hostess and enjoyed frequent visitors. She was a painter, like her father, and painted many landscapes, some of which are still on view at the house. She loved roses and grew 11 varieties. She was deeply religious and attended Episcopal services when there was one near the army post. In Arlington, Virginia, the Lees attended the Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia, the church she and Robert had attended in childhood.
Lee taught her female slaves to read and write and was an advocate of eventual emancipation, although she herself chose not to free her slaves, as state law permitted her to do. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and this became increasingly debilitating with advancing age. By 1861, she was using a wheelchair.
With the advent of the American Civil War, Robert and their sons were called to service in Virginia while she delayed evacuating Arlington House until May 15, 1861. Early that month, Robert wrote to his wife saying:
"War is inevitable, and there is no telling when it will burst around you . . . You have to move and make arrangements to go to some point of safety which you must select. The Mount Vernon plate and pictures ought to be secured. Keep quiet while you remain, and in your preparations . . . May God keep and preserve you and have mercy on all our people."
Lee and her daughters initially moved between 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 River and the Pamunkey River toward Richmond. In a gentlemanly gesture by Union commander George B. McClellan, she was allowed to pass through the lines in order to take up residence in Richmond\emdash ironically McClellan's campaign goal.
Lee and her daughters settled at 707 East Franklin Street in Richmond, Virginia. The family moved to the plantation estate of the Cocke family at Bremo Bluff, Virginia, where they sought refuge until November 1865. After the war, the Lees lived in Powhatan County for a short time before moving to Lexington, Virginia, where Robert became president of the Washington College, later renamed Washington and Lee University. She was able to visit her beloved Arlington House once more before her death, but was unable to leave her horse carriage. She hardly recognized the estate except for a few old oaks and some of the trees she and Robert had planted. Mary Anna Custis Lee died at the age of 66 and is buried next to her husband in the Lee family crypt at Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee.
Mary married Robert Edward Lee on 30 Jun 1831. (Robert Edward Lee was born on 19 Jan 1807 and died on 12 Oct 1870.)