Correction to This Article
A headline on a July 12 Style article about the papers of Robert E. Lee mistakenly transposed the middle and last names of his daughter Mary Custis Lee.

A Portrait in Letters

Mary Custis Lee left the trove in a vault in 1917, a year before her death.
Mary Custis Lee left the trove in a vault in 1917, a year before her death. (Virginia Historical Society)
By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 12, 2007

RICHMOND Two old steamer trunks sit in the rare-book room at the Virginia Historical Society, looking worn and forlorn. The smaller one was once red but the paint has faded to a dull rust. The larger one is brown with a piece of tin patching a hole in the top. On one side, a name is stenciled: "M. LEE."

That's Mary Custis Lee, Gen. Robert E. Lee's adventurous eldest daughter. In 1917, she stored these wooden trunks in the "silver vault" in the basement of Burke & Herbert Bank & Trust in Alexandria. A year later, she died at the age of 83. Her trunks sat in a dusty corner of the vault for 84 years, unclaimed, until E. Hunt Burke, the bank's vice chairman, discovered them in 2002.

Burke called his high school classmate Rob E.L. deButts Jr., who is Robert E. Lee's great-great-grandson. Together, the two men descended into the vault. Burke carried a basket of old keys.

"The first one I pulled out was a perfect fit," he says.

The trunks were stuffed with Lee family papers -- a priceless cache of 4,000 letters, photographs and documents. DeButts carted them to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, which houses the world's largest collection of Lee papers. He spent a week there, sitting at a desk in the research library, reaching into Mary Custis Lee's trunks and picking out treasures and trash.

"He'd pull out a pile of her postcards and then he'd pull out something from the Colonial period and then he'd pull out letters from Robert E. Lee," says Lee Shepard, the society's senior archivist. "There was no rhyme or reason to it. She was the unofficial family historian, but she was also a bit of a pack rat."

One day, deButts called Shepard's office from the library. "You have got to come down here," he said, sounding excited. Shepard hustled downstairs and deButts showed him what he'd just picked out of the trunk: an envelope containing three cloth stars -- general's stars -- that Lee cut off his Confederate uniform after he surrendered at Appomattox.

A few weeks ago, Shepard opened the Mary Custis Lee papers to the public. It's a strange and eclectic collection. There are postcards that Mary Custis Lee gathered in Paris, Egypt and Atlantic City. And a fan she picked up in China. And a dried rose she plucked in a garden in Khartoum. There's a list of 266 slaves owned by one of her ancestors in 1766. And an account book kept by her mother's step-great-grandfather, George Washington. There's a handful of letters her father wrote to her during the Civil War. And another collection of letters that illuminate -- but do not quite solve -- the mystery of how Robert E. Lee's daughter happened to be arrested in Alexandria in 1902 for refusing to leave the black section of a trolley car.

Lyrical Letters

On Christmas Day 1861 -- the first Christmas of the Civil War -- Robert E. Lee took a piece of white paper, folded it to make a four-page booklet, and wrote a letter to his daughter Mary.

"Having distributed such poor Xmas gifts as I had to those around me, I have been looking for something for you," Lee wrote. "I send you some sweet violets that I gathered for you this morning while covered with dense white frost that glistened in the bright sun like diamonds and formed a broche of rare beauty and sweetness, which could not be fabricated by the expenditure of a world of money. Yet how little it will purchase. But see how God provides for our pleasure in every way. May he 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."

It's a sweet, sentimental letter, but only for a while. When the general brings up a painful subject -- the fact that their estate, Arlington, has been occupied by the Union Army -- his anger is palpable.

"Your old home if not destroyed by our enemies has been so desecrated that I cannot bear to think of it," he writes. "I should have preferred it to have been wiped from the earth, its beautiful hill sunk, its sacred trees burned rather than to have been degraded by the presence of those who revel in the ill they do for their own selfish purposes."

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