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Lee-ward Bound

Tracking the Far-Flung Founding Family Across Nearby Virginia

By Deborah Churchman
Friday, March 27, 1987; Page N04
© The Washington Post

It's always tempting to peek behind history's veil at the families who founded our country -- the Washingtons, the Adamses, the Jeffersons, the Carters, the Lees. . .

Especially the Lees. The Lee name is legend, and those who have borne it have always been the proudest of the proud Virginians. The family has produced, among others, two signers of the Declaration of Independence, a Revolutionary War general, feminists, statesmen, land developers and the South's revered Marse Robert, Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Their residences and enterprises dot Washington's landscape. From Leesburg (which two Lees helped found and named after their old daddy) to Alexandria (with a dozen Lee residences); from Arlington (which came to Marse Robert through both his own family and the Washingtons) to Chantilly (named after a Lee plantation); and from the Blair-Lee House downtown (now the presidential guesthouse) to Ravensworth Shopping Center in Annandale (on the site of a Lee home by that name), the family that helped mold America still shapes the capital.

We started tracking the Lees with the help of author Eleanor Lee Templeman, historian to the Society of the Lees of Virginia. We found an onionlike layering of curiosities such as: an ongoing archeological dig; a Lee home for sale for over half a million dollars; a posh dress shop once home to Alexandria's first customs officer (Charles Lee); and tours of some of the loveliest homes in the area.

Getting a grasp on the Lee legacy means following a complicated genealogy back to the days when Northern Virginia was a wilderness. The Lees, it seems, had a talent for politics -- the first one over here (from Shropshire, England, in the 1630s) married the governor's ward -- and two Lee residences in Williamsburg (not open to the public) testify to service in the House of Burgesses. They also had a penchant for acquiring land and marrying their cousins, which makes their history both solid and complicated.

Perhaps the best place to start is with Thomas Lee, grandson of the original immigrant, who married the wealthy Hannah Ludwell. Together, they had one of the most remarkable sets of children ever to grow up in this country.

The first son, Phillip Ludwell Lee, was a divided-loyalist who lived in a brick mansion called Stratford (open to the public) on the lower Potomac. "If I had a great big estate right on the river where the British could come and take it any time, I think I'd be inclined to be a Tory," says Jim Putman of the National Park Service. The family prefers to call him a quiet patriot; his brothers called him "the Colonel" and chafed under his handling of the family finances.

The other siblings apparently were hardcore revolutionaries: Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot, the only brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence; Arthur, who went to Paris with Benjamin Franklin and helped keep France on our side during the Revolution; William, who served with Arthur in Europe trying to establish diplomatic relations in Madrid and Berlin; and two feminist sisters, Hannah and Alice.

Hannah married wealth the first time round. But when her husband died and she decided to wed again (to her husband's doctor), she discovered that, by the terms of her first husband's will, she would have to forfeit his estate if she remarried. So she had a Baptist minister tie the knot; since such a marriage was not then recognized in law, she kept the property. She also badgered her two "signer" brothers about their commitment to equality under the law (Richard Henry went so far as to propose woman suffrage to the House of Burgesses, but got nowhere.)

The father of this group, Thomas Lee, built Stratford (probably in the 1730s), an imposing, even fortress-like, home. He owned thousands of acres, including what's now Warrenton and much of north Arlington.

The house was built at a time when wealth came less from the land than from the tobacco that grew on it. Most plantation owners, Putman says, rolled their tobacco in barrels down to the river, where it was picked up by ships headed back to its exclusive market in England.

"But some of these planters got sneaky and started putting good tobacco at the top of the barrel, and stuffing the bad stuff in the middle," Putman explains, "so the British set up tobacco authorization warehouses where it would be inspected and then kept under lock and key." Towns grew up around these warehouses, he explains, including villages like Alexandria, whose Oronoco street (named after a type of Virginia tobacco) bears witness to its original purpose.

Thomas Lee established one of these warehouses at the mouth of Pimmit Run, where the Virginia end of Chain Bridge now is anchored. His eldest son tried to build a town around it, dubbed Phillee after himself, Philip Ludwell Lee; you can see the ruins below the bridge. The town never blossomed, and the warehouse was later carried off by Phillip's son-in-law for a little project at Great Falls with George Washington.

The son-in-law was Light Horse Harry Lee -- a man they say was born to ride and to swear -- who married his second cousin, Philip's daughter Matilda, by whom he had three children. Harry served as one of Washington's most brilliant generals in the Revolution, and later was governor of Virginia.

Having paid for his militia mostly out of his own pocket, Harry found himself, like Washington, cash-poor after the war. The risk-taking that had served him so well as a general led him to become a speculator in a series of enterprises, most of which went bust.

One of the more promising failures was built on the Virginia side of the Potomac at Great Falls. National Park Service rangers working in their spare time and advised by archeologists, are digging out the remnants. [Note: as of July 1996, the first phase of this excavation project is finished and work has stopped for the time being.]

Ranger Putman describes the project's beginnings: "After the war, Washington knew that we had to do something to get to those western settlers and their goods. Spain had the port of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi, France was all over the west and the British were just breathing down our necks, waiting for America to fail."

Washington thought the way to build trade and extend the influence of the young republic into "the Ohio country" was to make the Potomac navigable. He set up the Patowmack Company and called in a bunch of his wartime cronies, including Light Horse Harry, to help build a canal around the fall line. Lee leased the land around Great Falls from Lord Fairfax and attempted to set up a town, naming it Matildaville after his wife. But he never got clear title to the land, and lost money.

The canal had basic problem. "They didn't understand the ebb and flow of the Potomac -- the floods can get really high and drought can bring it really low," explains Putman.

But the project had a significant spinoff: The company needed the approval of a number of different states to establish interstate commerce, so Washington set up a meeting with state representatives -- negotiations that ultimately led to the drafting of the Constitution.

Eventually, the C&O Canal Company bought out Washington's Patowmack Company. Matildaville just limped along. You could get great fried chicken at Dickey's Inn right up to 1935, but all that remains of it today is a chimney, springhouse and ground littered with broken bottles and pottery. The Park Service, digging out one of the canal's five lift locks last summer turned up an original gate (it's on display at the visitors center) and crumbling walls.

You can walk the canal's mile length down to a pretty beach, looking for drill scars in the stone walls where the canal builders blew the rock, and you can admire the two structures they call the "Tinkertoys" that the rangers have built to prop up crumbling canal walls.

Matilda herself died at the start of the project, prudently leaving her estate to her only living son, Henry Lee IV. Old Harry, they say, sank into a deep depression at her death. But he revived to marry the young, beautiful and wealthy Anne Hill Carter. Putman compares the couple to "Jack and Jackie Kennedy -- very glamorous."

Four children were born to this couple at Stratford, including a boy they named Robert Edward; his cradle can still be seen there. So can the iron angels decorating the fireplace in the nursery where, they say, Master Robert ran back to say goodbye the day the family left. Parting was necessary sorrow when Robert was three, because Matilda's son had come into his inheritance. The family moved to a little house at 611 Cameron Street in Alexandria, had their fifth child and looked around for something better. There's a probably apocryphal story that they were visiting the Lee-Fendall home on Oronoco Street when they discovered that a house across from it was available for rent -- a house now designated as the Boyhood Home of Robert E. Lee (he lived there from 1811-16 and 1820-25).

Light Horse Harry did visit the Lee-Fendall home often -- Philip Richard Fendall married, in turn, Harry's first mother-in-law and then Lee's sister. And it was in that house that Harry wrote a farewell address to George Washington when the great man left to take up the presidency. On display in the home is a copy of the New York Spectator containing Harry's famous eulogy of his beloved General: "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." You can tour both the Lee-Fendall House and Boyhood Home today at what Alexandrians call "Lee Corner."

It was at the Lee Boyhood Home in 1804 that 16-year-old Mary Lee Fitzhugh married George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington's grandson. The couple went to live in a beautiful home Custis was building on a hill overlooking the Potomac which came to be called Arlington House.

Robert visited there with his mother, and met his distant cousin, Mary. Years later, they were married at Arlington, and lived there when military life allowed. But Alexandria remained Lee's home town -- you can see his pew at Christ Church, and "his" chair at Leadbeater's Apothecary Shop, now a museum.

It was in the Blair-Lee house, then the home of another distant relative, that Robert E. Lee was offered command of the Federal army. He said he'd have to think about it; he went home and then went south.

That Sunday, on the way to church, Lee stopped by the Lloyd House (now the Virginiana Annex of the Alexandria Library), where, it is said, he first learned that he was to be offered command of Virginia's forces. Whoever said that got it wrong, because the command went to Joe Johnston and Lee went to Richmond as military advisor to President Jefferson Davis; Marse Robert didn't take the field until June 1862, after Johnston had fallen in the Battle of Fair Oaks.

Lee had in fact merely stopped by the Lloyd House to visit with his cousin and childhood playmate, Anne Harriotte Lee, daughter of Edmund Jennings Lee, Light Horse Harry's brother and a mayor of Alexandria. She'd grown up at 428 N. Washington Street and after marrying John Lloyd, had moved down the street to 220 N. Washington.

Alexandria was still full of Lees on the eve of the Civil War, chiefly relatives of Light Horse Harry's brothers, Charles, Edmund and Richard Bland. Charles, Attorney General under Washington and Adams, built a home at 407 N. Washington Street (look around back for the original house) while living at 305 Cameron Street as a tenant of William Duvall. While living here, he became Alexandria's first customs officer.

Cameron Street, then a main drag, is even tonier today; Lee's temporary residence now houses Frankie Welch's dress shop, patronized by congressional and diplomatic wives. "We often get Lees in here asking about the place," says Welch. "I have a few things from the Lee family."

Richard Bland Lee, Northern Virginia's first congressman, raised his family at Sully Plantation near Dulles Airport, now fully restored and opened to the public. He sold the place (to a cousin, of course) and moved in 1811 to a house on Duke Street which you, too, can buy, if you happen to have $675,000. The house was built by Dr. Elisha Dick -- one of the physicians who turned George Washington's sickbed into his deathbed. It's now divided into three apartments, each with its own fireplace, and comes with a restful garden. [Note: the Richard Bland Lee home is now privately owned.]

In addition to his children and their pets (including a white squirrel that's now stuffed and in the parlor at Sully), Richard helped to raise two teen-aged wards, cousins Cornelia and Portia Lee. Cornelia scratched her name in her bedroom window at Sully; she later moved to a house in Alexandria next door to the Boyhood Home of Robert E. Lee and she and Portia also lived at 207 Prince Street, now a private home.

Richard eventually moved to a beautiful Washington home called the Law-Lee House, now surrounded by the Tiber Island Cooperative Homes off Maine Avenue SW. Here, after the devastation of the War of 1812, he was one of three commissioners superintending the reconstruction of the public buildings the Brits burned, including the Capitol and White House. The Federal period house, now set up for public functions with a full caterer's kitchen, is for rent at $700 to $1,000 per day.

The War of 1812 spilled into two other Lee homes in a dramatic way. As the British entered Washington in August 1814, James Madison fled to a McLean house called Salona -- home of Presbyterian minister William Maffitt, whose first wife was Henrietta Lee. First Lady Dolley Madison, meanwhile, who was busy rescuing the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, escaped to the nearby McLean home of Richard and Matilda Lee Love. It has since burned, but Salona has stayed in the political tradition; it's now home to Virginia State Senator Clive DuVal.

Fire and worse have overtaken many Lee residences, including Robert E. Lee's ancestral home, Leesylvania. Virginia is transforming this site into a state park just 25 miles south of Washington -- 508 acres on the Potomac between Neabsco and Powells creeks [Note: Leesylvania is now open to the public]. This is where Henry Lee II, a member of the House of Burgesses, raised his eight children, including Light Horse Harry, Charles, Richard Bland and Edmund Jennings. Two homes were built here and both burned (a common enough fate in those days); you can still see the foundation and chimney of the second.


Tracking the Lees

Note: WashingtonPost.com has updated the information below, which appeared with the original article, so that it is current as of July 1996.

Information on privately-held Lee homes can be gathered from Eleanor Lee Templeman's useful booklet, Virginia Homes of the Lees, available at many of the public Lee homes and through the Arlington Historical Society (703/892-4204). For a public peek into Lee lifestyle, try:

Arlington House: on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, Fort Myer. 703/607-8052. Built by Robert E. Lee's father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, Martha's grandson. Robert E. Lee left Arlington at the beginning of the Civil War, and never again set foot on the estate. The U.S. Army seized the property and, starting in Mrs. Lee's rose garden, buried many thousands of Yankee and Confederate casualties there. Open: 9:30 to 5, October through March; 9:30 to 6, April through September. Free.

Boyhood Home of Robert E. Lee: 607 Oronoco Street, Alexandria, 703/548-8454. Robert moved here when he was four and stayed until he left for West Point. Lafayette visited with his mother (his father was in the West Indies recovering from a near-fatal beating received while trying to defend freedom of the press in Baltimore); that visit is commemorated at the home each October. Open 10 to 4, Monday through Saturday; one to 4, Sunday. The house can be rented for private functions, so check before you come on weekends. Admission $3 adults, $1 for children 11 to 17, and free for children 10 and under.

Great Falls National Park: end of Old Dominion Drive, Great Falls, Virginia. The ranger-led George Washington Walk along the Potomac includes information about Matildaville; call 703/285-2966 for a schedule of upcoming dates. With maps available from the visitor center, you can see the excavated Matildaville ruins yourself.

Law-Lee House: Sixth and N streets SW. Now owned by the Tiber Island Cooperative Homes, the house, with its large central hallway, parlor and cobblestone patio, is available for private functions. Contact Michale Tomlinson or Bill Kingston at 202/554-4844 for more information. The rental fee is $1,050.

Lee-Fendall House: 614 Oronoco Street (corner of Oronoco and N. Washington), Alexandria, 703/548-1789. Owned by the Virginia Trust for Historic Preservation, the house -- home to 37 Lees over 118 years -- contains Lee heirlooms from a number of places. Here, Light Horse Harry Lee wrote his farewell address to George Washington. The last private owner was labor leader John L. Lewis, who put in an elevator. Guided tours from 10 to 4, Tuesday through Saturday, and from 12 to 4 on Sunday. Admission $3 adults, $1 children 11-17, free to children 10 and under. Special Civil War Tours, led by Bob Conley, are available by advance request. House available for rent for private functions.

Leesylvania State Park: 16236 Neabsco Road, Woodbridge, Va. 703/670-0372. Open every day. Hiking and walking trails take you to the ruins of the home of Robert E. Lee's grandparents and the cemetery where they rest, as well as the ruins of Fairfax House owned by Confederate officer John W. Fairfax, and the site of a Confederate river battery blockade. The park also offers the only boat launch directly onto the Potomac and recreation and picnic facilities on the waterfront.

Stratford Hall Plantation: Stratford, Va., 804/493-8038. Built by Thomas Lee in the early 1700s, the home was the birthplace of Robert E. Lee. Owned by the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association. Tours daily from 9 to 4:30. Admission $7 adults; $6 seniors, service members and AAA members; $3 for children 6-18; children 5 and under free. Stratford is roughly two hours from Washington. To get there, take I-95 south to Fredricksburg; take Route 3 east 42 miles past George Washington's Birthplace to Route 214. Turn left onto Route 214 to the turnoff to Stratford Hall.

Sully Plantation: 3601 Sully Road, Chantilly, Va. 703/437-1794. Home of Richard Bland Lee, Northern Virginia's first Congressman and brother of Light Horse Harry Lee, the restored farmhouse presents living history projects. Tours of the farmhouse are held Wednesday through Monday every half-hour from 11 am to 4 pm. On weekends, living history demonstrations are included. Admission $4 adults, $2 seniors and children. The grounds and gardens are open from 11 to 5 Wednesday through Monday, and may be visited for free.

Walking Tours of Alexandria: Ramsay House Visitors Center, 221 King Street, Alexandria. 703/548-0100.

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