From Unionist to Confederate Firebrand — How the Civil War Changed Mrs. Robert E. Lee

Union troops pose on the steps of the Lee family estate at Arlington.

Union troops pose on the steps of the Lee family estate at Arlington.

“Broken and heartsick, betrayed at every turn by the Union she had once cherished, Mary wrote to her daughter Agnes, ‘Our duty is plain, to resist until death.’”

By Dorothy Love

A great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, and the only child of George Washington Parke Custis (the step grandson of America’s first president) Mary Anna Randolph Custis enjoyed an idyllic childhood steeped in Washingtonian lore.

Mary Anna Custis Lee. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Mary Anna Custis Lee. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Growing up at Arlington, the family home Mr. Custis erected as a memorial to America’s illustrious founding father, Mary was surrounded by plates, pictures and other Mt. Vernon artifacts and was raised on stories of the great hero’s exploits. GWP Custis indulged his interests in painting, and during Mary’s childhood produced several large pictures of Washington depicting the great general in battle.

At Arlington, Mr. Custis hosted sitting presidents, politicians, artists, writers, poets, and foreign dignitaries, often entertaining them with recitations of original poetry celebrating the life of Washington. With such strong ties to the nation’s first president and to the most important people of the day, the Custis family enjoyed the approbation of friends and patriots and the public at large; it would continue long after Mary’s 1831 marriage to Robert E. Lee.

The war would change everything.

Robert E. Lee was 54 years old when he accepted command of the Army of Northern Virginia. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Robert E. Lee was 54 years old when he accepted command of the Army of Northern Virginia. (Image source: WikiCommons)

North vs. South

As talk of secession roiled across Virginia, both Mary and her husband Robert, then a 54-year-old colonel in the U.S. Army, were appalled by the dissolution of the Union. Writing to her kinswoman Helen Peter in 1861, Mary declared that she would “rather endure the ills we know than to rush madly into greater evils. And what could be greater than the division of our glorious Republic into petty states, each seeking its private interests and unmindful of the whole?”

But the harsh criticisms of her husband in the newspapers; the years of forced exile; the illegal seizure and looting of Arlington along with the desecration of White House — the Custis property on the Pamunkey River (the very spot where George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis) hardened Mary’s heart against the “glorious Republic” and changed her into one of the Confederacy’s most ardent defenders.

Editorial cartoonists on both sides took aim at Robert E. Lee, must to the outrage of Mary. (image source: WikiCommons)

Editorial cartoonists on both sides took aim at Lee, must to Mary’s outrage. Even their private lives became tabloid scuttlebutt. (image source: WikiCommons)

Slander

Attacks upon her husband began almost immediately after he accepted command of the Army of Northern Virginia.

“If Mr. Custis could have lived until now he would have good cause to be bowed down in grief and sorrow to behold his son-in-law following in the steps of Benedict Arnold,” one pro-Union newspaper writer opined. A Confederate editorialist called him “a federalist and a disbeliever in slavery” after he supported the notion of allowing black men to fight alongside whites. As the war dragged on, even Virginia’s Daily Richmond Examiner questioned General Lee’s loyalty to the South.

The newspapers published gossip about the state of the Lee marriage. Distressed, Mary wrote to Robert, who replied with his usual calm.

“As to reports you say are afloat about our separation I know nothing. Anyone that can reason must see its necessity under present circumstances,” he replied. “As to the slander with which you say the papers abound why concern ourselves? They are intended for no good purpose you may be sure.”

Arlington in Yankee hands. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Lee’s Arlington estate sat across the Potomac from Washington D.C. — a distance of less than a mile! Federal troops occupied the heights to protect the city from Rebel guns. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Arlington in Yankee Hands

Forced to flee Arlington ahead of the advancing Union army, Mary and her daughters began two years of constant uprooting, going first to Ravensworth, the home of Mary’s Fitzhugh kin, then as the war burst around them, to Audley, the home of her aunt Nellie, and to her Turner cousins at Kinloch. Mary’s worsening arthritis made travel even more difficult which undoubtedly added to her discontent.

But it was the Federal occupation and eventual seizure of Arlington and the burning of White House that stoked a personal vengeance in Mary that remained for the rest of her life.

In a letter to her daughter Agnes describing the looting of her home, she decried the actions of the soldiers who “without honor or pity” carried out “tyranny and despotism…to a height I could not imagine possible.”

Mary was living at White House when Robert wrote that the Union army was on the move. “You have to get out of the way,” he urged.

Before departing, she left a note on the front door. “Northern soldiers who profess reverence to Washington: Forbear to desecrate the home of his first married life, the property of his wife, now owned by his descendants. A granddaughter of Mrs. Washington.”

Despite her plea, the Union army pillaged the property, taking the Custis slaves as contraband and burning the house and barns as they retreated. The destruction further embittered and radicalized Mary.

“I trust I may live to see a day of retribution,” she wrote.

After the Civil War, the grounds at Arlington were transformed into a national military cemetery. The original mansion still stands.

After the Civil War, the grounds at Arlington were transformed into a national military cemetery. The original mansion still stands.

“Resist until death!”

In 1862, Union officials seized Arlington to make up for Lee’s unpaid taxes. The amount owing was a modest $92.07 plus a late fee. Since Alexandria was under Union occupation and Mary’s declining health made travel almost impossible, she sent a cousin to settle the account. The authorities refused payment, insisting that as the owner of Arlington, Mary must appear in person. The following year, the federal government auctioned the property to itself, a final injustice Mary would never forgive. She wrote that “even savages” would have spared her home out of respect for her late father.

“If justice and law are not utterly extinct in the United States,” Mary wrote, “I will have it back.” Years later a court agreed that the seizure had been unlawful. But Mary did not live to see her “dear old house” returned to her family.

unnamedBroken and heartsick, betrayed at every turn by the Union she had once cherished, Mary wrote to her daughter Agnes, “Our duty is plain, to resist until death…”

The once-staunch Unionist, the great granddaughter of Martha Washington, had become a true daughter of the Confederacy.

Dorothy Love is the author of Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray: A Novel (HarperCollins June 2016)

Leave a Reply