STUMBLING ACROSS LONG-forgotten steamer trunks crammed with family memorabilia can excite the history buff in anyone. But when the trunks belong to Mary Custis Lee, the eldest daughter of General Robert E. Lee, and contain a treasure trove of documents and artifacts about her father and other members of her illustrious family spanning more than two centuries, that's when historians take notice. And now, this collection is open to the public.
The discovery occurred in 2002, as Robert E. L. deButts, Jr., the great-great-grandson of Robert E. Lee, conducted family research. A commercial and securities lawyer in New York who bears a striking resemblance to the formidable general with his flinty eyes and broad expanse of forehead, deButts had queried Burke & Herbert Bank & Trust in Alexandria, Virginia, to see if they retained any financial records of his great-grandaunt, Mary Custis Lee. After the Civil War ended, Mary spent much of her life traveling abroad, and used the bank as a permanent address.
As the officers of the family-owned bank checked their inventor, they decided to look in …