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 their rarely used "silver vault," which safeguards items too large for safe-deposit boxes. A pair of dusty wooden steamer trunks caught their eye, the larger one bearing a piece of tin patching and the unmistakable stenciled letters, "M. Lee."
DeButts came south immediately and together they unlocked the trunks, unopened at least since Mary Custis' death 84 years before, and discovered more than 4,000 yellowed letters, postcards, documents, photographs, and artifacts. DeButts brought the contents to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, which houses the nation's largest collection of Lee papers, and started sorting. Turns out, says Lee Shepard, the Society's senior archivist, that Mary Custis "was the unofficial family archivist and also a bit of a pack rat." One envelope contained three cloth stars of gold thread, identified in a note as those that Lee cut off his uniform after his surrender to Grant at Appomattox.
The earliest letter in the trunks dates to 1694, a letter from John Custis II, the family's first English immigrant, to merchants back home discussing the tobacco crop and the shipbuilding business on the Eastern Shore, valuable details, says Shepard, for future researchers. Also amidst the letters is an unusual 1766 manifest of 266 African American slaves owned by John Parke Custis, the stepson of George Washington. There are accounts from the 1760s and 1770s kept by George Washington; an 1860 letter from Robert E. Lee to the Secretary of War about relations between Mexico and the U.S.; an 1872 letter from a former slave at Arlington House to Lee's wife; postcards and mementos from around the world acquired by Mary Custis; and the correspondence of Lee's mother-in-law, Mary Fitzhugh Custis, an anti-slavery activist in the upper South.
The letters written by Robert E. Lee add exciting new dimensions to the man, showing a complexity of character and emotional conflict rarely associated with someone too often portrayed as a stone icon, notes Elizabeth Brown Pryor, a Lee biographer and the first scholar to read dozens of the private and revealing missives. "This material shows him not as a simple Christian gentleman but as far more complex, problematic, witty, wickedly funny, and baffled at times." She read two dozen letters from Lt. Robert Lee to his fiancee, Mary Custis--all delightfully colored by the irreverence and passion of an impatient young man.
There are family letters that give life to Lee's experience in the Mexican War. His grief over the loss of Arlington House is palpable in a Christmas 1861 letter to his daughter Mary: "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. …