Mary Custis Lee

Wife of Robert E. Lee, Descendant of Martha Washington

Blossoming cherry trees stand guard over tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington DC, USA
Arlington National Cemetery, on former estate of Mary Custis Lee's family. Danita Delimont / Getty Images

Dates: October 1, 1808 - November 5, 1873

Known for: great-granddaughter of Martha Washington; wife of Robert E. Lee

Also known as: Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, Mary Anne Custis Lee, Mary Ann Custis Lee

About Mary Custis Lee:

Mary Custis Lee was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. Mary's father, George Washington Parke Custis, was the adopted son and the step-grandson of George Washington.

Educated at home, Mary showed talent in painting.

She was courted by Sam Houston, and rejected his suit. Later, she married Robert E. Lee, a distant relative, after his graduation from West Point. (They had common ancestors Robert Carter I, Richard Lee II and William Randolph, making them respectively third cousins, third cousins once removed, and fourth cousins.)

Highly religious from a young age, Mary Custis Lee was often troubled by illness. As the wife of a military officer, she traveled with him, though she was most happy at her family home in Arlington, Virginia.

Eventually, the Lees had seven children, with Mary often suffering from illness and various disabilities.

When Virginia joined the Confederate States of America at the beginning of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee resigned his commission with the federal army and accepted a commission in the army of Virginia. With some delay, Mary Custis Lee was convinced to pack up many of the family's belongings and move out of the home at Arlington, because its nearness to Washington, D.C., would make it a target for confiscation by the Union forces.

And so it was -- for failure to pay taxes, though an attempt to pay the taxes was apparently refused. She spent many years after the war ended trying to regain possession of her Arlington home.

Robert returned after the surrender of the Confederacy, and they moved to Lexington, Virginia, where he became president of Washington College.

During the war, many of the family possessions inherited from the Washingtons were buried for safety; after the war many were found to have been damaged, but some -- the silver, some carpets, some letters among them -- survived. Those that had been left in the Arlington home were declared by Congress to be the property of the American people.

Neither Robert E. Lee nor Mary Custis Lee survived many years after the end of the Civil War. He died in 1870. Arthritis plagued Mary Custis Lee in her later years, and she died in Lexington on November 5, 1873 -- after making one trip to see her old home. In 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court in a ruling returned the home to the family; Mary and Robert's son, Custis, sold it right back to the government.