A Profile of Mary Custis Lee, General Lee's Wife

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

Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee (October 1, 1808 - November 5, 1873) was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington and wife of Robert E. Lee. She played a part in the American Civil War, and her family legacy home became the site of Arlington National Cemetery.

Early Years

Mary's father, George Washington Parke Custis, was the adopted son and the step-grandson of George Washington. Mary was his only surviving child, and thus his heir. Educated at home, Mary showed talent in painting.

She was courted by many men including Sam Houston, and rejected his suit. She accepted the proposal of marriage in 1830 from Robert E. Lee, a distant relative she'd known from childhood, 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.) They were married in the parlor at her family home, Arlington House, on June 30, 1831.

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 including rheumatoid arthritis. She was known as a hostess and for her painting and gardening. When her husband went to Washington, she preferred to remain at home. She avoided Washington's social circles, but was avidly interested in politics and discussed matters with her father and later her husband.

The Lee family enslaved many people of African descent. Mary assumed that eventually they'd all be freed, and taught the women to read, write, and sew, to be able to support themselves after emancipation.

Civil War

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, whose illness confined her much of the time to a wheelchair, 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:

"Poor Virginia is being pressed on every side, yet I trust God will yet deliver us. I do not allow myself to think of my dear old home. Would that it had been razed to the ground or submerged in the Potomac rather than have fallen into such hands."

From Richmond where she spent much of the war, Mary and her daughters knitted socks and sent them to her husband to distribute to soldiers in the Confederate Army.

After the War

Robert returned after the surrender of the Confederacy, and Mary moved with Robert to Lexington, Virginia, where he became president of Washington College (later renamed Washington and Lee University).

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 Arlington 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.

Mary Custis Lee is buried with her husband on Washington and Lee University campus in Lexington, Virginia.