Biography of Mary Custis Lee, Gen. Robert E. Lee's Wife

She was also the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington

Blossoming cherry trees at Arlington National Cemetary

Danita Delimont / Getty Images

Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee (October 1, 1808–November 5, 1873) was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington and the 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.

Fast Facts: Mary Custis Lee

  • Known For: Wife of Civil War general Robert E. Lee and great-granddaughter of Martha Washington
  • Also Known As: Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee 
  • Born: October 1, 1807 in Annefield in Boyce, Virginia
  • Parents: George Washington Parke Custis, Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis
  • Died: November 5, 1873 in Lexington, Virginia
  • Published Works: Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, by his Adopted Son George Washington Parke Custis, with a Memoir of this Author by his Daughter (edited and published)
  • Spouse: Robert E. Lee (m. 1831–October. 12, 1870)
  • Children: George Washington Custis, William Henry Fitzhugh, Robert E. Lee Jr., Eleanor Agnes, Anne Carter, Mildred Childe, Mary Custis
  • Notable Quote: “I rode out to my dear old home, so changed it seemed but as a dream of the past. I could not have realized that it was Arlington but for the few old oaks they had spared, & the trees planted on the lawn by the Gen’l & myself which are raising their tall branches to the Heaven which seems to smile on the desecration around them.”

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 but 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 so that they could 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 that's what happened, 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.

Later Years and Death

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 Nov. 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 the Washington and Lee University campus in Lexington, Virginia.

Sources