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The Rose of Arlington: Mary Randolph Custis Lee

Posted on Wednesday, March 21, 2018 at 3:24 pm

By Janice Busic
Forward by Dave Chaltas

It is said that behind every good man is a great woman. There is no doubt that Robert Edward Lee would be the first to say stand by this statement. He sung the laurels of his beloved wife throughout their lives and considered her to be his greatest confidant. It is said that he was the ‘Captain of his Heart’ and that she was his ‘Rose of Arlington’. Every morning Lee would have a fresh cut rose from her garden placed at the table of his lady and daughters. The countless letters that he wrote to her is a living testimony of his love and offers insight into the couple’s marriage. Their time together and apart is likened unto a Greek tragedy, yet they clung to their devotion to God, their love deeply entwined by faith in God’s will. Their story must never be forgotten, for within the confines of their correspondence, is a true American saga. May the annals of history record their devotion to one another as an example of how Christian couples must cherish one another. DC
She was the love of his life. He knew it from the first moment he visited her at her home. She was his ‘better half’ and the ‘rose’ of his heart. He referred to her as the Rose of Arlington. Of course, one must recognize the influence of the love and respect he possessed for his wife, Mary Randolph Custis Lee. She witnessed to him during their courtship and they attended church together. His term of endearment for her was Mims. She was a product of a Christian upbringing and carried her faith and devotion to God not only to her husband but to her children as well. She was outspoken for her time and based her lifelong decisions on the Bible. Though confined to a ‘rolling chair’ he maintained her dignity and shared her Christian faith by her actions to all who knew or heard of her. (Mrs. Robert E. Lee: The Lady of Arlington: Perry, John; Multnomah Books; Colorado Springs, Colorado; 2001)
“God’s will be done to me & mine.” These words were sent in a letter from Mary Lee, wife of General Robert E. Lee, at the beginning of the war. She could not have known how prophetic that sentence would be as the War Between the States was unfolding and descending on the Lee family. (From: Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee to her cousin, Caroline Peters, 5/30/1861, quoted in Perry.)

Mrs. Lee was born in the lovely mansion called Arlington. At the time of her birth the home was only four rooms but would grow as Mary matured. The stately mansion was a part of the 1100-acre plantation that overlooked the city of Washington. Since she was an only child, Mary’s parents, George Washington Parke Custis and Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, encouraged her creativity and natural intellect. Young “Molly”, a nickname shared by both Mary and her mother, was a bright, vivacious child. She enjoyed spending her days in serene freedom, playing with the young black children who were also born on the Arlington plantation. They learned to read together, and they learned to pray together, as taught by Mrs. Custis. Mary’s days always began with Bible readings followed by educational lessons – both given by her mother.

Mary Randolph Custis Lee was the great-granddaughter of First Lady Martha Washington. Mary was intrigued by the tales of her grandparents that her father lovingly shared with anyone who would listen. Mary grew to honor and value the memory of the first president of the United States as much as her father did. But Mary inherited more than the Washington memorabilia. She inherited much of her grandmother’s love of learning as well as her strong-willed, charming, and social personality. They shared an artistic talent that included embroidery, knitting, watercolor painting, and gardening. Martha Washington read the Bible and other devotional literature for religious edification and novels and magazines for entertainment and instruction. Martha was also known as a regular and active letter writer, and a collection of her surviving letters are housed in the collections of the Mount Vernon library. ( Another thing they had in common was they both married men whom they loved deeply and sincerely.

As Mary grew, her intellectual talents were not overlooked. In her early teens, she was already reading in French, Greek, and Latin. She prided herself on reading several newspapers a day to keep abreast on current events. Even as her education began to broaden, she continued daily Bible reading and devotions.

As a teenager, Mary was a social butterfly and was courted by eligible bachelors, such as Sam Huston. Her heart was unmoved. Her joy was founded in a man she’d known since childhood. His name was Robert E Lee. The two were distantly related and often played together at the Ravensworth estate, which was owned by William Fitzhugh, Mary’s uncle. In 1824, 16-year-old Mary wasn’t surprised to learn that Robert received an appointment at West Point. He was intelligent, studious, and responsible-all traits she admired. Unlike her, he excelled in math, the very subject that she was weakest. From 1824 through 1827, the two grew closer and eventually they became engaged. Robert graduated from West Point second in his class and demerit-free in 1829. He journeyed to Arlington for a visit and it was during that time, he asked his “Molly” to marry him. She gave him a resounding yes. Within days of Mary’s betrothal to Robert she experienced a life-changing event. Something happened to bring her faith to a deeper and more profound level. During this time, Mary also began a prayer journal that clearly conveyed her commitment to her faith in God.

“O my father, let me thank thee for thy mercies to me, that Thou hast drawn me to Thee by the cords of love … What shall I render to the Lord for all His goodness? … I would dedicate my life to Him…. Keep me from spiritual pride. … Make me humble, my Saviour.”
(The Lady of Arlington, John Perry)

In this journal, she also wrote of her apprehension concerning Robert’s faith, which didn’t appear to be as strong as hers-a fact she would struggle with for some time. In a letter to Robert, she ended it by saying, “That God may protect & bless you & above all things may your heart be turned to Him is my unceasing prayer for you. Then I should have nothing more to wish for on earth.” Mary continued to pray that Robert’s faith was as deep as hers. Mary was confirmed in the Episcopal Church at Christ Church in Alexandria shortly after her birthday in October of 1830. Mary’s journal was filled with her concern for her salvation and for Robert’s soul. The two set a wedding date of June 30, 1831, and the planning for the Arlington social event of the year was underway. It was during this time that Mary became gravely ill and wasn’t expected to live. This illness would plague her intermittently for the rest of her life. Just as she resigned herself to death and placed herself in God’s hands, she began to recover. As her body slowly regained its strength, her commitment to God became even stronger. (George Washington and Family, Religious Quotes) Mary eventually became more comfortable with Robert’s faith. She knew that their marriage would take her away from her lifelong home. “Whatever lay ahead, wherever she was to live, she and Robert would be together, and the Lord would be with them.” (The Lady of Arlington, John Perry)

As Mary and Robert E. Lee began their marriage, they lived in military housing which was very different than the life Mary was accustomed to at Arlington. They lived at Old Point Comfort when Mary became pregnant with their first baby. In the fall of 1832, the first of their seven children was born, a healthy baby boy named George Washington Custis Lee. Mrs. Lee was very busy with the new baby, but she found time to tend to the black children in the fort who were not permitted to worship in the chapel. She opened her home to them and taught Bible classes. She also used her own money to purchase Catechism books for the slaves located at the garrison. (Article from History Department, Ohio State University)

Mary Lee’s health continued to decline with the birth of each child, but she consistently recovered and contributed to the family as a wife and mother. Lee was away from home much of the time and Mary found it difficult to manage the home and children alone. She went back to Arlington often and was assisted there with these arduous tasks. The children were getting older when Robert returned from the War with Mexico, Mary was delighted to learn he would be assigned to West Point. They were no sooner settled in their quarters in New York that Mary received word that her mother was dying. She immediately left for Arlington but didn’t arrive in time to bid her mother goodbye. Her mother’s passing left her father in deep mourning and Mary knew he was in no condition to see to the funeral arrangements and as she had so often done in the past, she squared her shoulders and took the heavy burden upon herself. She became a pillar of strength as the household fell apart. She was now the new Lady of Arlington. Shortly after the funeral, Mary returned to West Point where she became popular among the cadets who enjoyed her doting and motherly affection. (Article from History Department, Ohio State University)

As Mary moved into the later stages of her life, it’s clear she refused to let her poor health keep her from tending to the needs of her family and friends. Always suffering from constant pain, she went about her life with an unwavering faith in God, and a strong love and commitment to her husband and children. (Article from History Department, Ohio State University)

“God guard and preserve you for me, my dear daughter. In my absence from you, I have thought of you often, and regretted that I could do nothing for your comfort. Your old home [Arlington], if not destroyed by our enemies, has been so desecrated that I cannot bear to thank of it…In your houseless condition, I hope you can make yourself contented and useful. Occupy yourself in aiding those more helpless than yourself.”
(Robert E. Lee to his daughter, Mary Custis Lee, 12/25/1861, The Lee Girls)

Mary Lee was a courageous, selfless, creative woman who managed to solely, for the most part, raise seven children while battling many physical ailments. All the while she continued to support her husband and his decision to accept command of the Army of Virginia. Her losses, brought on by the War Between the States are beyond measure. These losses took their toll on her body and spirit but did not diminish her faith in God.

Below are quotes from or about Mrs. Lee. They show her lifelong devotion to God, as well as her love for her husband and children.

“I fear there is nothing but the special protection of Heaven which can save it [Arlington] from ruin.” (Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, to her husband, Robert E. Lee, 5/30/1861, quoted in Nelligan, “Old Arlington,”

“Tho’ every hearth in the South is open to me however humble, still I feel desolate & houseless most especially as the time approaches to have all my children assembled at that happy season when they come home from vacation, but I will try to say from my heart, “God’s will be done to me & mine” even should he slay us.” (Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee to her cousin, Caroline Peters, 5/30/1861, quoted in Perry, Mrs. Robert E. Lee, 238) 400

“…God guard and preserve you for me, my dear daughter. In my absence from you, I have thought of you often, and regretted that I could do nothing for your comfort. Your old home [Arlington], if not destroyed by our enemies, has been so desecrated that I cannot bear to thank of it…In your houseless condition, I hope you can make yourself contented and useful. Occupy yourself in aiding those more helpless than yourself.” (Robert E. Lee to his daughter, Mary Custis Lee, 12/25/1861, The Lee Girls, 97)403.

Anne Carter Lee was twenty-three when she died…A black cabinetmaker from Warrenton, James M. Ransom, put together a simple pine coffin for the slender figure “with her black hair braided over her marble brow & covered with beautiful flowers.” With Mrs. Lee, Agnes, and a few others in attendance, Dr. William Hodges, the Episcopal rector from Warrenton, read the service for the dead and in an impressive manner performed “the last sad duties at your sister’s grave,” Mrs. Lee wrote to Mary Custis. “She is placed in lovely secluded spot.” …It was a bitter blow to [Robert E.] Lee. He had known how very ill his “gentle Annie” was, but now “to know that I shall never see her again on earth that her place in our circle, which I had always hoped one day to enjoy, is forever vacant, is agonising [sic] in the extreme. But God in this, as in all things, has mingled mercy with the blow, in selecting that one best prepared to leave use.” He wished he could offer some real comfort to his wife, but he had none except his personal belief that God had taken her “at the time and place when it is best for her to go…May you be able to join me in saying, ‘His will be done.’ (Lee family letters, 10/1862, in The Lee Girls, 110 & 111)133405.

In 1867 General and Mrs. Lee, Mildred, and Agnes joined Grace Episcopal Church near the campus, and the whole family, including Mary Custis, became active in church affairs. Lee served on the vestry, Mrs. Lee directed the church’s sewing group from her sitting room, and both Agnes and Mary Custis taught Sunday school when they were in town. In addition, Daughter [Mary Custis Lee] collected books for the depleted church library, organized benefit bazaars for the building fund, and every Christmas made sure that a cedar tree, elaborately decorated with handmade ornaments, stood in the chancel to be lit at a special Christmas Eve service. (Coulling, The Lee Girls)

“My dear Cousin Mary: I have been thinking of writing to you for a long time but this day of my great sorrow I feel that I can do nothing else & I must do something. I have prayed & wept till my fountain of tears seems dried up & all my prayers to spare my husband’s life have been unanswered so that I can only now pray Thy will oh God be done for me & mine. This morning at 10 o’clock he expired.

“We all prayed to God so fervently to prolong a life so important to his family & country but He in his mysterious Providence thought best to call him to those mansions of Rest which he has prepared for those who love & serve Him & oh what a rest to his toilsome & eventful life, so humble was he as a Christian that he said not long ago to me he wished he felt sure of his acceptance. I said all who love & trust in the Savior need not fear. He did not reply but a more upright & conscientious Christian never lived.

“I know they will all mourn with me, for we have a common sorrow. I pray that his noble example may stimulate our youth to a course of uprightness which never wavered from the path of duty at any sacrifice of ease or pleasure & so long too has the will of God been the guiding star of his actions. I have never144so truly felt the purity of his character as now when I have nothing left me but its memory, a memory which I know will be cherished in many hearts beside my own. I may soon follow him but his children what a loss to them. I pray his death may be blessed to them for dearly they all loved him.” (Mrs. Robert E. Lee to her cousin, Miss Mary Meade, 10/12/1870, “Funeral of Mrs. G.W.P. Custis and Death of General R.E. Lee,”

[Re: the death of her husband, Robert E. Lee] “We must not deem that untimely which God ordains. He knows the best time to take us from this world; and can we question either His love or wisdom? How often are we taken from the evil to come? How much of care and sorrows are those spared who die young? Even the heathen considers such the favorites of the gods; and to the Christian what is death but a translation to eternal life. Pray that we may all live so that death will have no terrors for us.” (Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, [no date, but probably late October of 1870], quoted in Perry, Mrs. Robert E. Lee, 325)434

Mary’s incapacitating disease made it impossible for her to attend the October 15 funeral service for Robert. Instead, she remained at home and reread letters that Robert had sent to her during their courtship and early on in their marriage.

The death of her favorite child [Agnes Lee] was more than Mrs. Lee’s frail constitution could endure. Her mind began to wander, and she thought herself back at Arlington, with all her “little children again.” Occasionally, sitting in an old red morocco chair with Love, her “much petted cat,” in her lap, she would smile “in her sweet old way,” but she wept whenever Agnes’ name was mentioned. Watching her mother, Mildred could not help feeling that “the God she had so faithfully served had deserted her in that time of peril and I resented her cruel tortures.” The physical and mental deterioration lasted only a fortnight. “The end was drawing near—the life of unselfish Love—of daily sacrifice—of high poetic tastes, & simple faith in Christ, of total self abnegation, was closing forever.” By the time Rooney and Rob had returned from eastern Virginia, their mother was already unconscious. She died in the night on November 5, at the age of sixty-six. The cause of death was listed as “rheumatism”. Together, the three brothers and Mildred buried her between General Lee and Agnes. (Coulling, The Lee Girls, 180)439. [Re: The death of Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee]

“Tempting as the theme is, we forbear to offer any eulogy on the character of this woman so venerated and loved by the entire community in which she resided…[linked to America’s history and destiny] by so many strong and tender ties, and around whom there has gathered for years past a degree of public interest and affectionate solicitude that has never attached to any other woman in the history of our country….[Mrs. Lee was worthy of] her illustrious husband [and her] illustrious ancestry [in every way] in intelligence and in refinement of taste, in kindness of heart and attractiveness of manners, in cheerfulness under the heaviest reversals of fortune and the agonies of bodily pain, in sympathy and in benefactions toward the impoverished and suffering people of her country [and] in her manifold and ceaseless self-denials and labors on behalf of religion and the Church.” (Southern Collegian, [no date given, but probably early to mid-November of 1783], quoted in Perry, Mrs. Robert E. Lee, 338)

“With patient mind thy course of duty run;
God nothing does or suffers to be done
But thou wouldst do thyself; if thou couldst see
The end of all events as well as He.”
(Mary Custis Lee note written into the keepsake album of J.E.B. Stuart)