By Caitlin Connelly
When I began searching for colleges, I received a lot of emails from many different schools, each attempting to reach as many prospective students as possible. One of these schools was Washington and Lee University, a pairing I found puzzling at the time. The university’s website explains that it was originally named in honor of George Washington and later added the name “Lee” to celebrate Robert E. Lee, who served as its President after the Civil War. Perhaps coincidentally, the Washington Birthplace National Monument is only a short drive away from Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee.
A recent visit to the Washington Birthplace inspired me to look into the history of the two families and some of the surprising ways they’re connected.
Washington’s Birthplace is set on the banks of Popes Creek, named for an early settler of the area, Nathaniel Pope, who was living in the area by 1657. That year, a young English merchant and ship’s officer named John Washington arrived on the Potomac. His ship was damaged, delaying its return to England. By the time it was repaired Washington had decided to stay in Virginia, living initially with Nathaniel Pope’s family. He fell in love with Pope’s daughter Anne; the couple married in 1658 and had three children.
Nathaniel Pope’s son Thomas died sometime before 1684, leaving behind a widow, Joanna, and several children. In 1716 Joanna and her son Richard sold part of the property, known as the “Clifts,” to Thomas Lee, who used the land to build his Stratford Hall plantation. Two years later John Washington’s grandson, Augustine, bought part of the Popes Creek Plantation and had a house built there called Wakefield. George Washington was born here in 1732.
The Washingtons and Lees certainly knew each other during this time, though they moved in different circles. The Lees were among the old, powerful Virginia families, like the Carters, Randolphs, and Custises. The Washingtons were more recent arrivals, and were not part of that upper echelon. The original structure at the Washington Birthplace was wooden and sat perpendicular to the river. Upper class homes, like Stratford Hall, tended to face the river, the main conduit of travel and commerce at the time, and were made of better materials.
Things began to change by the end of the 18th century. George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, one of the wealthiest women in Virginia. During the Revolution, Washington was the commander of the Continental Army (he was referred to as the “Father of His Country” as early as 1778) and befriended Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, a young cavalry officer. At Lee’s wedding, Washington is said to have contributed several bottles of his own wine. In 1799, Lee gave the eulogy at Washington’s funeral, famously describing Washington as “First in war – first in peace – first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
The beginning of the 19th century saw Lee’s increasing financial struggles. While Light-Horse Harry spent time in jail because of debts, members of the Washington family funneled money to the Lee women to keep up appearances. The Washingtons ultimately sold the Popes Creek property in 1813, and 9 years later Henry Lee IV was forced to sell Stratford to pay off his debts associated with his scandal (which you may remember from last Tuesday’s post).
This, however, was not the end of the association between the Lees and the Washingtons. In 1831 Mary Anna Randolph Custis married Robert E. Lee, a young, handsome Army officer, the son of George Washington’s friend Light-Horse Harry and the half-brother of the disgraced Henry Lee IV. Mary was the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis, the step-grandson and adopted son of George Washington and the biological grandson of his wife Martha.
Lee Letter of the Week: This 1779 letter from George Washington to Light-Horse Harry Lee, in which Washington attempts to clarify his orders prior to the battle at Paulus (“Powless”) Hook. Lee would go on to lead a night-time raid on the British troops, taking 158 prisoners and destroying British control over much of New Jersey. This event won Lee a gold medal from the Second Continental Congress, making him the only non-general to receive this honor.