The Lee Family Digital Archive is an online repository documenting the Lee family of Virginia. The editor of the LFDA is Dr. Colin Woodward, a historian of the South and published scholar. The site, which is free and open to the public, is located at www.leefamilyarchive.org. The LFDA contains 4,000 letters, documents, books, legal papers, and references sources, covering more than 300 hundred years of Virginia and American history. The site is updated Monday-Friday and contains many items never before published. Please check us out on the web. Comments and suggestions are appreciated, and reference questions are promptly answered.
Hi everyone! Greetings again from the Lee Family Digital Archive. Things have been rather busy here at Stratford and the LFDA.
Last Friday was the start of the 2018 Stratford Hall Summer Teacher Institute, which I attended along with my fellow interns. What I took away from the institute were the names of several important African American figures I hadn’t known previously, including the Baptist preacher Gowan Pamphlet and Mary Smith Peake.
Back at my transcribing post, I have been occupied with letters from the Virginia Historical Society (now officially the Virginia Museum of History & Culture). I hit a couple of snares with photocopied letters that were accidentally mismatched in the scanning process, but generally it’s been smooth sailing. Lately, much of the correspondence I have been going through is post-war—nothing out of the ordinary so far, although I did transcribe a letter from Alabama native Julia Strudwick Tutwiler to Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee.
Miss Tutwiler was a rather extraordinary woman of her time. Not only did she receive an education, she went on to educate—and establish formal education institutions for—women in the 19th century. She also advocated for reforms in prison conditions in the state of Alabama and in 1931, her poem “Alabama” was adopted as the official state song. Not a bad set of accomplishments for a woman who didn’t have the right to vote!
There still seems to be an unending pile of letters to pour through, although by now I’ve transcribed about 115 letters over the course of my internship (the final count still pending), and as much as I don’t want to say it, I’m wrapping up my final week. I thoroughly have enjoyed both my time here at Stratford Hall and working as the LFDA intern; I have found the task endlessly fascinating and am honored to have contributed what I could to the legacy of the Lee family.
Signing off with my final weekend report: I took to being outdoors once again.
Following a whim (and an apparently precognitive dream), I went to the beach one more time on Sunday. I’m very glad I did because I found a mammal tooth the Stratford paleo crew wants to evaluate along with other significant finds from that day! If the tooth is found to be a valuable specimen, it could become part of the permanent collection at Stratford Hall–How cool is that?
Reading Lee family letters, you learn a lot about their lives and personalities, as well as some of the writing quirks and conversational topics in each generation’s correspondence. One of the recurring subjects I’ve seen while transcribing is the practice of “taking the waters.” The Lees frequently visited hot springs–or as they sometimes simply called it, “The Hot.” The supposedly curative waters were especially important for Robert E. Lee’s wife, who was an invalid for much of her life. But Lee’s daughters were also afflicted by various maladies during their lives.
In the days before modern medicine, “taking the waters” was a popular 19th century medical practice. The waters were touted as a magical cure for ailments and diseases of all types, from minor headaches to serious conditions like consumption. The craze was helped spread by doctors and other proponents such as Vincent Priessnitz–the German doctor considered the father of hydroptherapy–and Mary Gove Nichols, a New Englander who believed the key to better health was a combination of natural remedies and improved hygiene.
Thus, springs began to be populated by people seeking relief. The waters’ chemicals and geothermal qualities were reputed to instill benefits to those who drank or bathed in them. Hydropathy, of course, is nothing new. Spring waters have been used for healing and rejuvenation across the world for centuries, perhaps most famously by the Romans who constructed elaborate bath houses for spa and recreation.
Mineral springs were enjoyed by the healthy and sick alike and were popular destinations among wealthier crowds, who also used their retreats as social gatherings among family and friends. Some of the many healing springs which can be found mentioned in Lee family letters include the White Sulphur Springs and Red Springs of present-day West Virginia and the Healing Springs in Bath County, Virginia. The Lees, however, were not the only historic patrons of spas. Thomas Jefferson also frequented the Warm Spring and Hot Spring for cures of rheumatism and general improvements in constitution. Stonewall Jackson, a famous hypochondriac, also sought the healing waters.
Robert E. Lee urged his wife and family to take to the springs for relief of chronic ailments. In one letter dated 1859 August 17 to his son, Custis, Lee reported how the springs improved the health of his daughter Agnes and his wife. Thus, he urged an extended stay at Capon Springs. Regardless of their actual curative track record, many believed in the healing effects of mineral waters–and still do today. So, if you’re feeling adventurous or a little under the weather, try one of the historic springs around you!
Longtime Richmond residents may not know much about Oakwood Cemetery. For that, they can be forgiven.
When it comes to the resting place of former Confederates, Hollywood Cemetery–located downtown, near the VCU campus–dominates Richmond public memory. Hollywood, after all, is where three presidents are buried: Monroe, Tyler, and Jefferson Davis–not to mention governors (Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of Robert E.), generals (again, Fitzhugh Lee and Jeb Stuart), and famous writers, such as Robert E. Lee hagiographer Douglas Southall Freeman. Hilly and leafy, with a view of the James River, Hollywood is an amazing spot.
Oakwood isn’t as pretty, and to get their by bicycle (as I did), you have to go up hill from downtown Richmond. Though less known than Hollywood, Oakwood also tells interesting stories. It is no less Confederate than Hollywood. The main difference is that Hollywood is aptly named: it contains some of the most sparkling of the Rebel glitterati. Flat, open, and sun-baked, Oakwood doesn’t have the same aesthetic appeal or historical cache. It is a memorial to the common soldier.
Who was the common soldier? Well, Gettysburg College historian Peter Carmichael is publishing a book later this year on the common soldier, which argues (to oversimplify things) that there was no common soldier. When it comes to a Confederate soldier’s individual experiences, that is largely true. It is often difficult to make generalizations about men from diverse backgrounds who fought in different theaters of war. But Confederates did have much in common. Most were in their 20s, unmarried, and not slaveholders. They believed (as did their northern opponents) in white supremacy. They had no interest in freeing the slaves. They traveled far from home (i.e., more than 20 miles) to fight. Most survived the war.
But many did not. In August 1861, not long after the bloodshed at Bull Run, Oakwood cemetery was established. Tens of thousands of men perished in the Richmond area, mostly from disease. Oakwood is not far from Chimborazo, the largest Civil War hospital. Oakwood was where most private soldiers in the area were laid to rest. Roughly 17,200 men are buried there, with about 8,000 of them unknown. Oakwood’s dead Confederates were 95% from the enlisted ranks.
The common soldier doesn’t create a lot of publicity. Monuments to Lee, Forrest, and Davis have been in the news. And yet, markers to the Confederate soldier have been less controversial, even though they guard countless country courthouse steps across the South.
Even academics have focused far more on battles and leaders than the common soldier of the North or South. The reason is not because of evidence (a historian could spend the rest of his life reading soldier letters), but because, in contrast to biography, it’s far more difficult to tell the stories of many men in one book than it is the story of one main character.
Oakwood, then, is the cemetery for Johnny Reb. Hollywood has its share of “common” soldiers, too. But it is mostly an example in contrast, especially in terms of race.
Not far from the Confederate section of Oakwood is a large African American cemetery adjacent to Nine Mile Road. Lee’s headquarters house, which he used during the Seven Days campaign, is not far away. Unlike the Confederate side of Oakwood, the African American cemetery is still active. When I was there visiting in the spring, several coffins were awaiting burial.
True to the Jim Crow history of Richmond, Oakwood is segregated. Not just by race, but by a road. You will not see any African Americans buried among the Rebels. And you can’t even see the Confederate side from the African American side.
Robert E. Lee and Oakwood
Historians usually discuss the Lost Cause as being strongest in the 1890s. But efforts to erect memorials to the Confederate dead began long before. In May of 1866, a year after the war ended, the Ladies Oakwood Memorial Association dedicated a marker to the 17,000 Confederates buried at the cemetery. The ladies invited Robert E. Lee to attend.
Lee, then president at Washington College in Lexington, didn’t go. Thousands of Lee’s soldiers were buried at Oakwood. But Lee, who disliked monuments and attempts to keep the war alive in public spheres, declined. Tactful as ever though, Lee wrote, “The graves of the Confederate dead will always be green in my memory, and their deeds be hallowed in my recollection.”
Not surprisingly, over time, Richmond’s cemeteries for departed white residents and Confederate veterans received much more attention and funding than African American ones. More recently, dedicated volunteers have been working to clear and restore neglected sites such as East End and Evergreen cemetery, which are not far from Oakwood. Cemetery workers and researchers have been offering online resources for learning more about their efforts.
Yet, even a much better known and maintained site such as Oakwood has had little scholarship devoted to it (note, for example its rather thin wikipedia page). Hopefully, historians will change this soon. Oakwood might not make for a shiny coffee table book, but it is an important part of the Richmond and Civil War story.
I hope everyone enjoyed their 4th of July celebrations last week. I spent a lovely day with my parents and fellow barn-mate and friend, Amy, who is the Collections intern this summer. We all had a nice time at Stratford’s family fun festival. I particularly enjoyed listening to the period band Colonial Fare inside the Great House and seeing how delighted all the kids were to be driven around in Treakle’s colorful barrel train. Afterwards, we toured George Washington’s birthplace, where we saw two bald eagles; it was a rather patriotic day, complete with watching fireworks on Colonial Beach.
Adventures resumed on the weekend once more, as Amy and I wound through the terraced East Garden to find Elizabeth McCarty Storke’s grave (located near the brick wall in the garden, not far from the fountain) and wandered the grounds behind the Great House to the orangery, Payne cabin, and spring houses. Not wanting to retreat to the barn just yet, we decided to visit Westmoreland Berry Farm and picked blackberries.
As for transcription activities, I have finally reached the point where I’m starting to wrap up another folder of Robert E. Lee papers. For the past couple weeks, I have been steadily making my way through a decent stack of photocopied letters, the originals of which remain housed as part of a collection in Duke University’s Rubenstein Library. The full collection spans from 1749 to 1975 (including clippings and other printed materials after Lee’s death), although the folder of letters I transcribed were mostly from the late 1850s and early 1860s, during which times Lee had been stationed in Texas and then began his service in the Civil War.
Perhaps I won’t know for certain, but reading letters from Lee while he was in Texas, I sometimes got the impression it wasn’t his favorite place to be. Some of his hesitations, at least, grew from mounting concerns over his wife’s health and assuming management of the Arlington plantation after his father-in-law–George Washington Parke Custis–died in 1857. Lee cared a great deal about his family and their well being. Living so far away from them and unable to closely attend matters which affected their comfort and livelihood was difficult at times.
This is, however, not to say Lee’s letters were depressing or without intrigue. Lee served under Colonel A. S. Johnston in the 2nd Cavalry Regiment at Camp Cooper from 1855 onward. Lee and the other troops were tasked with protecting settlers braving the harsh frontier. Occasionally, accounts of attacks on settlers by marauders and Apache and Comanche Indians were discussed in his letters.
In keeping with the spirit of new frontiers and exploration, I have been given multiple friendly reminders there is a kayaking trip on the Potomac this Saturday at Stratford. I might relent and give it a try. See you there?
To switch things up a bit, I thought it would be a fun challenge to go into the Lee Family Digital Archive and pull letters from this week in history—kind of like a scavenger hunt. I certainly was met with an eclectic range: a handful of letters from Robert E. Lee discussing military tactics, reports and proposals, as well as personal letters among the family that relate to their whereabouts and ordinary affairs during the Civil War.
Most intriguing to me was a letter dated 1866 July 4 from Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee to Frances Nottingham. Within the letter, Mary Lee offers her friend medicinal cure suggestions for her affliction of chills by way of “ague & fever powders”. I couldn’t help but wonder what those powders might contain, as much of pre-20th and 21st century medicines and cures were not exactly reliable or based on the sound science and practices we have today. For example, many of the so-called remedies published in Western Druggist, Vol. 18, in the way of tasteless ague and fever cures were often concoctions of different salts, sugars, alcohol, and occasionally chemicals like quinine sulphate, which actually is still used to help treat malaria. Sometimes they were on the right track. Other times, not.
As fascinating as early medicine is to me, what really grabbed my attention was the fond exchange of human hair between the women! The letter is from the Victorian era, when it wasn’t so uncommon to give a loved one or dear friend a lock of hair for them to remember you by, or (rather bizarrely to us) for fastening the hair into a piece of jewelry or watch. For those still curious, this particular letter follows one prior from Mary Lee to Frances Nottingham, in which more intimate details are expressed and for what purposes the locks are being sent.
That’s all for Week 6. Have a happy 4th of July!
Not exactly what I was expecting for a Fourth of July letter, but a neat read, nonetheless.
On Saturday, I had both good weather and opportunity to go on one of the trails Stratford offers. After either being rained out or having to travel on previous weekends, the universe finally granted me a trail day.
Being up for a challenge and curious, I went down Mill Pond Trail, a moderate level hike that curves around its namesake. My shoes only got a little muddy, but it was worth braving the bugs and (occasional) poison ivy for all the unexpected sights: dozens of baby North American toads (no bigger than a dime) hopping through the underbrush, Indian pipes poking out of the ground, and a golden eagle and great blue heron taking flight together from the water.
Five weeks in already—time flies!—I believe I have now transcribed just over seventy letters from Robert E. Lee and his family. Most of those letters have been published on the Lee Family Digital Archive; a handful are queued and will be uploaded soon.
One thing I’ve learned is you never know quite what to expect when starting a new document. The other day, I came across a poem written by Margaret Junkin Preston, known in her time as Poet of the Confederacy, or Poetess of the South. Rather sadly, it was an elegy for Eleanor Agnes Lee, who died in 1873 from what appeared to have been typhoid fever.
Margaret Preston was friends with the Lee family. They met in Lexington, Virginia, after Margaret moved from Pennsylvania with her family when her father, Reverend George Junkin, accepted the presidency of Washington College in 1848.
Not everything is so serious (although lesson #2 is to expect at least one dire circumstance in a day of transcription). When reading personal letters, you realize some aspects of life cross easily over time. A favorite letter of mine is one from Robert E. Lee, Jr., dated 1866 February 8, in which he is writing to his sister Agnes. Then a bachelor, Rob describes to her, quite proudly, how well he is taking care of himself on the Romancoke property he inherited. By his account, he tidies his own room, makes his own bed, and even prepares his own eggs and oysters in the kitchen—I wonder how many brothers would be able to honestly claim that!
I am looking forward to July 4th at Stratford next week. My family is coming over to visit and have fun during the annual Lees and Independence: Family Fun Festival. They have also been excited to go down to the beach and try their luck at fossil hunting, so I can’t wait to show them all the neat things they can find.
A couple weeks ago, I visited Yorktown for the first time. As a military historian, the site offers a two for one. Yorktown was the site of the last major battle of the American Revolution. It was also the scene of major operations during the Civil War. The site also has major connections to the Lees.
Light Horse Harry at Yorktown
The most obvious connection to the Lees was the presence at Yorktown of Henry Lee, III, better known as Light Horse Harry Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee. Light Horse Harry, a cavalryman, didn’t see much action at Yorktown, but then again, it was a siege, not a battle on the scale of other struggles. At Yorktown, the Americans—helped by a large number of French infantry and a decisive naval presence—forced the surrender of Lord Cornwallis’s army.
To oversimplify the campaign, by October of 1781, Cornwallis was trapped with his back to the York River. When the French navy cut off any chance he had of evacuating his forces by ship, he surrendered to Washington and the thousands of French troops also there. The Revolution didn’t officially end until 1783 (and fighting certainly didn’t stop after the Americans took Yorktown), but the English never recovered after Cornwallis’s defeat.
Victory and Memory
While he was in debtor’s prions in Westmoreland County in the early 1800s, Henry Lee wrote his memoirs. In it, he recounted feelings in the wake of the American victory at Yorktown. He said:
Thus concluded the important co-operation of the allied forces; concerted at the Court of Versailles, executed with precision on the part of the Count de Grasse, and conducted with judgment by the commander-in-chief. Great was the joy diffused through our infant empire. Bonfires, illuminations, feasts, and balls, proclaimed the universal delight; congratulatory addresses, warm from the heart, poured in from every quarter, hailing in fervid terms the patriot hero; the reverend ministers of our holy religion, the learned dignitaries of science, the grave rulers and governors of the land, all tendered their homage; and the fair whose smiles best reward the brave, added, too, their tender gratitude and sweet applause.
Then, Lee turned his attention to General Washington, for whom he had great admiration:
This wide acclaim of joy and of confidence, as rare as sincere, sprung not only from the conviction that our signal success would bring in its train the blessings of peace, so wanted by our wasted country, and from the splendor with which it encircled our national name, but from the endearing reflection that the mighty exploit had been achieved by our faithful, beloved Washington. We had seen him struggling throughout the war with inferior force against the best troops of England, assisted by her powerful navy; surrounded with difficulties; oppressed by want; never dismayed, never appalled, never despairing of the commonwealth. We had seen him renouncing his own fame as a soldier, his safety as a man; in his unalloyed love of country, weakening his own immediate force to strengthen that of his lieutenants; submitting with equanimity to his own consequent inability to act, and rejoicing in their triumphs, because best calculated to uphold the great cause intrusted to his care; at length by one great and final exploit under the benign influence of Providence, lifted to the pinnacle of glory, the merited reward of his toils, his sufferings, his patience, his heroism, and his virtue. Wonderful man! Rendering it difficult by his conduct throughout life to decide whether he most excelled in goodness or in greatness.
In 1799, following the death of Washington, Lee eulogized him as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
John Parke Custis
Yorktown has other connections to the Lees. At the memorial to the Yorktown campaign there’s a marker that lists the American dead, state by state. Among the Virginians is John Parke Custis.
Born in 1754, he was the son of Daniel Parke Custis and Martha Dandridge Washington (who married George Washington following the death of her first husband, Daniel). After his mother married Washington, he moved to Mount Vernon.
John was father of George Washington Parke Custis, who built Arlington plantation. George was the father of Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, who became Robert E. Lee’s wife in 1831. George Washington Parke Custis was born in 1781, just a few months before the death of his father.
Was John killed in battle? No. As was true of most of the soldiers in the pre-20th century wars, he died from disease. John Parke Custis succumbed to “camp fever” in November of 1781, just a few weeks after the American victory at Yorktown. He was only 26. He is buried at Mount Vernon.
Life’s a Beach
For the visitor to Yorktown interested in military history, the entrenchments are still visible.
As I drove in, the first part of the battlefield I saw were the recreated American/French fortifications.
Confederates in 1862, trying to hold back the advance of George McClellan and his Yankee troops, reused the old earthworks at Yorktown. The Rebels were no more successful than the British had been. Yorktown fell to Federal forces, who occupied the town for the rest of the war. Yorktown now is a small, adorable place with restaurants, bookstores, and a nice looking beach. I would love to go back soon.
Robert E. Lee wasn’t at Yorktown. At the time of the Federal capture, he was in Richmond, advising the president on military strategy. But on 1862 June 1, he took command of the Army of Northern Virginia.
The cemetery at Yorktown contains the graves of hundreds of Union soldiers, most of them unknown. One includes the grave of the “Sleeping Soldier,” who was given the death sentence for falling asleep at his post in 1861. President Lincoln commuted his sentence, and the man returned to the army. He was later killed in action.
I was at Yorktown the day after Memorial Day. And it seemed a fitting way to honor the soldiers who died fighting in Virginia so long ago.