Highlights from the Lee Family Digital Archive: Robert E. Lee to George Washington Custis Lee, 1874 April 4

Robert E. Lee, Jr.


Florence              Italy

April 4th 1875

My dear Custis


Your letter of the 14th march from New Orleans came to hand to day. Very glad we were to hear from you, how you both were, & what you were doing. We arrived here last monday & will leave in about five more days. Florence is a beautiful city, & a great relief after the cities of southern Italy. It is clean the people are industrious & thrifty, at least for Italians, & the modern part of the town is very pretty.

I think in 20 or 30 yrs from now when the trees shall have had time to grow, & the improvements in the city & out, shall have been completed that Florence will be one of the handsomest & one of the most delightful residences in Europe.

I believe the latter part of my point is believed to be true now. From here we go to Milan the Italian Lakes & Venice from there on into Germany by Vienna, & hope to be in London the last of June. Do make up yr mind & come over & join us in London in June & July & we’ll make the tour of Eng, Scot & I[rela]nd together. Bring Mary with you. The sea voyage will do you good & though you’ll be bored over here, I don’t think there will be more of it here than there is at home. I wish you would if you possibly can. Then we can all go back together in the fall.

Mildred is quite well, but very hard to manage, indeed I don’t attempt it. The girls are al-ways ready for a fight, it costs them nothing & they like it. So I find the only way is to cower beneath them all the time.

I have seen pictures & churches until I am afaint. I’ll have them always about me in my dreams. Some very beautiful, but the majority very poor. But you soon get used to going all through them & you don’t mind it. In England there is not so much of that business, so I think you with my assistance could get along.

You wont be beset here, as sister writes word you were in the south. You’ll have as quiet a time as you ever had in your life. So think well of it & come over.

It costs about $6 a day here to travel say $8 at the very farthest. $1500 will do you for six months $6 per diem includes everything except clothes & purchases of art.

Love to all friends

Your affec brother

R E Lee




Source: Photocopy of original letter, Mary Custis Lee Papers, Mss1 L5144 a 6159-6162, Section 62, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2018 December 13


Highlights from the LFDA: George Washington Custis Lee to Anne Carter Lee, 1862 January 27

George Washington Custis Lee, 1865

Fine Creek, Jan: 27th ‘62


My dear, dear Annie,

How shall I excuse myself for not sooner answering your dear & most interesting letter? What would I have not given to have been with you at Stratford. My devotion to that spot is the weak place in my heart & I hope yet to see it again. In the meantime I sigh to see it. And while I am on it, let me answer your genialogical inquiries. When I saw Bishop Meade’s genialogy of the Lees in the Southern Churchman, I found it different from that I had in my possession from the pen of Mr. William Lee, the brother of Richard Henry, & Alderman of London, & subsequently our minister at the Hague. I sent the dear Bishop a copy of this paper, & he replied that he was aware of the imperfect character of the genialogy he published, & was much obliged to me for correcting it, which he would do in his forth-coming volume of “Old Churches” &c I have not that very valuable & interesting work (which I will soon have) but I see from the facts you have derived from it that he has adopted the correct genealogy. Matilda Lee was the granddaughter of Thomas1 (whose portrait in French chalk you may have remembered in Lucy’s chamber) both owners of Stratford; & Henry Lee, the youngest brother of Thomas married Miss Blair, whose eldest son Henry married Miss Lucy Grimes2 (hence sister Lucy’s name) who was the niece of Dr. (of divinity) Porteus3 Bishop of London; & I have been told by members of the family, that the correspondence between your great-grandmother Mrs. Lee of Leesylvania & her uncle the Bishop of London was of the most interesting character & those of the niece especially beautiful. Old Dr. Wallace of Fauquier used to abuse almost everybody; & I met him at Prince William Court House when I first entered on the practice of the Law. He asked me in the course of our first conversation after my introduction to him, how I could hope to get practice in that County? “To be sure,” said he, “your father was really a distinguished man; & so was your uncle Charles; for he was in Washington’s Cabinet, as Attorney General. Your uncle Richard, too, was a clever man, as he proved himself to be in Congress, at Philadelphia. Jennings, too, your uncle Edmund Jennings, is a good lawyer; & even that fellow Theo (uncle Theodorick) is not a fool. But all that wo’nt help you here. You do’nt look like those people—you do’nt think like them—you do’nt feel like them. The ox loveth his kind, & the ass followeth his kind. These people can have nothing to do with you. Sir, if your father was now living, he could not be elected as a constable in this County.” But said, I, Dr., how did it happen that my father & all his brothers were so clever? Was my grandfather, or my grandmother entitled to the credit of this result? To which the Dr. answered “My dear Sir I have heard that your grandmother was a very clever woman; but your grandfather, a fool he was born, a fool he lived & a fool he died.” I tell you this anecdote to show that your great grandmother must have impressed the community generally with a sense of her cleverness as even Dr. Wallace admitted it. As to her husband, he represented his County either as Burgess under the Colonial system, or as Delegate to the Genl. Assembly of Virga for 24 years consecutively (I think). I understand he was remarkable for benevolence & that must have been directed by good sense – nay, by great wisdom to have accounted for his remarkable popularity. For in those days & in that County there were no demagogues. My darling, I have written so much to you about old times (which you seem to have a taste for) that will add modern matters in a letter of the “Unaccountable” who I hear is in Richmond & to whom I shall enclose this. Lucy too, will write to Agnes & tell no doubt of current matters. So I will only add here my love to all & that I am

Yours & theirs most aff  G.W. C. Lee




Source: Photocopy of original letter, James Lewis Howe Papers, James G. Leyburn Library Special Collections, Washington and Lee University

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2018 October 22

Week 7!



By Katie Hall

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?


“Taking the Waters”

ws spring 2

By Katie Hall

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.

ws spring 1
White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia.

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!

The History and Politics of Oakwood Cemetery

The African American portion of Oakwood cemetery in Richmond

By Colin Woodward

Hollywood Rivalry

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.

Stansfield marker in the 19th century section of Oakwood.

Johnny Reb

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.

oakwood 1865
Oakwood in 1865. Source: Library of Congress

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.

A relatively new marker to a long dead soldier

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.”

Confederate flags abound at Oakwood

Restoration Efforts

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.


Fourth of July Week

texas map 857

By Katie Hall

Hi again!

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.

Elizabeth McCarty Storke. She lived at Stratford longer than any white resident. She died in the 1870s

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.

Robert E. Lee in the 1850s

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.

Geronimo, an Apache, would have been in his mid-to-late-20s when Robert E. Lee was fighting Apaches in Texas


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?

Letter Scavenger Hunt!

Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee

By Katie Hall

Katie here,

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.