Saturday, March 16, 2013

Five Minutes of History: Robert E and Mary Lee and their home

Robert E Lee, 1863 

General Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870) was the commanding general of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War (1861-1865). 

In 1831 Lee married his cousin, Mary Anna Randolph Custis (1808-1873), the great granddaughter of Martha Washington, the wife of George Washington. 

Lee’s father Henry had delivered the eulogy at Washington’s funeral in 1799. 

Mary Custis 

Lee at age 31 in 1838, as a Lieutenant of Engineers in the U. S. Army 

Mary Custis, 1854 

Mary owned a Virginia plantation known as “Arlington”, the plantation having been inherited from her father George Custis and her mother, also named Mary. George had built the family home, Arlington House, on the plantation. 

Arlington House, pre 1861 sketch

Robert and Mary Lee lived at Arlington for 30 years. 

Lee was a West Point graduate and a member of the Union army when the Civil War commenced in 1861. President Lincoln invited Lee to take command of the entire Union army but Lee instead resigned his commission, not wanting to fight against his home state, Virginia, which was seceding from the Union against his wishes. 

Lee took command of the armed forces of Virginia and rose to command the Confederate Army. 

In 1864 the Union acquired the Lee plantation by purchase at an auction sale. Mrs Lee owed $92.07 in property taxes and sent an agent to pay the outstanding monies. Union officials refused the tendered payment, turned away Mrs Lee’s agent and proceeded with the auction where it purchased the plantation for $26,800. 

The Lee plantation was occupied by Union troops and an area of 80 hectares was set aside for the burying of Union dead. This was felt by Union officers to be fitting in that most of such officers considered Lee to be disloyal to the Union. 

Arlington House with Union troops surrounding it. 

Today the graveyard at Arlington House has over 250,000 war dead buried there and is known as Arlington National Cemetery 

In 1877, Custis Lee, heir to the Lee estate, sued the United States claiming ownership of Arlington on the basis of the refusal of the tendered payment in 1864. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Lee's favor in 1882, deciding that Arlington had been confiscated without due process, Congress returned the estate to him. The next year Custis Lee sold it back to the government for $150,000 at a signing ceremony with Robert Todd Lincoln, the US Secretary of War and the son of Abraham Lincoln 

What became of ... 

Robert E Lee: 

Following the war Lee was not arrested or punished but did lose the right to vote. Opposing punitive measures against the South, he became an icon of reconciliation between the North and South and of Confederates being reintegrated into America as a whole. Although he had hoped to retire to a farm of his own, he was pressed to accept the appointment of President of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington Virginia. His initiatives, fund raising and expansion program saw the College become a leading Southern educational establishment. Lee was well liked by the students, which enabled him to announce an ”honor system” like West Point's, explaining "We have but one rule here, and it is that every student be a gentleman." To speed up national reconciliation Lee recruited students from the North and made certain they were well treated on campus and in town. Near the end of his life he commented that the greatest mistake of it was to have taken a military education. 

Robert E Lee, President of Washington College, Lexington VA, 1869 

In 1865, President Andrew Johnson had issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Pardon to persons who had participated in the rebellion against the United States. There were fourteen excepted classes and members of those classes had to make special application to the President. Lee sent an application to Grant and wrote to President Johnson on June 13, 1865: 
Being excluded from the provisions of amnesty & pardon contained in the proclamation of the 29th Ulto; I hereby apply for the benefits, & full restoration of all rights & privileges extended to those included in its terms. I graduated at the Mil. Academy at West Point in June 1829. Resigned from the U.S. Army April '61. Was a General in the Confederate Army, & included in the surrender of the Army of N. Virginia 9 April '65. 
On October 2, 1865, the same day that Lee was inaugurated as president of Washington College, he signed his Amnesty Oath, thereby complying fully with the provision of Johnson's proclamation. Lee was not pardoned, nor was his citizenship restored. The fact that he had submitted an amnesty oath at all was soon lost to history 

Secretary of State William H Seward had given Lee's application to a friend as a souvenir, and the State Department had pigeonholed the oath. More than a hundred years later, in 1970, an archivist at the national Archives discovered Lee's Amnesty Oath among State Department records. For 110 years Lee remained without a country, as the Confederacy had dissolved and Lee's United States application and oath were lost and disregarded. Lee was posthumously officially reinstated as a United States citizen by President Gerald Ford in 1975. 

On September 28, 1870, Lee suffered a stroke.  He died two weeks later from the effects of pneumonia. 

Mary Custis Lee: 

Mary survived her husband by three years. By 1861 her rheumatoid arthritis had advanced to the extent that she needed the use of a wheelchair. She and Robert had seven children. 

Mary Custis Lee visited her beloved Arlington House once more before her death, and wrote: 
“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.” 
Mary was unable to exit the carriage, but was delighted when old servants still at Arlington came to see her. When it was time to leave, she didn’t look back. 

Custis Lee: 

George Washington Custis Lee, aka Custis Lee (1832-1913), had served in the war, originally as a captain in the Confederate Army and for the last 3 years as aide-de-camp to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, attaining the rank of General. Nearing the end of the war he repeatedly sought, and was ultimately granted, a field command. Between 1871 and 1897 he was president of the same college as his father, Washington and Lee University.

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