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The Nation

Mementos of Robert E. Lee's Daughter Found

December 01, 2002|Linda Wheeler | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — More than 80 years after the death of Mary Custis Lee, eldest and most headstrong daughter of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, two steamer trunks full of her papers and travel souvenirs have been found in a bank vault in suburban Alexandria, Va.

The wooden trunks -- containing family letters, photographs, clippings of her father's obituary, strands of hair collected from royalty on European trips rarely taken by other single women of her era -- came to light after an inquiry from a descendant.

Rob E. L. deButts Jr. (who prefers that shortened version of his famous name) knew that Mary Lee used Burke & Herbert Bank & Trust Co. as her permanent address when she left on her travels abroad. While doing some family research, deButts -- whose great-grandfather was Mary Lee's brother -- sent an e-mail to an old classmate from a high school in Alexandria, bank Vice Chairman E. Hunt Burke, asking whether the bank had any records or artifacts associated with his ancestor.

"I was asking about things in general but did mention trunks," said deButts, a New York lawyer. "I never dreamed there would actually be trunks."

The request sent Burke to the bank's "silver vault," where it stores items too bulky for safe-deposit boxes. The trunks "were dusty. They were in a corner," Burke said. "On the inventory, they were carried as two trunks. We didn't have a name."

But he saw that one of them was stenciled on the side with "M. Lee."

DeButts came right away to look at the find. Last month, he returned and delivered both trunks to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond in hopes that it will catalog and preserve their contents.

"Everything in the trunks is Lee-related," said Charles F. Bryan Jr., society president. "They were stuffed full. This is a very exciting find."

Mary Custis Lee was the second child of the four daughters and three sons born to Lee and his wife, Mary, granddaughter of George Washington.

Mary Price Coulling, author of "The Lee Girls," said Lee was unusually bold for her time. Daughters were expected to live at home until they married. If they remained single -- as many Southern girls did after the Civil War because there were so few men left to marry -- their role was to care for their parents.

"She took off and did what she wanted to do," Coulling said. "She left her sister Mildred to cope with everything."

From 1871 to 1914, when the outbreak of World War I brought her home to Virginia, Mary Lee was abroad so much, traveling in Europe and Asia, that very little is known about her life. "Hopefully, these papers will fill out those 40 years," Coulling said.

Lee, who was 36 when she set out, had an inheritance to help finance her travels, but she was not reluctant to supplement it by playing up her family name, according to Coulling. She would write ahead to tell royalty that Lee's daughter was arriving -- and the red carpet would be rolled out.

It was then common to use one's hometown bank as an address during extended travels.

Burke & Herbert, founded in the early 1850s and still family-owned, then required no written rental agreements for vault space. Burke said it is likely that no fee was ever charged, explaining why the connection to Mary Lee was lost.

The vault is frequented only by customers who pay for space, so employees hadn't tripped over her trunks and wondered to whom they belonged.

DeButts, one of six Lee descendants who agreed that the trunks should be taken to the Historical Society for the time being, has sorted through their contents.

"There are thousands of letters in there," he said.

Bryan said the society is waiting only for a formal agreement with the family to begin cataloging and preserving the contents, a project that could take two to three years.

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