Monday, August 1, 2016

Mary Anna Custis Lee and the Civil War

1808 to 1873

Mary Anna Custis Lee was a descendant of many of the South's most notable families. Well educated, especially in Latin and Greek. Robert E. Lee was her third cousin, and as children, they played together often. An enduring love and respect was born from their childhood. Mary and Robert were married at her parents' home, Arlington House, in 1831. She bore her husband three sons and four daughters. By all accounts, their marriage was a good one, although Robert was known to criticize her housekeeping skills from time to time. She preferred domestic pursuits to socializing, but often discussed politics with her husband and father. Deeply religious, Mary held morning and evening prayers in the parlor.     
Upon the death of her parents, Mary inherited her beloved family home, Arlington House. While Robert was kept busy with his rising military career, Mary hosted numerous military visitors and gatherings, and spent much of her free time painting landscapes and gardening. Growing roses was a great passion of hers. Although she never freed any slaves under her care, she did teach them to read, write, and sew, believing that when they were eventually emancipated, they had the necessary skills to support themselves.   
As the years passed, Mary developed rheumatoid arthritis and suffered greatly. She avoided going up and down the stairs, and came down in the morning and returning upstairs at night. By the time the Civil War was in full swing, she had trouble walking. Her life became increasingly difficult and in her latter years, she required a wheelchair. 
As her husband and sons became embroiled in the American Civil War, and life became more dangerous, her husband pleaded with her to leave Arlington House. She hesitated leaving her home. He wrote her: 
War is inevitable, and there is no telling when it will burst around you... You have to move and make arrangements to go to some point of safety which you must select. The Mount Vernon plate and pictures ought to be secured. Keep quiet while you remain, and in your preparations...May God keep and preserve you and have mercy on all our people.
Mary took heed and she and her daughters moved between several family plantations. In May 1862, she was trapped by Union forces behind Federal lines, but was given safe passage and allowed to reside in Richmond. They lived there for a time, but then sought refuge at the Cocke family plantation where they remained until the end of the war. 
In the aftermath of the war, Robert and Mary ended up living in Lexington. Mary always yearned for her family home in Arlington. Three years after Robert died, she had the opportunity to visit her family home one last time. She could only gaze at it from her horse carriage because her rheumatoid arthritis was so severe, she could not descend. She died several months later and is buried next to her husband o the campus of Washington and Lee University. 

Mary's life has been immortalized in a novel by Dorothy Love, entitled MRS. LEE AND MRS. GRAY. 

A general’s wife and a slave girl forge a friendship that transcends race, culture, and the crucible of Civil War.
Mary Anna Custis Lee is a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and heiress to Virginia’s storied Arlington house and General Washington’s personal belongings.
Born in bondage at Arlington, Selina Norris Gray learns to read and write in the schoolroom Mary and her mother keep for the slave children and eventually becomes Mary’s housekeeper and confidante. As Mary’s health declines, Selina becomes her personal maid, strengthening a bond that lasts until death parts them.
Forced to flee Arlington at the start of the Civil War, Mary entrusts the keys to her beloved home to no one but Selina. When Union troops begin looting the house, it is Selina who confronts their commander and saves many of its historic treasures.
In a story spanning crude slave quarters, sunny schoolrooms, stately wedding parlors, and cramped birthing rooms, novelist Dorothy Love amplifies the astonishing true-life account of an extraordinary alliance and casts fresh light on the tumultuous years leading up to and through the wrenching battle for a nation’s soul.
A classic American tale, Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray is the first novel to chronicle this beautiful fifty-year friendship forged at the crossroads of America’s journey from enslavement to emancipation.


This wonderful story begins when Mary and Robert fall in love with each other. Selina is a young black slave whom Mary is teaching to read and write. Soon, Selina is put to work as a house slave, personally serving Mary and her mother. The author explores Selina's yearning for freedom and Mary's difficulties at being left alone to raise her family while her husband serves in the military. Duty, friendship, freedom, and southern culture are some of the themes the author explores in this novel. Beautifully written and well researched, the author has excelled at accurately depicting the tumultuous years before and after the Civil War, especially family/plantation life and slavery in the South. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Mary, her endurance in the face of illness, and her dedication to her slaves. This was a touching, human story about a fascinating woman of history. Definitely worth reading!

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