This is old news – the discovery of the two trunks having been made in 2002 – but I just ran across this article and thought I’d share it in case there are others who were unaware.
The discovery of two long-forgotten steamer trunks crammed with family memorabilia from the estate of Robert E. Lee occurred in 2002, as Robert E. L. deButts, Jr., the great-great-grandson of Robert E. Lee, conducted family research. A commercial and securities lawyer in New York, deButts had queried Burke & Herbert Bank & Trust in Alexandria, Virginia, to see if they retained any financial records of his great-grandaunt, Mary Custis Lee.
After the Civil War ended, Mary spent much of her life traveling abroad, and used the bank as a permanent address. As the officers of the family-owned bank checked their inventory, they decided to look in their rarely used “silver vault,” which safeguards items too large for safe-deposit boxes. A pair of dusty wooden steamer trunks caught their eye, the larger one bearing a piece of tin patching and the unmistakable stenciled letters, “M. Lee.”
Discovered in the trunks, which had been unopened at least since Mary Custis’ death 84 years before, were 4,000 yellowed letters, postcards, documents, photographs, and artifacts. DeButts took the contents to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, which houses the nation’s largest collection of Lee papers, and started sorting. One envelope contained three cloth stars of gold thread, identified in a note as those that Lee cut off his uniform after his surrender to Grant at Appomattox.
The earliest letter in the trunks dates to 1694, a letter from John Custis II, the family’s first English immigrant, to merchants back home discussing the tobacco crop and the shipbuilding business on the Eastern Shore, valuable details, says Shepard, for future researchers. Also amidst the letters is an unusual 1766 manifest of 266 African American slaves owned by John Parke Custis, the stepson of George Washington. There are accounts from the 1760s and 1770s kept by George Washington; an 1860 letter from Robert E. Lee to the Secretary of War about relations between Mexico and the U.S.; an 1872 letter from a former slave at Arlington House to Lee’s wife; postcards and mementos from around the world acquired by Mary Custis; and the correspondence of Lee’s mother-in-law, Mary Fitzhugh Custis, an anti-slavery activist in the upper South.
There are family letters that give life to Lee’s experience in the Mexican War. His grief over the loss of Arlington House is palpable in a Christmas 1861 letter to his daughter Mary: “I should have preferred it to have been wiped from the earth, its beautiful hill sunk, & its sacred trees burned, rather than to have been degraded by the presence of those who revel in the ill they do for their own selfish purposes.”
The collection also includes several hesitant attempts by Lee to chronicle his military actions in the Civil War. He wrote his daughter on September 23, 1862, just after the Sharpsburg campaign. “We had two hard fought battles in Maryland and did not consider ourselves beaten as our enemies suppose. We were greatly outnumbered and opposed by double if not treble our strength and yet we repulsed all their attacks, held our ground and retired when it suited our convenience.” Brave words in the wake of a campaign that caused a quarter of his army to desert—and enabled Abraham Lincoln to seize the moral high ground and issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
At other times, Lee’s letters are unselfconscious and expressive. Early in the war, as the South’s fortunes surged, Lee wrote a sentimental Christmas letter to Mary: “I send you some sweet violets that I gathered for you this morning while covered with dense white frost that glistened in the bright sun like diamonds and formed a broche of rare beauty and sweetness . . . “
The letters are now available for research at the Virginia Historical Society.