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Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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Vol. I
p99
Chapter VI

Marriage

By the time summer and mosquitoes came in 1830, the embankment at Cockspur Island had been thrown over part of the island, and the drainage canal had been dug.1 Because of the weather and the insect pests, the work was then suspended, and most of the force left the island. Lee went home; that is, he went to visit among friends who lived close enough to Arlington for him to go there often to see Mary Custis. He found Mrs. Custis not unsympathetic. She was his kinswoman, she was young enough to be interested in romance, of which she read much, and she was one of those rare persons in whose presence every honest man felt at ease.2 Mr. Custis, however, was not pleased at the frequent appearance of the same horseman in the park at Arlington.

To be sure, Mr. Custis had nothing against Robert Lee personally, but he knew the financial tragedy of the Lee family and was aware that his daughter's admirer had very little beyond his pay as second lieutenant. He did not welcome the idea that his only child was interested in a man who could not support her as she was accustomed to live.

If Lee knew of Custis's opposition, he did not let it deter him. When Mary journeyed down to Chatham, her mother's former home on the Rappahannock, Robert appeared there also, and while sitting with her under a great tree on the lawn he talked to her of those gentle themes that make any suitor eloquent. Below him stretched the Rappahannock; across it were the spires of the sturdy little town of Fredericksburg, and beyond the town a line of hills, one of them forest-covered, another crowned with a mansion in the style of the Grecian revival. Soldier though he p100 was, he would have shuddered to think that a day would come, when he would stand atop one of those distant hills, and, through the battle-smoke, search with his field-glasses for a glimpse of that very tree.3

In company so delightful, with so absorbing a siege to engross him, the summer of 1830 passed far too rapidly for Lieutenant Lee of the Engineers, and the call to return to Cockspur Island came all too soon. He left New York on the packet for Savannah and arrived at his station on the night of November 10. He found a situation from which a timid young man would have been glad to run away. Major Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Babcock had not arrived. Lee was the only engineer on the ground. A recent gale had broken the embankment erected during the previous winter and spring. Across the mouth of the canal that drained the ditches on the site of the fort, the embankment had been entirely swept away. The canal itself was choked. The wharf was in such condition that repair seemed impossible. It was Lee's duty to take hold at once and to resume the work with the help of the few men who had remained on the island during the summer.4

By the first of December, Lee had replaced enough of the embankment to keep the water off that part of the island on which the fort was to be erected, but he proceeded to strengthen this barrier so that the next storm would not beat it down or breach it. When this was completed he planned to clean out the canal leading to the ditches.5 About a month later word came that Major Babcock had resigned.6 In his place, as superintendent, Lieutenant J. K. F. Mansfield was sent to Cockspur. He was a man four years Lee's senior, had graduated No. 2 in the class of 1822, and already had to his credit some solid service in the construction of Fort Hamilton, New York harbor. The assignment of Mansfield to Cockspur Island was almost in the nature of a life-sentence, for he continued in charge, with temporary duty on various other engineering projects, until 1846.7

Young Mansfield was a pleasant companion, but, of course, he could not enliven Cockspur Island. So, as often as he could, Lee p101 slipped up the river to Savannah and enjoyed the gay company of his friends. The family of Isaac Minis gave him cordial welcome, made the more delightful by the presence of two daughters, Sarah and Phillipa.8 Jack Mackay had been sent to a post in Alabama,9 and, needless to say, was greatly missed, but the fine old house on Broughton Street10 was hardly less attractive on that account. Margaret Mackay, as charming as her name, had married Ralph E. Elliot, but there remained Catherine and Eliza. And Eliza was captivating, so captivating that the young lieutenant from Cockspur found some consolation in her presence for his long separation from the blonde girl at Arlington.

Joseph Mansfield had not long been on duty when he concluded that the original plan was not adapted to the site and that a new design would have to be prepared.11 Captain Delafield was summoned as consultant on the changes and arrived in April, 1831.12 Before that date, however, it was apparent that the work would have virtually to be suspended for a season. This, of course, would involve the partial idleness of Lee, and that was no light matter to the bureau. The Corps of Engineers then had more contracts at other locations than the limited personnel could supervise. Although the chief engineer had often appealed for the enlargement of his force, Congress had failed to act, and the different enterprises had been divided, as far as practicable, among the officers. In only four instances did the supervising engineer have another officer of the corps as his assistant. On the other projects the assistants were civilians.13 In these circumstances, needless to say, a lieutenant could not be kept unemployed at Cockspur Island. Lee had been expecting an assignment to Old Point, Va.,14 and sometime before April 13, he received orders directing him to proceed thither.15 He would have been altogether delighted but p102 for the prospect of separation from the friends in Broughton Street. He was not in love with Eliza Mackay and she had suitors enough and to spare; but he was much her cavalier and perhaps he flirted a bit with her. When no letters came from her, he professed himself afflicted.16 When he should go away . . . well, he gallantly and teasingly wrote of her missives, "I don't know what I shall do for them at Old Point. But you will send me some sometimes, will you not, Sweet [image ALT: an underscored blank]? How I shall besiege the P. Office."17 He was sorry that he might be denied a farewell to the family, which at the time was visiting near Beaufort, S. C. "Perhaps," he wrote Eliza, "Owing to Capt. D[elafield]'s arrival I shall be obliged to stay longer. Perhaps I can get to Beaufort. Perhaps your two weeks will be out next Tuesday. Perhaps I shall be taken sick."18 But no desired malady added to his jest. His moving orders were acknowledged on April 21,19 and he had to say au revoir. He remained for the whole of his life a close friend of the Mackays and their children. Mansfield he was to meet again on numerous occasions and, at the last, was to face him at Sharpsburg, where Mansfield fell at the head of his corps of infantry, attempting to storm Lee's position.

When Lee reported at Hampton Roads on May 7, 1831,20 much of the labor on Fort Monroe itself had been completed, and the place was occupied by a garrison, but the outworks and the approaches had not been constructed. His was the necessary but uninspiring task of computing costs, ordering supplies, and directing men in hauling earth, in grading, and in excavating the ditch that was to surround the fort. A little later he had to supervise the masons who erected a wall on the outer side, or counterscarp, of the ditch, which was exposed to the tide from the nearby waters of Mill Creek.21

Out in Hampton Roads, less than a mile offshore from Old Point, was Fort Calhoun, later known as Fort Wool. This work had been started on rip-raps, or stones placed in deep waters to serve as a foundation. The walls were rising to the level of the p103 second battery not long after Lee's arrival, but there was a dangerous subsidence, which showed the futility of immediate attempts to build higher. Thereafter, and for the whole of Lee's stay in Hampton Roads, when any work at all was done at Fort Calhoun, it was that of unloading and distributing stone, so as to bring to bear on the foundations as great a weight as they would have to carry when the walls were completed.22

Life at Fort Monroe, from the very outset, was mixed pleasure and controversy. The commander of the fort was Brevet-Colonel Abram Eustis, who was then forty-four, a native Virginian, well-schooled at Harvard. He and the engineers were not friendly. Lee's immediate superior was Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Andrew Talcott, who was in charge of the construction at both forts. Talcott was a native of Connecticut, ten years older than Lee,23 and had graduated No. 2 in the class of 1818 at West Point. Nearly the whole of his professional career, up to the time Lee joined him, had been spent in building fortifications. He was capable, careful, and considerate of his subordinate, and he speedily won the fullest respect of his new assistant.

The year after Lee came to Fort Monroe,24 Talcott married Harriet Randolph Hackley, a lovely Virginia girl of high blood, with a fine coloring, brown eyes, a graceful figure, and a manner of much attractiveness. Her picture in oils, by Thomas Sully, is one of the finest of early American portraits. Lee, who was only three years her senior, admired Mrs. Talcott most extravagantly, both for herself and also because she was a cousin of the young mistress of Arlington. He played faithful courtier to her, with much gaiety and jest.25 The Talcotts continued to be Lee's closest friends at Fort Monroe and they brightened the life of the post for him.

There were, in addition, thirty-one artillery officers on the station, for Fort Monroe was the Artillery School of the army, and at that time had six companies of gunners in garrison.26 p104 Among these officers, Lee found three of the men with whom he had been at West Point — Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John Kennedy of his own class, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Dick Tilghman of the class of 1828, and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.James H. Prentiss, who had graduated the year after Lee had left. With these he was on easy terms, and with the others he quickly had camaraderie. His social charm, his abounding physical cheer, and his consideration of others made this easy. It was noticed that he never had anything disparaging to say of his fellow-officers, a habit that was as attractive as it was unusual among soldiers who had overmuch leisure.27

Already Lieutenant Lee was a devotee of military promptness. If he must lay siege to a heart, he would do it with as little delay as he would countenance in investing a city. So, very soon after he returned from Georgia, and perhaps before he reported for duty at Fort Monroe, he took steamer up the Potomac to visit Miss Custis, who was much more interested in him than a young lady of her generation in Virginia would ever let a gentleman know. Mrs. Custis watched with sympathy, though the master of Arlington still frowned. One day soon after his arrival, he was in the hall of Arlington house, reading aloud to Mary and to Mrs. Custis from a new novel of Sir Walter Scott's. The interest of the narrative and of the audience was such that Robert kept on until his weariness must have been apparent to Mrs. Custis.

"Mary," she said, at a pause in the reading, "Robert must be tired and hungry; go into the dining-room and get him some lunch."

Miss Custis obediently rose, and Robert, excusing himself, followed her. At the sideboard, she stooped to get her guest a piece of fruit cake. Robert leaned forward too, and then and there the question was put and answered.28 If he ate his fruit cake, it was with a happy heart.

Mr. Custis reluctantly gave his consent to a marriage his daughter was old enough to contract on her own account. The nuptials were set for June 30, and the place, of course, was to be Arlington, with bridesmaids and groomsmen in a number becoming so important an event. Robert was to get a furlough for as long a time p105 as he could, and when the festivities were over and the furlough had expired, the two were to live at Fort Monroe — live on his pay, as other young couples did, without any help from Mr. Custis. Mary was determined on that.

There followed many gay preparations, not least of which was Mary's choice of six bridesmaids, among her cousins. Robert called upon a corresponding number of his friends, to support him in the hour when the bravest man trembles. The desired furlough was procured through the friendly help of Captain Talcott. Arlington, which usually wore a somewhat neglected look, was put in order for the great day. The attendants arrived early and, of course, were all housed at the bride's home. Catharine Mason, a neighborhood friend of Mary's since childhood, was the counterpart of the present-day maid of honor, though a more courteous age gave equal honor to all. Her escort, Robert's best man, was naturally his brother Smith, who was almost as handsome as Robert and of fine, cordial manners. Next was Mary Goldsborough, a cousin of the bride's on Custis side. With her stood Lieutenant John P. Kennedy, Robert's classmate and now a lieutenant of the 1st Artillery, stationed at Old Point. Miss Marietta Turner had as her cavalier, Lieutenant James A. Chambers, somewhat older than the rest of the bridal party, and a friend of Robert's days at Cockspur Island. Miss Angela Lewis, still another cousin of the Custis stock, was entrusted to Lieutenant Richard Tilghman, familiarly "Dick" to all West Pointers and to all the officers at Fort Monroe. Miss Julia Calvert, who was of the Lord Baltimore stock of G. W. P. Custis's mother, was in the chivalrous care of Lieutenant James H. Prentiss, who had come up with the others from Old Point to hearten his comrade. The other bridesmaid was Mary's cousin, Britannia Peter, of Georgetown across the Potomac — a kinswoman who was to prove her loyalty to the Lees at a time when the very name of Arlington connoted woe. Her gallant was Thomas Turner, cousin of the groom's on his mother's side.29

While the guests were assembling on June 30, 1831, a heavy downpour of rain swept over the country around Arlington. p106 Through it, at length, Reverend Reuel Keith, the officiating clergyman,30 arrived on horseback, drenched and dripping, in no condition assuredly to stand on the floor of the drawing-room at Arlington, amid young officers in full-dress uniform, much less in the presence of young women apparelled in all the glory of two states, and of the District of Columbia, besides. There was nothing to do except to provide Mr. Keith with dry clothes. But whose could they be? The soldiers had only their uniforms; Mr. Custis was the sole civilian on the place with an extra pair of breeches available. And Mr. Custis was short and of unequal proportions, whereas the reverend gentleman was as tall as a grenadier and as thin as an anchorite. Into Mr. Custis's clothes, however, the clergyman had to step, to the high amusement of those who aided him in effecting the change. The other guests were cheated of the sight of an angular parson in the garb of a small aristocrat, because when Mr. Keith put on a cassock and surplice, they hid the folds and concealed the shortness of his garments.31

All was ready. The bridal party marched into the drawing-room, which is the chamber on the right as one enters Arlington from the portico. Mary was nervous; Robert was pale but noted mentally that he was not so excited as he thought he should have been. He felt very much as if he were at the blackboard at West Point waiting to recite a problem. The minister, Lee confided later to his friend Captain Talcott, "had few words to say, though he dwelt upon them as if had been reading my Death warrant, and there was a tremulousness in the hand I held that made me anxious for him to end."32

p107 The wedding party remained at Arlington in festivity and merriment33 until the following Tuesday, July 5, when the young officers, their leaves ending or their endurance failing, were forced to say good-bye. Some of the bridesmaids, being of more durable social fibre, lingered until the end of the week. Then the young lovers were left alone for a day or two, with no company save that of Mr. and Mrs. Custis. But it was not for long. Robert rode over to Washington on Monday, July 11, got all the news of the engineering office, and on his way probably stopped at Alexandria, in order to make some purchases for the quarter at Fortress Monroe. The next day, or the day after, he and his bride, accompanied by Mrs. Custis, went to Ravensworth, on the first leg of a journey to visit Randolph and Lewis kin in Fauquier and Loudoun Counties.

As he appeared on his honeymoon, Robert was blissfully happy, and seemed already to bear unconsciously the air of a man destined to achievement. "I looked up," a cousin wrote of his appearance that fall, "and my eye fell upon his face in perfect repose, and the thought at once flashed through my mind: 'You certainly look more like a great man than any one I have ever seen.' "34 In love and merriment, with much jest and teasing, the days ran rapidly on, but he did not forget his duties at Fort Monroe. He was to return early in August, and to the letter which he wrote Captain Talcott about the wedding he added this postscript: "They are talking around me at such a rate that I hardly know what I have written and despair of reading it. But please send the boat out for me, the first trip the [steamboat] P[otomac] makes in August."35


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MARY CUSTIS, WIFE OF R. E. LEE
From a painting made by an unknown artist about the time of her marriage in 1831.

Lee's marriage to Mary Custis was one of the major influences that shaped his career. Although she was not often able to travel p108 far or to share the hardships of an engineer's life on a frontier project, she bore him seven children in fourteen years. Ahead of her lay invalidism more nearly complete and more pitiful than that of Lee's mother. Like her father she was careless in her personal apparel to the point of untidiness, until, late in life, she found a maid who took pride in dressing her attractively. Rising from one illness she found her hair in such a tangle that she impulsively took the scissors and cut it off. Her domestic management was complimented when it was termed no worse than negligent. In her engagements she was forgetful and habitually late,36 an aggravating contrast to the minute-promptness of her husband. Once when her husband was expecting guests, a few years after their marriage, he apologized frankly in advance. "Tell the ladies," he wrote, "that they are aware that Mrs. L. is somewhat addicted to laziness and forgetfulness in her Housekeeping. But they may be certain she does her best, Or in her Mother's words 'The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.' "37

Despite these early shortcomings and later a nervous whimsicality the sometimes puzzled him, she held the love of Robert Lee through life. His fondness for the company of pretty women, which was always strong, never led him away from her or involved him in any sort of scandal. Ministering, rather than ministered unto, his first thought always was of her. She accepted this as her due from "Mr. Lee" as she called him, and even after the War between the States, when he was a demigod in the eyes of the South, she ordered him about. Yet rarely was a woman more fully a part of her husband's life. This, fundamentally, was because of his simplicity and her fineness of spirit. She was interested in people and in their happiness. A keen, if uncritical, interest in public affairs she retained all her days, nor did she hesitate to differ from Lee and to voice a fiery opinion in plain-spoken terms, when his sense of justice and his reserve alike disposed him to say little. She loved wildflowers and old gardens and evening skies. Religion she had, of the same sort as that which her husband developed. They talked to each other of religion as neither talked on that subject to others, and she kept p109 her faith in the triumph of the things in which she believed. A certain quick and understanding sympathy was shown in her kindling eye and ready smile. Her alertness made friends and brought admiring attention. She was wholly without personal ambition, beyond that of sharing in the experiences and confidences of her friends.

Although she was never awed by his presence, she had for his character a respect that became in time a positive reverence. It is futile to speculate on whether she ever shared what some are fond of terming "the inmost secrets of a great man's heart." He had no such secrets, for in age as in youth he was always objective in mind. Loving her, he saw her best qualities, not her worst. Next after binding him to her in deepest spiritual love, perhaps her greatest influence on him was that she strengthened his self-control, because, as her health became impaired, she required much care at his hands. They needed all the love and all the faith and all the self-mastery they could develop, for they were to endure more of tragedy than is measured out to most mortals. It was fortunate they could not see ahead in that dreamy summer of 1831, when there were kisses and confidences and the happy freedom of youth.

When Lee married Mary Custis, he married Arlington as well, and that, too, was to have a profound influence upon him. The estate was to bring much harassment of spirit, but it was to deepen his reverence for the Washington tradition. Mr. Custis himself was, of course, the nearest link with the first President. Many of the Washington relics were at Arlington — the portraits, the lantern from the hall of Mount Vernon, the china presented by the Society of the Cincinnati, which probably had been ordered by Lee's own father, Washington's bookcase, his camp equipment, even some of the clothes he had worn, and the bed on which he had died.38 Mrs. Washington's Negro maid, Caroline Branham, who had been in the room on the December night when the great spirit of the nation's founder had passed, was among the servants at Arlington at the time of Mary Custis's wedding.39 To come into the atmosphere of Arlington was to Robert Lee almost like p110 living in the presence of his foremost hero, his father's old commander. "This marriage," wrote a kinsman-biographer, "in the eyes of the world, made Robert Lee the representative of the family of the founder of American liberty."40


The Author's Notes:

1 Lee to Gratiot, Nov. 11, 1830; Eng. MSS., 186.

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2 Thomas J. Packard, ed.: Joseph Packard: Recollections of a Long Life (cited hereafter as Packard), 157.

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3 See infra, Volume II, p461.

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4 Lee to Gratiot, Nov. 11, 1830; Eng. MSS., 186; R. E. Lee, Jr. (2d. ed.), 447‑48.

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5 Lee to Gratiot, Dec. 1, 1830; Eng. MSS., 188; R. E. Lee, Jr. (2d. ed.), 448.

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6 Doubtless because of ill-health; he died June 26, 1831 (1 Cullum, 81).

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7Cullum, 276.

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8 Later, respectively, Mrs. Isaac Hayes of Philadelphia and Mrs. Edward Etting of the same city (Letter of J. F. Minis to the writer, Sept. 30, 1930).

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9Cullum, 425.

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10 Between Abercorn and Lincoln Streets (May Wood Cain in Savannah Press, Jan. 19, 1929, copy of which was kindly supplied by Oliver Orr, Esq., of Macon).

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11 Rept. Chf. Eng. Army, 1830‑31; Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 22d Cong., vol. 1, p77.

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12 R. E. Lee to Eliza A. Mackay. MS., "Wednesday, 13," but, by the internal evidence, dated April 13, 1831, graciously loaned the writer by Mrs. Frank Screven of Savannah, Ga.

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13 Rept. Chf. Eng. Army, 1830‑31, loc. cit., 89.

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14 Charles Gratiot to J. K. F. Mansfield, MS., March 26, 1831; MS. U. S. War Dept.

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15 Lee to Eliza A. Mackay, loc. cit.

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16 Lee to Eliza A. Mackay, loc. cit.: "It did grieve me to see the Boats coming down, one after another, without any of the little comforts which are now so necessary to me."

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17 Ibid.

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18 Ibid.

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19 Mansfield to Gratiot, MS., April 21, 1831, U. S. War Dept.

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20 Andrew Talcott to Gratiot, MS., May 11, 1831, U. S. War Dept.

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21 See the report on Fort Monroe in the Rept. Chief Eng. Army, 1830‑31; Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 22d Cong., vol. 1, p76.

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22 Rept. Chief Eng. Army, 1830‑31, op. cit., vol. 1, p77.

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23 Born April 22, 1797.

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24 April, 1832, according to the Talcott genealogy.

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25 She was born June 26, 1810. Her mother, Harriet Randolph (1783‑1859) who married Richard S. Hackley, was the twelfth child of Thomas Mann Randolph of Tuckahoe (1741‑93). His wife was Anne Cary (1745‑89). Thomas Mann Randolph of Tuckahoe was the great-grandson of William Randolph of Turkey Island. Thanks are due Miss Harriet Talcott of Richmond for this information.

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26 Rept. Adjt. Genl. Army, 1829‑30; Ex. Docs., 2d sess., 21st Cong., vol. 1, pp55, 89.

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27 Statement of James Eveleth, clerk at Fort Monroe, quoted in Long, 35.

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28 Sally Nelson Robins, quoting the family tradition, in Brock, 323. It is impossible to fix the date of the proposal with certainty.

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29 This list has been reconstructed from that given originally by Long (op. cit., p32) and copied by other biographers. The internal evidence suggests that the list probably was supplied from memory by Mrs. Lee, late in life, for the names of all the girls are (p106)given with precision, while those of the groomsmen are vague or incorrect. There was no "Lieutenant Thomas Kennedy" in the army at that time, but as Lee's classmate Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class. John F. Kennedy (1 Cullum, 429)º was then at Fort Monroe, he is almost certainly the man. "Lt. Chambers" could hardly have any one else than the Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.James A. Chambers (1 Cullum, 250) who was at Savannah while Lee was working at Cockspur Island. "Mr. Tillman" may be identified with less certainty as Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Dick Tilghman (1 Cullum, 406). "Lieutenant Turner" of Long's list is shown in Mrs. M. M. Andrews' Scraps of Paper, 202‑3, to have borne the given name of Thomas. He belonged to the navy (Avery Craven, ed.: To Markie, the Letters of Robert E. Lee to Martha Custis Williams, cited hereafter as Markie Letters, p38).

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30 Mr. Keith had come to Alexandria in 1823 as principal of the newly established Episcopal Theological Seminary and for several years was rector of Christ Church as well.

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31 Long, 32; Packard, 157, Mrs. M. M. Andrews op. cit., 202‑3.

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32 R. E. Lee to Andrew Talcott, MS., July 13, 1831 (Talcott MSS. (F)), printed in full in Freeman: "Lee and the Ladies," Scribner's Magazine, Oct., 1925, pp342‑43. The (p107)Talcott papers, cited hereafter as Talcott MSS., are divided into two approximately equal parts. One part belongs to the Virginia Historical Society; the other is the property of the writer, to whom it was graciously presented by Mr. and Mrs. John Stewart Bryan. For convenience of reference, those Talcott letters belonging to the society are designated as "(VHS)" and those of the writer "(F)."

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33 The printed notice of Lee's marriage read simply: "Married, June 30, 1831, at Arlington House, by the Reverend Mr. Keith, Lieutenant Robert E. Lee, of the United States Corps of Engineers, to Miss Mary A. R. Custis, only daughter of G. W. P. Custis, Esq." (Fitz Lee, 26).

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34 Quoted in Long, 30; Mrs. M. M. Andrews, op. cit., 199.

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35 Lee to Talcott, MS., July 13, 1831, Talcott MSS. (F). The vessel is identified by a reference in a later letter from Lee to Talcott.

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36 R. E. Lee, Jr., 11.

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37 Lee to Talcott, April 10, 1834; Talcott MSS. (F).

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38 Mason, 28‑29.

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39 Mrs. Powell, 244.

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40 Edward Lee Childe: The Life and Campaigns of Gen. Lee . . . Translated from the French . . . by George Litting . . . (cited hereafter as Childe), p24.


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