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This webpage reproduces an item in
The Virginia Magazine
of History and Biography

Vol. 35 No. 1 (Jan. 1927), pp22‑26

The text is in the public domain.

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 p22  Funeral of Mrs. G. W. P. Custis and
Death of General R. E. Lee

Described in Contemporary Letters

[We are indebted to Mrs. Augustus Loughborough, of McLean, Va., the owner of the original letters, for permission to publish them, and to Miss Juliet Fauntleroy, of Altavista, Va., for obtaining this permission and for copying them. Mrs. Mary Lee Custis, daughter of William and Anne (Randolph) Fitzhugh, of "Chatham", and wife of G. W. P. Custis, of "Arlington", died April 23, 1853. Bishop Meade said of her: "Scarcely is there a lady in our land more honored than she was, and none more loved and esteemed. For good sense, prudence, sincerity, benevolence, unaffected piety, disinterested zeal in every good work, deep humility and retiring modesty, I never knew her superior". A note concerning these letters states that the one in regard to Mrs. Custis' funeral was written by William H. Fitzhugh, of "Ravensworth", but he died in 1830. It was probably by his widow, at whose death in 1874, the "Ravensworth" estate passed to Mrs. Lee's children.]

Mrs. William H. Fitzhugh, of "Ravensworth" (?)
to Mrs. Abby Nelson [1853]

My dear Abby,

I hope you all had a pleasant journey home and that you are experiencing some benefit from your little trip. But it must seem as you look back upon it rather as a sad dream than a reality.

William accompanied Mrs. Lee to Arlington, and I was surprised at the report brought me (on his return) of her  p23 calm and collected conduct. You know two early in the morning that they went over and the family had not breakfasted. On learning that prayers had not been read she ordered the bell to be rung and herself conducted the morning worship. After breakfast she went with William to mark out the spot where the precious remains were to be buried. She fixed upon one between the road leading to the Park, and the gate. This gate opens into the road leading to the old school house. There the grave was made. As it was important to keep Mr. Custis very quiet a private funeral was determined upon. And at 12 o'clock on Wednesday two or three friends from Alexandria [illegible] W. [illegible]: sons from the neighborhood, Mr. Randolph & his family, William & myself assembled to see them pay a tribute of respect to the mother of our beloved friend. After an impressive address by Mr. Dana, and the offering of the usual prayers, the precious remains, borne by Austin, Lawrence, Daniel and Ephraim [negroes], followed by the family, those I have mentioned, and a long train of weeping servants, were conveyed to their last resting place. As I stood by that open grave the thought that only her body rested there forcibly struck me and as I reflected upon the happiness of her departed spirit I almost forgot to mourn. Each friend by the request of Mrs. Lee was supplied with bouquets of flowers and as the coffin was lowered into the grave these were thrown in upon it.

Mrs. R. E. Lee to Miss Mary Meade

12th October 1870

My dear Cousin Mary: I have been thinking of writing to you for a long time but this day of my great sorrow I feel that I can do nothing else & I must do something. I have prayed & wept till my fountain of tears seems dried up & all my prayers to spare my husband's life have been unanswered so that I can only now pray Thy will oh God be done for me & mine. This morning at 10 o'clock he expired. The  p24 papers may have given you some account of his illness but rather an incorrect one, so I will commence & tell you all the details, knowing how deeply you will be interested in them & how you will sympathize with me. On the evening of the 29th the same time when that terrible storm commenced, was our regular church evening & after it was over a very protracted vestry meeting of rather an exciting nature. The Gen'l had been unusually occupied all day so much so as not to have had any time for recreation except a little snooze after dinner in his arm chair. When I went into tea at 7 he had not returned & I sat down to my sewing waiting for him. About half past 7 we heard him come in, put his hat & coat as usual in his room & then as he entered the dining room, I said you have kept us waiting a long time what have you been doing? He stood up at the foot of the table to say grace but did not utter a sound & sank back on a chair. I said "you look very tired let me pour you out a cup of tea" but finding he made no reply & seeing an expression on his face that alarmed me, I called Custis who asked him if he wanted anything & on his failing to make any reply we sent off immediately for the Dr. who had been at the same vestry meeting & he sent for the other one too, in the course of 15 minutes we had both here, & they applied cold cloths to his head & hot applications to his feet & got him undressed & put in bed, while undressingº he seemed perfectly conscious & helped to pull off his things but didn't speak & slept almost continuously for 2 days & nights the Drs. thinking that his attack proceeded from overstrained nerves & only required rest but finding he did not improve as they had hoped, they cupped him & gave him medicine which roused him somewhat & they confidently expected his recovery he did not speak except a few words occasionally, but always greeted me with an outstretched hand & kindly pressure, took his food with some pleasure & we vainly thought was getting on comfortably, but on Sunday night he suddenly became worse & so rapidly as to cause serious alarm became almost insensible & lay in that condition until Tuesday night when all hope was relinquished indeed Tuesday morning they had  p25 none we all sat up all night every moment almost expecting to be his last. He lay breathing most heavily & the Dr. said entirely unconscious of pain. I sat with his hand in mine all moist with heavy perspiration & early in the morning came into my room to change my clothes & get a cup of tea, when I went back he lay in much the same condition, only there were some more severe struggles for breath — these became more frequent and intense & after 2 very severe ones, his breath seemed to pass away gently & he so loved & admired now lies cold & insensible. We all prayed God so fervently to prolong a life so important to his family & country but He in his mysterious Providence thought best to call him to those mansions of Rest which he has prepared for those who love & serve Him & oh what a rest to his toilsome & eventful life, so humble he was as a Christian that he said not long ago to me he wished he felt sure of his acceptance. I said all who love & trust the Savior need not fear. He did not reply but a more upright & conscientious Christian never lived. He has been for the last two years fully impressed with the belief that he should not live long, but I thought it was only because he did not feel well & I did not feel as if he could die at least before me, & was selfish enough to wish that I might be spared what I now endure, thinking too my life was of so little importance compared to his, nothing could add to his estimation in the hearts of his countrymen & yet I was ambitious enough to hope the day might come when in a political sense at least he might again be its Deliverer from the thraldom which now oppresses it. By our country I mean the South.

We have as yet made no plans but I shall remain here at least all the winter. The trustees of the College have some time ago offered me this House we live in but I declined it & shall only remain here for the present till we decide upon our future plans. The kindness of every one is unceasing but oh cousin Mary life seems to me so aimless now, so blank. Everything in the house was always done with a reference to his comfort, his wishes & now there seems to be no object in having anything done. We telegraphed to Rob & Fitzhugh  p26 who I hope will get here either Friday or Saturday morning also to Mary, but I have no hope she will get here before the funeral is over. The body placed in a metalicº coffin will be placed in a vault in the chapel to be removed wherever I may desire at some future time. I have not spoken of the fearful storm which has desolated all this country, you will see accounts of it in the newspapers — he lay unconscious of that. Many persons here have been entirely ruined. Many lives lost at Lynchburg. Poor Virginia seems not to have filled as yet the cup of her sorrows. The visitations of Providence seem to be increased upon her flood & flame. The world does indeed seem to be completely stirred up & were we not assured in Scripture that the Milleniumº had to come before the great day when the elements would melt with fervent heat we might suppose it was now coming to a close. You and I my dear cousin I trust in the mercy of God may be safely sheltered ere that day, in the company of the Redeemed & with so many of our loved ones who have gone before. Will you give my affectionate love to Fanny & Philip & tell Fanny I was much comforted about them by her last letter which I intended to answer but really have not had time. When you write tell me where they are & how they are satisfied. Love to all dear friends in Clarke. I know they will all mourn with me, for we have a common sorrow. I pray that his noble example may stimulate our youth to a course of uprightness which never wavered from the path of duty at any sacrifice of ease or pleasure & so long too has the will of God been the guiding star of his actions. I have never so truly felt the purity of his character as now when I have nothing left me but its memory, a memory which I know will be cherished in many hearts beside my own. I may soon follow him but his children what a loss to them. I pray his death may be blessed to them for dearly they all loved him.

Yrs affecly

Mary C. Lee.

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