LEE, Robert E., General, C.S.A. Autograph letter signed ("R. E. Lee"), to Jeremiah S. Black, Lexington, Va., 13 January 1869. 2 pages, 4to, remnants of mounting along right edge of blank integral.
LEE SEEKS TO HAVE THE CUSTIS-LEE MANSION IN ARLINGTON, "SOLD BY THE GOVERNMENT," RETURNED "TO THE RIGHTFUL HEIR"
A poignant letter about Lee's lost home in Arlington, now Arlington National Cemetary: "I received this morning," Lee says, "a letter from my friend Capt. James May informing me of the kind interest you expressed in my welfare & of the generous offer of your professional services for the restoration of the property belonging to the estate of Mr. G.W.P. Curtis which was sold by the Government during the late war. I am deeply sensible of your kindness & return my grateful thanks for your offer of assistance, which at the proper time I hope it may be convenient for you to give." Lee went on to explain that he had no direct interest in the property, "except as the executor of Mr. Custis. It will never be of any value to me, but I desire to turn it over to the rightful heir. I have not as yet taken any steps in the matter under the belief that at present I could accomplish no good, nor do I wish now to do so unless in your opinion some benefit could result from it. Mr. Francis S. Smith of Alexandria, my friend & counsel before the war, is acquainted with all the circumstances of Mr. Custis's estate" and could provide Black with any documents or information that he required.
Arlington was the estate of Lee's father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, adopted son of George Washington. Lee often visited the Custis estate when he was a West Point Cadet, and it was there he met his bride, Mary Anne Randolph Custis. Lee is right that legal ownership never devolved to him, but remained in his wife's family. But he and Mary lived there and raised their seven children on its grounds. During "the late war" Union troops seized Arlington in 1861 to prevent the Confederates from using it as an artillery base for shelling the Federal capital. Lee's other home, on the Pamunkey River, was burned to the ground.
By 1864, the existing Federal cemeteries were filled--a grisly testament to the savage fighting of the prior three years--and Secretary of War Stanton ordered quartermaster general Montgomery Meigs to find a new site. Meigs immediately chose Lee's Arlington estate. Enraged at Lee's decision to join the rebellion and fight against the Government, Meigs wanted the consequences of the war literally brought home to him. In fact, so bent was he on symbolic vengeance, Meigs became enraged when he visited the site and found that the first graves were being dug at a discreet distance from the mansion house, in a secluded wood formerly used a slave burial site. Meigs ordered twenty-six coffins interred in a ring around Mrs. Lee's rose garden. Later, a tomb for the unknown Union dead was erected in the middle of that garden.
Lee never expressed any bitterness over these losses or the Government's usage of his estate. But his wife was not as forbearing: "I learn," she said in 1866, "that my garden laid out with so much taste by my dear father's own hands has all been changed, the splendid forest leveled to the ground, the small enclosure allotted to his and my mother's remains surrounded closely by the graves of those who aided to bring all this ruin on the children and country. They are even planted up to the very door without any regard to common decency....Even savages would have spared that place...yet they have done everything to debase and desecrate it." The estate was never returned to "the rightful heir" but remains a national burial ground.