Saturday, June 3, 2023

Mary Custis Lee


Quilt in collection of Arlington House, National Park Service Museum

Collection: Virginia Historical Society
Sketch of Arlington House, 1862
Robert Knox Sneden diary
Visitors to Mary Custis Lee's Arlington House at Arlington National Cemetery may notice quilts in the bedrooms of the main house and the slave housing.

Contemporary strip quilt in the slave housing

Like many house museums Arlington House uses reproduction quilts to approximate the living quarters for the historical residents. Their focus is the pre-Civil War years before the Union Army confiscated
the house that Robert E. Lee's wife Mary Custis inherited.

The museum has a collection of quilts from various eras with little information about them. Perhaps I could figure some things out. I thought I'd start with the newer quilts; the red and white quilt below photographed in a bedroom looks 20th century. Would any Arlington women be making quilts in the 20th century?

The red and white color scheme, the quilting design and the patchwork all
look "Early 20th century."

Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee (1807 - 1873)
Auguste Hervieu portrait of Mary
 before her 1838 wedding to Robert E. Lee

Mary Custis Lee (the elder) seems to have made quilts despite a terrible case of rheumatoid arthritis but this one would have been made a generation or two after her death.

Virginia Museum of History & Culture
Mary with Robert E Lee II, About 1845
Mary and Robert had four daughters, none of whom ever married---their father was opposed and their ill mother needed them. Although we know nothing about the quilts at Arlington, we might guess the daughters had a hand in them. This "Hearts & Gizzards" as Ruth Finley called it in 1929, would have to be credited to either Mildred who died in 1905 or Mary who died in 1919. Their sisters died young.

I doubt either Mary or Mildred made the quilt; it looks like the kind of thing that someone thought nice enough for a museum and the curator accepted it years ago before a quilt's history was important.

But it gives us an opportunity to look at the lives of The Girls, as the family called them. The eldest Mary Custis Lee was in her mid-20s when the Civil War began, living at Arlington House. Her father's defection to the Confederate Army resulted in the Union take-over of the family home and Mary and the children scattered to relatives' homes and other family estates.

Heritage Auction
Drawing given to J.E.B. Stuart by Mary C. Lee, 
done in 1854

Despite the itinerant life of an Army officer's daughter Mary received a good education for her time before the war and was apparently talented in art. She and Jeb Stuart were friends until his death. She and all three of her sisters spent time at the Powell Female Seminary in Winchester, Virginia owned by Selina Lloyd Powell and her husband.

Selina Lloyd Powell (1807-1871)
Her school closed when the war began

Selina had long been a friend of the Lee girls' mother (and only because the world is such a small place we find Selena was also actress Katherine Hepburn's great-grandmother.)

The Lee family spent the last years of the war in Richmond living in this house during the fall of the Confederate Capitol and then moving to a donated cottage in the country. The house still stands.

Derwent 50 miles from Richmond

According to family accounts it was NOT "Little Women Confederate Style." Mildred, the youngest did not speak to Mary, the eldest, and Mary's feelings for the rest of her family were apparently similar.

The eldest & youngest sisters lived the longest, not speaking into
the 20th century.

Mildred may have put her finger on the problem, describing her sister in a letter: Mary "is always absorbed in self, first and foremost.”

Mary, described as “strong, but somewhat eccentric character"

After the war Mary put oceans between herself and her sisters, traveling throughout Europe with only occasional trips back to the U.S. On one of those visits in 1902 when she was in her late sixties, Mary was arrested for civil disobedience, sitting with her African-American servant in a train car reserved for Black passengers. She, having lived in Europe where such bigotry was not common, may have done so in ignorance but she refused to move and was arrested and bailed out for $5. She jumped bail.

Gotta hand it to her. But I don't think she had anything to do with the later quilts at the family home. Hearts & Gizzards indeed.

Similar quilt from the 1950s or '60s.

Further Reading: Mary Coulling. The Lee Girls. Winston-Salem: John F. Blair Publisher, 1987.


  1. Very interesting! I am curious why Mr. Lee didn't want the girls to marry, beyond requiring help with Mother and home... Surely that changed when he went to Washington College?

  2. Matty, many rather self-centered people preferred their daughters remain single and living at home because they liked their company or they liked the free servants. King George III comes to mind. There was a tradition that one should remain single to help out but all 4!!!