Born on October 1, 1808, Mary Anna Randolph Custis was the only surviving child of Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis and George Washington Parke Custis, who was George Washington’s step-grandson. Mary Anna was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. She enjoyed all the benefits of growing up in a wealthy family, and spent most of her time at Arlington, which her father built in honor of George Washington.
Mary had many suitors, and received a marriage proposal from Sam Houston. The man who stole her heart, however, was her second cousin, Robert Edward Lee, whom she had known since childhood. They were married at Arlington on June 30. 1831. Robert had already become an established military man, so he brought Mary with him to West Point. It wasn’t long before she gave birth to a boy, and over the course of several years, bore two more sons and four daughters. She was fluent in four languages, and was an avid painter, author, and horticulturalist, propagating eleven rose varieties in her garden at Arlington. Mary was also deeply religious, and as her rheumatoid arthritis progressed, she accepted it as the will of God. She inherited Arlington after her father passed away in 1857, and two years later, published his memoirs, which she entitled “Recollections.” She included an editor’s note stressing the urgency of reconciliation between northern and southern states, as the approaching Civil War seemed imminent.
Following Virginia’s secession, Mary’s sons enlisted, and Robert resigned from his position with the U.S. military to serve under the newly-formed Confederate States of America. He traveled to Richmond, but Mary remained at Arlington until May, when she received word that Union soldiers were crossing the Potomac from Washington to seize her estate. Reluctantly, she departed, believing that the move was only temporary. How strange she must have felt knowing that she, the descendant of George Washington, was now the enemy. She traveled to different family-owned plantations until the encroaching Yankees forced her to retreat to Richmond. Once there, she set up housekeeping at several locations, all the while diligently knitting socks and mittens for her husband and his soldiers, despite her crippling arthritis.
In 1863, following the Battle of Brandy Station, Mary witnessed the arrest of her wounded son, Rooney, who had been transported to a local plantation home to recuperate under Mary’s care. She found it necessary to travel to hot springs because of her condition, where she learned of the battles at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Once she returned to Richmond in the fall, she busied herself with knitting, even though inflated costs made it difficult for her to obtain yarn, and she was saddened by the loss of a daughter due to typhoid fever. Rooney’s two children and his frail wife also succumbed to disease.
During the war, she rarely saw her husband or sons. While her daughters attended services at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on April 2, 1865, they observed as President Davis was called away, and learned afterward that General Lee’s forces had fallen back: Richmond was being evacuated. Mary, however stubborn, refused to leave, and watched from her window as residents scrambled to get out before the Yankees invaded. Following a still quiet, bummers entered the city, looting, cursing, and setting fires. Still, Mary resiliently held tight. Union forces soon appeared, restoring order, and a sentry was placed at her door for protection. Out of the goodness of her heart, she sent down a breakfast tray every morning to the weary soldier who stood outside her door. It wasn’t long before she learned that her husband had surrendered his army. Robert, along with their sons, returned home soon afterward.
Once the war ended, Robert received many job offers, finally accepting the position as president of Washington College in Lexington. By December, Mary joined him. They spent many happy years together until the summer of 1870, when Robert caught a cold that aggravated the angina he’d developed seven years earlier. He died on October 12, and was buried in a crypt beneath the campus chapel. Mary did not attend the funeral.
Bedridden for a month, her health finally improved. She was allowed to remain at what was renamed Washington and Lee College, since her son, Custis, had been elected to succeed his father. In 1872, she filed a petition with the Judiciary Committee of Congress to receive payment for Arlington, but her request was denied. Meanwhile, her arthritis had grown so bad that she could no longer sew, so she painted and sold tinted photographs of herself, Robert, and George and Martha Washington, donating the proceeds to charity. The following year, she toured Virginia, where her travels brought her back to her beloved Arlington. Appalled by the desecration, she remained in the carriage as old servants ran out to greet her. Grand trees that had once stood on the property had been reduced to stumps, and headstones cluttered the lawn. She returned to Alexandria, and continued her charity work. In October, her daughter, Agnes, died, which broke Mary’s heart. The loss was too much for her: on November 5, 1873, she, too, passed away. Per her request, she was entombed in the basement of the college chapel next to her husband.
(In 1874, Custis took up his mother’s crusade to obtain Arlington and won. Because the house was surrounded by a cemetery, he immediately sold it to the U.S. Government. Ownership was transferred to the National Park Service in 1933. Eventually, all of the Lee children’s remains were moved to the Lee Chapel.)