Mary Anna Randolph Custis was born on October 1, 1808, the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis and Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis. George Washington Parke Custis was the son of George Washington's step-grandson and adopted son, John Parke Custis and Eleanor Calvert Custis. John Parke Custis was the son of Martha Dandridge and Daniel Parke Custis. Daniel Parke Custis died leaving his wealthy widow and two children. Martha Dandridge Custis then married the famous George Washington, first President of the United States! Martha had 4 children with her first husband (only 2 survived to adulthood) but she and George did not have children. George Washington adopted and raised her two children. So Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee was the great granddaughter of Martha Dandridge Custis Washington and George Washington. She was raised at Arlington House, Alexandria, VA built by her father, George Washington Parke Custis. He inherited a fortune from his father, John Parke Custis, including the plantation property that Arlington House was built on.
Robert Edward Lee was Mary Anna Custis' third cousin and they knew each other all their lives, playing together as children. They married in 1831 at Arlington House.
Mary Anna Custis Lee was well educated and well read. She was vivacious and a gracious hostess. She painted landscapes like her father and was an avid gardener. She especially loved roses and she chose the bedroom that overlooked her flower garden for her master bedroom after she married Robert E. Lee. She inherited her father's assets upon his death in 1857. She took on the job of editing and publishing her father's memoirs, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington by His Adopted Son, George Washington Parke Custis, with a Memoir of the Author by His Daughter, published in 1860. The Lees usually attended Christ Church in Alexandria—the same church that both Mary and Robert had attended in their childhood. Mary followed the Custis family tradition of having family prayers after breakfast and each evening in the family parlor. Robert was confirmed in the Episcopal Church at the age of 46. Following the example of her mother, Mary Lee taught Arlington slave women to sew, read and write. At the time, educating slaves was illegal! Advocating the idea of eventual emancipation, Mary wanted to ensure that all of the enslaved people would be able to support themselves when they were freed. Lee supported of the work of his wife and her mother to liberate slaves and fund their move to Liberia which was a popular idea at the time and seen as a humane solution for freed slaves.
Robert Edward Lee was born January 19, 1806 or 1807 to Revolutionary War officer Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee III (nicknamed for his excellent horsemanship) and his second wife, Anne Hill Carter at Stratford Hall Plantation in Westmoreland County, VA. Light Horse Harry Lee was a famous Patriot during the American Revolutionary War and a Governor of Virginia. But he spent time in a debtor's prison in 1809. In 1812, Harry Lee was badly injured in a political riot in Baltimore. In time he became so disabled that he traveled to the West Indies for his health. He would never return, dying when his son Robert was eleven years old. It is not known how the relationship between father and son was as Robert E. Lee rarely spoke of his childhood. His mother was left penniless with 6 children and they relied on the kindness of extended family who took in and supported the family.
Anne Lee's family was often supported by a relative named William Henry Fitzhugh, who wrote to Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun, urging that Robert be given an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Fitzhugh wrote little of Robert's academic prowess, dwelling much on the prominence of his family. Robert delivered the letter to John C. Calhoun personally and received his appointment to West Point in 1824. He began attending in 1825. At the time, the focus of the curriculum was engineering and cadets were not permitted leave until they had finished two years of study and were rarely allowed off the Academy grounds. Lee graduated second in his class and did not incur any demerits during his four-year course of study, a distinction shared by five of his 45 classmates. In June 1829, Lee was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. After graduation, while awaiting assignment, he returned to Virginia to find his mother on her deathbed; she died on July 26, 1829.
Robert Edward Lee served with great distinction in the U.S. Army. In 1852, Lee was appointed Superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point. He was reluctant to enter the "snake pit", but the War Department insisted and he obeyed. During his 3 years at West Point, Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee improved the buildings and courses and spent much time with the cadets. Lee's oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, attended West Point during his tenure. Custis Lee graduated in 1854, first in his class. Lee was enormously relieved to receive a long-awaited promotion as second-in-command of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Texas in 1855. It meant leaving the Engineering Corps for the combat command he truly wanted.
Robert E. Lee and Mary Anna Custis had seven children: George Washington Custis "Boo" Lee, Mary Custis Lee, William Henry Fitzhugh "Rooney" Lee, Anne Carter Lee, Eleanor Agnes Lee, Robert Edward "Rob" Lee Jr., Mildred Childe "Milly" Lee.
Boo, Rooney and Rob all served in the Confederate States of America Army during the War of Northern Aggression. Of the seven children, five remained unmarried. William Henry Fitzhugh Lee and Robert Edward Lee, Jr. married and had surviving children. All the children survived their father except for Anne, who died in 1862 of typhoid fever at the young age of 33.
In 1857, Mary Anna Custis Lee's father, George Washington Parke Custis, died leaving everything to his daughter. This included vast land assets and slaves but little cash. His will stipulated freeing his hundreds of slaves within 5 years of his death.
Lee tried to hire an overseer to handle the plantation in his absence, writing to his cousin, "I wish to get an energetic honest farmer, who while he will be considerate and kind to the negroes, will be firm and make them do their duty." But Lee failed to find a man for the job, and had to take a two-year leave of absence from the army in order to run the plantation himself. The estate was in disarray, and the plantations had been poorly managed and were losing money. At Arlington, the servants had been notoriously indolent [lazy], their master's master. Lee found himself asset rich but cash poor. With memories of his father in debtor's prison and of his childhood spent at the charity of family, Lee struggled to stabilize the family finances within the deadline of five years. But some of the slaves had thought they would be freed upon the death of Custis and didn't understand they had to wait another five years. These slaves began to refuse Lee's orders and defy his authority, even to running away. In May 1858, Lee wrote to his son Rooney, "I have had some trouble with some of the people. Reuben, Parks and Edward, in the beginning of the previous week, rebelled against my authority—refused to obey my orders, and said they were as free as I was, etc., etc.—I succeeded in capturing them and lodging them in jail. They resisted till overpowered and called upon the other people to rescue them." Lee privately wrote to his son Custis that "The N. Y. Tribune has attacked me for my treatment of your grandfather's slaves, but I shall not reply. He has left me an unpleasant legacy." Lee had to deal strongly with a few of them until he set them all free with a deed of manumission filed on December 29, 1862. All his slaves, including the ones who had given him so much trouble, were freed.
On September 28, 1870, Lee suffered a stroke and he died two weeks later. Mary had developed rheumatoid arthritis. It caused her a great deal of pain and she became more and more disabled. She became wheelchair bound in 1861. To help with the pain, Mary and her family often visited spas and springs that were reputed to improve health. In letters to her husband, she tried to downplay her illness, but it took its toll as the years passed. By the 1850s Mary organized her daily routine so that she climbed the stairs only twice each day, coming down in the morning and going back up at bedtime. Upon the outbreak of the war, she was walking with difficulty. No doubt due to in part to her nomadic existence, moving from plantation to plantation, and the stress of not knowing what was happening to her husband and sons.
Following Robert E. Lee's resignation from the U.S. Army on April 22, 1861, he pleaded with Mary to evacuate Arlington House as Union forces were certain to occupy the property. But leaving behind her family home, the Washington relics, and the Arlington slaves was difficult for Mary and she delayed. It was only the knowledge that her husband was so deeply concerned for her safety that convinced her to leave on May 15, 1861. As she wrote in a letter to General Winfield Scott a few days earlier, “Were it not that I would not add one feather to his load of care, nothing would induce me to abandon my home.” Mary and her daughters moved between several family plantations before settling in Richmond where they spent most of the War. Arlington was very important to her and she never quite got over its loss. “Life is waning away, and with the exception of my own immediate family, I am cut off from all I have ever known and loved in my youth and my dear old Arlington I cannot bear to think of that used as it is now and so little hope of my ever getting there again. I do not think I can die in peace until I have seen it once more.”
Mary Lee did visit Arlington a few months before her death in 1873. Unable to get out of the carriage, one of her former slaves, brought her a drink of water from the well. “I rode out to my dear old home but so changed it seemed but a dream of the past—I could not have realised (sic) it was Arlington but for the few old oaks they had spared and the trees planted by the Genl and myself which are raising their tall branches to the Heaven which seems to smile on the desecration around them.”
Sources: Wikipedia articles on Robert Edward Lee, Light Horse Harry Lee, Mary Anna Custis Lee, George Washington Parke Custis, etc. and www.nps.gov/arho/learn/historyculture/mary-lee.htm