Ann Hill Carter Lee

Ann Hill Carter Lee of Shirley

Even generals have mums. Robert E. Lee’s mother is perhaps the most well-known. Her name was Ann Hill Carter Lee. Unfortunately, if you remember anything about her, you remember she was a “great invalid,” as described in 19th-century literature. This is an unfortunate and outdated term. She was always valid whether healthy or sick. In fact, there is much more to her story than her illness.

The Shirley Plantation is privately owned.

Ann Hill Carter was the second child of Charles Carter and his second wife, Anne Butler Moore. She was born March 26, 1773. She grew up at Shirley Plantation, Charles City, Virginia.  Her family and friends called her “Nancy.” She had delicate “brunette beauty, with olive skin, dark hair and eyes.”[1] She was an accomplished chess player and known for her “grave humor” and “beautiful singing voice.”[2]  She played the piano and harpsichord. Her lineage included the most notable families in Virginia’s colonial history: Carter, Hill, Moore, and Spotswood.

On June 18, 1793, Ann Hill Carter married the infamous and dashing Revolutionary War cavalryman, Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee.[3] The couple’s marriage resembled an ill-fated, contemporary pop-star relationship. Ann knew her husband didn’t love her, yet she believed she could win his heart. To her credit, she quickly saw the futility. She realized  “in the short space of a fortnight that her affections were trampled on by a heartless & depraved profligate. . . One fortnight was her dream of happiness from which she awoke to a life of misery. . . She was despised & neglected.”[4] It was clear Harry was seeking out the pleasure of other women—the salacious news spread throughout the Virginia gentry.[5]

The Lees, nevertheless, remained married and began having children. Algernon Sydney was born 1795 and died one year later. Charles Carter was born in 1798.  He was named after his maternal grandfather. The family nicknamed him “Carter”.[6] Anne Kinloch was born two years later in 1800.[7] Their next child was Sydney “Smith”, born 1802.[8]

Robert Edward entered the world at Stratford Hall, Virginia, on January 19, 1807. His mother named him after her brothers, “Robert and Edward Carter, of Shirley.”[9] Catherine “Mildred” came along last in 1811. You guessed it. Mildred was named after one of Ann’s sisters. Mildred was born in Alexandria, Virginia, shortly after Ann moved the family to northern Virginia.[10] Harry tagged along. He wasn’t much help. He was either focused on writing his memoirs or off on some “quixotic pursuit of happiness.”[11] He finally left the family in 1813.

Making matters more difficult, Ann Lee’s father changed his will to safeguard the money from Harry, leaving Ann to rely on several family executors for an allowance.[12] She raised her brood with the help of her two “servants” (slaves) and the many relatives in Alexandria. For the first time in Ann’s life, she had to budget. She and her little family were now middle-class. It was more difficult for her than her children.

Ann, nonetheless, took care of her children. She assured that her sons and daughters received good educations. She sent her sons to the Carter school at Eastern View, Fauquier County, Virginia. The girls attended a school at Shirley.[13] As an Episcopalian, Ann taught her little ones the Episcopalian catechism. Robert remembered that he learned the catechism before he could even read. The family attended Christ Church (a huge Georgian style building located at 118 N. Washington Street in Alexandria).[14]

As a disciplinarian, a friend said of Ann, “although she was always gentle, she was firm, very resolute and strong.”[15] She stressed the importance of  “self-denial and self-control as well as the strictest economy in all financial concerns.”[16] This meant staying away from gambling or overspending, and paying off “one’s debts [as] a moral obligation.”[17] The code was especially directed toward the boys. Ann hoped they would avoid the financial problems their father had brought upon himself – like when Harry Lee landed in debtor’s prison.[18]

Ann applied the Carter “code of honor” to teach proper societal etiquette to the Lee “young Ladies and Gentlemen.”[19] Excessive drinking was discouraged. It was a habit in which their father indulged and contributed to his reckless and disloyal ways. Ann often told her children, “one glass of wine after dinner might be properly indulged in, for its social & hygean [sic] effects. That sometimes two might not be objectionable, but for the third — look for my ghost in it, warning you against it.”[20] Smith and Robert followed their mother’s advice. Carter liked to drink.[21] Even though he didn’t listen to his mom about drinking, he loved and respected her, as did his siblings.

There was more to Ann Carter Lee than just religious mandates and family codes. She shared her magnetism, sense of humor, and tact with her children. Before she fell ill, one cousin described her as “always cheerful and dignified.”[22] Carter similarly recalled that his mother displayed grace and subtle humor in her younger years.[23] She was a fun mom. He fondly remembered that she “built & stock[ed]” a hen house for him and his sister.[24]

Last, but certainly not least, Ann gave her children a family. Family was everything to her. She ensured that her children had a strong bond with their cousins. During the summers, she took her five wee ones for extended stays at one of their relatives’ plantations. Robert recounted these trips. He and his siblings played with their cousins. They fished, hunted, or chased the hounds on foot.[25] These prolonged visits ingrained in her children an important fact. They weren’t just “Lees.” They were Carters, Hills, Moores, Spotswoods, Fitzhughs, etc… In reminiscing about these trips and his mother, Robert recalled he “owed everything to his mother.”[26] To all the great mums, thank you and Happy Mother’s Day!

Map drawn by author

[1] Ethel Armes, Stratford Hall, The Great House of the Lees.  Richmond, VA: Garrett and Massie Incorporated, 268 and 276 found at

[2] Sanborn, 11. For accomplished chess player see Armes, 300.

[3] His nickname is also seen as “Light-horse” Harry or Light-horse Harry. Henry Lee conducted insurgency warfare in South Carolina during the American Revolution. I’ll try and write a blog on him for father’s day.

[4] Letter to Maria Bryd Farley found in Mary Boykin Chestnut, Mary Chestnut’s Civil War, ed. C. Van Woodward (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 115–16.

[5] Sanborn, 13.

[6] Nagel, 195.

[7] Anne Kinloch suffered from a “serious affliction of the hand and arm”. Armes, 331.

[8] Smith arrived unexpectedly while Henry and Ann were traveling.  A family named “Smith” provided the couple shelter while she gave birth to their second son, Ibid., 297 and Nagel, 196.

[9] Mason, 21.

[10] Edmund Jennings Lee, Lee of Virginia, 1642–1892 (Philadelphia, PA: Franklin Printing Co., 1895), 342, 404, 408, 412.

[11] Sanborn, 31 and 48.

[12] Ann’s father was Charles Carter. William Fitzhugh of Chatham was Charles Carter’s nephew and one of Ann Lee’s executors.  See biography of William Fitzhugh,  For Charles Carter’s will see William Glover Stanard, ed., 382.


[13] Freeman, R. E. Lee, vol. 1, 30.

[14] For Robert remembering to learn catechism, see Pryor, 25 and CCL, “My Boyhood,” CCL-LoV.  For more on Lee family, see Judith White McGuire, General Robert E. Lee, the Christian Soldier (Richmond, VA: Woodhouse & Parhnam, 1872), 19.

[15] Armes, 276.

[16] Mason, 22.  Armes, 354.  See also, Freeman, R. E. Lee, vol. 1, 23.

[17] Sanborn, 21.

[18] Henry Lee went to debtors prison in 1809.

[19] Ann Lee to Charles Carter, July 1816, Armes, 356. Freeman, R. E. Lee, vol. 1, 23.

[20] Armes, 268 and 276.

[21] Carter graduated second in Harvard and became a lawyer.

[22] A. L. Long, 26.

[23] Pryor, 26.  See Charles Carter Lee, “My Boyhood,” CCL – Library of Virginia.

[24] Armes, 300.

[25] For reference to Chatham, see Dabney H. Maury, Recollections of a Virginian in the Mexican, Indian, and Civil Wars (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894), 3.  For Ravensworth, see Armes, 301–02 and 388.  For Stratford, see letter from Robert E. Lee to Miss Mattie Ward, May 28, 1866, in Jones, Life and Letters, 27.  For these visits, see Emily Virginia Mason, Popular Life of Gen. Robert Edward Lee, 2nd ed. (Baltimore, MD: John Murphy and Co., 1874), 23.  See also for visits, Long, Memoirs, 16–7.

[26] J. William Jones, Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of General Robert E. Lee (New York: D. Appleton and Company,1875), 366.


4 Responses to Ann Hill Carter Lee

  1. Thanks JoAnna — great piece on Mother’s Day … Allan Guelzo does a nice job of recounting their relationship in his recent bio of Lee … the devoted mother and dutiful son.

  2. You’ve confused the definition of “invalid” here. In the context you quote invalid (in-va-lid) describes someone who is physically impaired due to illness or injury not their worth as a person.

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