R. E. Lee, the father: Great Tickle Fighter and More

R. E. Lee and his second son, Fitzhugh, circa 1845

It’s rare for us to be given a glimpse of a general with his family behind the scenes, rather than as a tough commander. Fortunately, history has left us a book that shows us R. E. Lee, the father. His youngest son, Robert Edward Lee Jr., “Rob”, published a book called Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee.[1] I highly recommend it.

Recollections is really about Lee, the father, husband…and general. R. E. Lee married Mary Ann Randolph Custis in 1831. The couple welcomed seven children: George Washington Custis, “Boo or Custis,” b. 1832, Mary Custis, b. 1835, William Henry Fitzhugh, “Rooney,” b. 1837, Anne Carter, “Annie,” b. 1839, Agnes, b. 1841, Robert Edward Jr., “Rob,” b. 1843, and Mildred, b. 1846. Here are a couple of my favorite stories of Lee, the father.[2]

Mary Ann Randolph Custis Lee

Apparently, the great R. E. Lee, as a 30-something father, loved tickle fights with his younger children. I know! You won’t picture him the same after that revelation. Rob remembered his father “was always bright and gay with us little folk romping playing and joking with us.” He “was very fond of having his hands tickled and what was still more curious it pleased and delighted him to take off his slippers and place his feet in our laps in order to have them tickled.” Okay, it’s more of a tickle capitulation game, but still…

With the older boys, all kinds of sports were a big deal. Lee got right in there with them and showed off his athletic ability. One was a high jump competition. He would challenge his sons and their friends. It wasn’t recorded how high Lee could jump or if he beat the older boys. He most likely participated in some wrestling, foot races, and fishing with the older sons, but these events weren’t recorded.

The family pets also were a big part of the Lee bonding. While Capt, Lee was stationed at Fort Hamilton, New York, around the early 1840s, he rescued a dog and welcomed her into his large family. He named her “Dart.” Turned out, this pup was a good ratter along with one of the family’s cats. This Maltese cat and Dart ate out of the same plate. Yes, the cat ate first, and Dart patiently waited her turn.

Dart later had a pup. The family named him “Spec.” He was a black-and-tan terrier. Lee refused to crop his tail or ears. Spec loved to go to church with the family, but when the younger children became distracted, Lee put his foot down, or so he thought. The next Sunday Lee locked Spec in a room on the second story. Well, Spec wanted to go to church. He jumped out of the second-story window, landed safely, and met his hoomans [sic] as they entered the church. Surprised, Lee appreciated his effort and allowed him into the church to the cheers of the children. Rob recalled: “My father was very fond of him [Spec] and loved to talk to him and about him as if he were really one of us.” Lee, as many know, was fond of all animals, including chickens!

Annie Lee, “Precious Annie”

But not all the memories were happy. Tragedy struck the Lees in October 1862. It was right after the Maryland Campaign. General Lee received noticed that his daughter, “Precious Annie”, had died of typhoid fever.[3] Lee collapsed and sobbed in his tent. He wrote to his wife: “I cannot express the anguish I feel at the death of our sweet Annie. To know that I shall never see her again on earth that her place in our circle which I always hoped one day to enjoy is forever vacant is agonising [sic] in the extreme.”

What most impresses me about Lee is that he didn’t stop being a father and friend to his other children after the loss of Annie. He was a great communicator. He kept writing to his daughters Mary Custis, Agnes, and Mildred and talking about Annie. He even wrote to his sons, Custis, Fitzhugh, and Rob, all who were serving the Confederacy. The letters were personal and heartwarming. On Christmas Day 1862, he wrote to his youngest, Mildred:

“But what a cruel thing is war to separate and destroy families and friends and mar the purest joys and happiness. God has granted us in this world to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbours and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world. I pray that on this day when only peace and good will are preached to mankind better thoughts may fill the hearts of our enemies and turn them to peace.”

Although he wrote as a father, Lee signed all his letters “R. E. Lee” or “Your affectionate father,” or “Your loving father,” R. E. Lee”. I’m not sure if this was a family tradition or a letter writing tradition, maybe one of the readers knows.

Lee House in Lexington, VA

After the war, Lee accepted a job as the president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. It took some time to get a house ready for his wife and daughters. Lee wrote faithfully to his family. To Mildred he wrote:

“LEXINGTON October 29, 1865

“My Precious Life: Your nice letter gave me much pleasure and made me the more anxious to see you. I think [of] you girls, after your mother is comfortable at ‘Bremo’, will have to come up and arrange the house for reception…I do not know what you will do with your chickens unless you take them to ‘Bremo’ and thus bring them here. I suppose Robert would not eat ‘Laura Chilton’ and ‘Don Ella McKay’ [chickens]. Still less would he devour his sister Mildred. I have scarcely gotten acquainted with the young ladies. They look very nice in the walks but I rarely get near them. Traveller is my only companion; I may also say my pleasure. He and I whenever practicable wander out in the mountains and enjoy sweet confidence.”

Mildred Lee, youngest daughter

Mary, his daughters, and Rob finally moved into a home in Lexington, Virginia. Mildred and Lee were close. She loved animals like her father, especially cats and chickens.[4] The house was always a hustle and bustle of people and pets coming and going. The family lived together until Lee passed away on October 12, 1870, with his wife and daughters by his side. Out of all his accomplishments, I think R. E. Lee would want to be remembered first as a loving, fun father, and friend.[5] Happy Father’s Day!

[1] It’s on google books. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Recollections_and_Letters_of_General_Rob/y4QZAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Robert+E.+Lee+Jr&printsec=frontcover. Another excellent primary resource is at Washington and Lee College, the Lee Family Archive. These are online at https://leefamilyarchive.org/history-washington-reference-echols-index/.

[2] Rob refers to Lee as “father.” It doesn’t sound like the children called him “dad” or “pop” or “papa.”

[3] Annie died at Warren White Sulphur Springs in North Carolina. In 1994, she was brought to Lexington, Virginia and laid to rest with the her family.

[4] https://www.nps.gov/arho/learn/historyculture/mildred-lee.htm.

[5] I was going to write a Father’s Day blog on R. E. Lee’s father, Henry Lee III. Then, I got to thinking. Henry wasn’t a good father. He had a lot of demons. One being he had PTSD from fighting in the American Revolution. Henry drank a lot to quiet these demons; however, the drinking compounded his other problems.

8 Responses to R. E. Lee, the father: Great Tickle Fighter and More

  1. Thank you for this wonderful article about R. E. Lee! It’s good to see something positive written about him.

  2. There are a lot of letters from Lee to his family, in good part because he was away on duty for extended periods of time, before the war. I wonder if his open affection for his kids is in due in part from missing parts of their childhood when he was away. A very different, and more attractive than the stereotypical authoritarian Victorian father one encounters elsewhere.

    1. Yes his open affection and being liking to be kid like is due to his missing childhood. Lee had to grow up fast at the age of 10 and became the parent and care taker to his mom. Roll reversal is tough at such a young age. His mom also raised him to reject the stereotype father.

  3. Very good article; “The Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee” offers great insight into Lee outside his military role. But I wonder at the comment that “Light Horse Harry” Lee, his father, suffered from PTSD and was an alcoholic after the Revolution. He did feel strongly about the War and did suffer from failed speculation in land and real estate projects that ultimately impoverished his family, despite being from a first family of Virginia and having married two well-connected ladies, but I have never heard specifically that he was an alcoholic. He does appear to have had ADHD, but that’s not a professional opinion. R.E. Lee spent his post-Civil War years editing his father’s memoirs of his experience in the Revolution, “The Revolutionary War Memoirs of General Henry Lee”, probably to ensure that Henry Lee’s achievements in the Revolution would not be lost in the debris of his later life. I highly recommend it for a front-seat, first-person window on the Revolution in the South. The current edition has a 1998 introduction by Charles Royster which goes over Henry’s life, ups and downs, and points out the complications from his opposition to Jefferson’s politics and differing takes on the British invasion of Virginia.

    1. As I wrote below, General Lee (the elder) was a victim of a violent attack by an antiwar (1812) mob in Baltimore who beat him severely and murdered a friend of his. He suffered permanent brain damage (and likely PTSD) due to that attack and suffered from it for the rest of his life. I suspect that was a lot more relevant than “alcoholism” and “PTSD from the war”.

  4. I think to some degree, R.E. Lee was always trying to live down his father’s legacy. That may help explain why he sometimes comes down to us as a so-called “marble man.”

  5. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s problems far post-dated the Revolution. He was very much against involvement in the War of 1812 and one day went to Baltimore to support one of his friends who ran a newspaper that was anti-War of 1812 involvement. A terrible antiwar riot took place in the city coincidentally while he was there, and violent elements of the crowd broke into where Lee and his friends were hiding and killed Lee’s friend and beat General Lee to within an inch of his life. Lee suffered permanent brain damage after that.
    This story has always been close to my heart because one of my ancestors served as a judge with Light Horse Harry, in fact my ancestor may have been the judge who placed Lee in debtor’s jail (am still working on researching that). Also, there is a house still standing in Georgetown which belonged to my ancestors, which by crazy coincidence they sold to Lee’s murdered friend (before he was killed, obviously), who I believe was named Lingan.

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