FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 30, 2007
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Robert E. Lee Papers Available To Public in VHS Library
Mary Custis Lee Trunk Contents Have Drawn Numerous Visitors
Richmond, VA – The Virginia Historical Society (VHS) is known for its rare and nationally significant collections, but those collections recently enjoyed a major addition. For the past three years, VHS archivists have been inventorying and cataloging the contents of two wooden trunks found at Burke & Herbert Bank & Trust Company in Alexandria, Va. in 2002. These trunks, discovered by Robert E. L. deButts, Jr. and E. Hunt Burke, contained letters, legal papers, journals, travel souvenirs, financial records, and smaller artifacts that were collected by Mary Custis Lee, the eldest daughter of Civil War General Robert E. Lee.
The VHS, which has been selected by the heirs of Mary Custis Lee as stewards of this collection, added these previously unknown items to what is already the largest holding of Lee family papers in any single repository. And, to the delight of many Civil War and Lee historians, the VHS made the majority of the collection available to researchers through the Society's library reading room on May 31, 2007.
"We have had numerous calls and visits from graduate students, historians, authors, and the general public," Frances Pollard, Director of Library Services, said. "Some people are inquiring about specific information or manuscripts concerning Arlington Cemetery, Mary Custis Lee's travel papers, or particular Civil War battles, but sometimes people are excited if they can just see one letter in the collection."
Since his death, researchers have lamented that Robert E. Lee never wrote a memoir. But, as author Elizabeth Brown Pryor revealed May 24th during her Banner Lecture at the VHS, this collection contains numerous letters and notes in the hand of Robert E. Lee reflecting on his long career. Pryor, who was granted access to selected portions of the collection found at Burke & Herbert Bank before processing at the Society began, spoke about her recently published book, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through his Private Letters. In her book, Pryor explores the thoughts and actions of Robert E. Lee largely through his own words—some of which were derived from the newly released papers at the VHS—focusing on Lee's religious beliefs, his views on slavery, his father, his days at West Point, and his decision to join the South during the Civil War.
"Releasing details about Mary Custis Lee's trunks and the collection in conjunction with Pryor's lecture just seemed like perfect timing," said VHS Senior Archivist Lee Shepard. "The Society would like to develop educational programs and exhibitions using the Lee papers by 2011 to help commemorate the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War."
Examples of materials found in the Mary Custis Lee trunks include: a 1694 letterbook copy of a note from John Custis II; accounts from the 1760s and 1770s kept by George Washington concerning the his step-children; an 1824 letter from George Washington Parke Custis, the builder of Arlington House; an 1860 letter to Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, from Robert E. Lee concerning relations between Mexico and the United States; an 1872 letter from former Arlington House slave Selina Gray to Mary Randolph Custis Lee; a list of 266 African American slaves owned by John Parke Custis in 1766; and an 1863 order from Robert E. Lee, in his own hand, announcing the death of Civil War General Stonewall Jackson.
Pollard said that because visitors can see and touch the pieces, it makes Robert E. Lee seem alive and present, more like a human being. One woman was so touched when she read a letter written by Lee to his daughter, she had tears in her eyes. "This is the most excitement I have ever seen about a VHS collection. I think people know how significant this find is."
To learn more about the Mary Custis Lee collection at the VHS, visitors may search the online catalog at www.vahistorical.org, or call the library at (804) 342-9677. Elizabeth Pryor's book, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through his Private Letters, is available for sale through the Museum Shop and may be ordered by phone at (866) 459-3669.
The Virginia Historical Society is located at 428 N. Boulevard. The Story of Virginia, An American Experience, a 10,000-square-foot exhibition with more than a thousand objects covering all of Virginia history from prehistoric
times to the present is featured in the Robins Center for Virginia History. Hours: Monday-Saturday 10am - 5pm
and Sunday 1pm - 5pm (Museum Galleries only). Admission: $5/adults, $4/seniors 55+ ($2/Tuesdays–galleries
only), $3/children and students, free/members. Admission to the galleries is free on Sundays. For group tour
information, call (804) 342-9652. For more information, please call (804) 358-4901 or visit