Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

Chapter XVIII: Mrs. R. E. Lee: relics belonging to Mrs. Lee's family

The Document

When my mother hurriedly left her home in the spring of 1861, she found it impossible to carry away the valuable relics of General Washington which her father had inherited from Mount Vernon, and which had been objects of great interest at Arlington for more than fifty years. After the Federal authorities took possession of the place, the most valuable of these Mount Vernon relics were conveyed to Washington City and placed in the Patent Office, where they remained on exhibition for many years labelled "Captured from Arlington." They were then removed to the "National Museum," where they are now, but the card has been taken off. In 1869, a member of Congress suggested to my mother that she should apply to President Johnson to have them restored to her. In a letter from my father to this same gentleman, this bit of quiet humour occurs:

"Lexington, Virginia, February 12, 1869.

"...Mrs. Lee has determined to act upon your suggestion and apply to President Johnson for such of the relics from Arlington as are in the Patent Office. From what I have learned, a great many things formerly belonging to General Washington, bequeathed to her by her father, in the shape of books, furniture, camp equipage, etc., were carried away by individuals and are now scattered over the land. I hope the possessors appreciate them and may imitate the example of their original owners, whose conduct must at times be brought to their recollection by these silent monitors. In this way they will accomplish good to the country...."

He refers to this same subject in a letter to the honourable George W. Jones, Dubuque, Iowa:

"...In reference to certain articles which were taken from Arlington, about which you inquire, Mrs. Lee is indebted to our old friend Captain James May for the order from the present administration forbidding their return. They were valuable to her as having belonged to her great-grandmother (Mrs. General Washington), and having been bequeathed to her by her father. But as the country desires them, she must give them up. I hope their presence at the capital will keep in the remembrance of all Americans the principles and virtues of Washington...."

To the Honourable Thomas Lawrence Jones, who endeavoured to have the order to restore the relics to Mrs. Lee executed, the following letter of thanks was written:

"Lexington, Virginia, March 29, 1869.

"Honourable Thomas Lawrence Jones,

"Washington City, District of Columbia.

"My Dear Sir: I beg to be allowed to tender you my sincere thanks for your efforts to have restored to Mrs. Lee certain family relics in the Patent Office in Washington. The facts related in your speech in the House of Representatives on the 3d inst., so far as known to me, are correct, and had I conceived the view taken of the matter by Congress I should have endeavoured to dissuade Mrs. Lee from applying for them. It may be a question with some whether the retention of these articles is more 'an insult,' in the language of the Committee on Public Buildings, 'to the loyal people of the United States,' than their restoration; but of this I am willing that they should be the judge, and since Congress has decided to keep them, she must submit. However, her thanks to you, sir, are not the less fervent for your kind intercession in her behalf, and with highest regards, I am, with great respect,

"Your obedient servant,

"R. E. Lee."

Washington's opinion of this transaction, if it could be obtained, would be of interest to many Americans! [These relics were restored to the family in 1903 by the order of President McKinley.]

Next: Chapter XIX: Lee's Letters to His Sons

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How to cite this article

Lee, Robert E. jr., The Recollections & Letters of Robert E. Lee,, webpage created by Rickard, J (8 June 2006),

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