After 84 years in solitary darkness, they emerged into the light of the 21st century. But they were not only of the 20th century. Their message harkened to the 19th century and the emotional desolation only a civil war can bring.
"They" are the two steamer trunks that were carried from the basement vault of Burke and Herbert Bank and Trust Co. this past Monday morning in Alexandria after languishing there since 1918. They contained the letters and personal journals of Mary Custis Lee, the last surviving child of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
In the autumn of 1918, just before the end of World War I, she took up residence at the Homestead Hotel, Hot Springs, Va. There she died on Nov. 22, 1918, at 83, just 11 days after the armistice concluding "the war to end all wars."
War was a phenomenon with which she was intimately acquainted. It had not only cost her and her family its heritage but also transformed her into one of the most elusive of American history's patronesses. The letters and journals in the dual trunks may now start to lift the veil of this daughter of history — past, present and even the future.
Their re-emergence all started with a phone call from one old school buddy to another. Robert E. Lee deButts Jr., the great-great-nephew of Mary Custis Lee, called his former Episcopal Academy classmate, E. Hunt Burke, senior vice president of the bank, to inquire whether there where two trunks of his aunt's in the attic of the bank.
IT SEEMS LEE FAMILY history indicated that this most individualized member of the old South had placed the trunks with the bank for safekeeping prior to her repose at the Homestead. And safekeeping they did receive — 84 years’ worth.
"I was doing some research on her and contacted Hunt, since I knew she banked here. I asked if they had any records from that period since I heard they might be in the attic of the bank," deButts explained.
"He asked if there were any records indicating if the trunks were at the bank,” Burke said. "I knew the bank didn't have an attic, so I went to the basement, down into the old silver vault. And sure enough, there were these two old trunks. Then we had to find the keys."
DeButts found it "amazing the trunks were still here. But it's even more amazing I could get directly through to Hunt in this day and age."
A native Alexandrian, deButts is now a lawyer living and practicing in New York City and far removed from the personal service that is a hallmark of the Alexandria institution.
"Rob came down from New York this summer, and we opened them. I had a video camera to record it, so there would be no question of anything missing," Burke recalled. "It was great to have him here because he could identify a lot of the people and places in the pictures."
THERE WERE NEWSPAPER items as old as the 1790s, a child's primer, and pictures of her father, according to Burke. "Rob's knowledge didn't surprise me. He was probably the smartest kid in our class at Episcopal. When he spoke, others would shut up because he would think first. A rare thing for boys of that age," he said.
On opening the trunks, Burke and deButts found a treasure trove of personal correspondence and journals written and received by this oldest daughter of the former superintendent of West Point and general of the Army of Northern Virginia. They have now been donated to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond for analysis and preservation.
But as in most discoveries of this nature, the end of the story is only the beginning of another story — a circle within a circle. Or as Winston Churchill was once described, an enigma wrapped in a contradiction. Who was Mary Custis Lee?
SHE WAS BORN in 1835, one of seven children born to Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Custis, in what was then know as Arlington House. It is now known as the Custis Lee Mansion and serves as the primary headstone for Arlington National Cemetery.
Mary Lee Custis began her life in luxury, surrounded by a rich national heritage and a strong family birthright. This all disintegrated with the Civil War, the seceding of Virginia from the Union, and her father's role as the central figure of the Confederacy.
She outlived her three sisters and established an independence that had eluded her home state and her famous father. Even in death she maintained that individual spirit when she made detailed arrangements for her own cremation, a practice not followed at that time in this place. This decision, as she explained in her will, was due to her "lifelong horror of being boxed up in a coffin."
But she did bow to convention by having her ashes interred, along with her father, mother and other family in Lexington. However, even then, she laid down the terms. They were to be placed in a "marble or alabaster urn," which was to be inscribed with her name, date of birth and the inscription "The last surviving child of General Robert E. Lee."
TRUE TO HER independent spirit, she alone among the general's daughters left a will. It was sensible and balanced, a tribute to her practicality, pride in her heritage, and family loyalty.
In it she divided her estate of $156,000 among relatives, churches, charities, educational and historic organizations. The only two specific institutions to which she made substantial bequests were the R.E. Lee Episcopal Church, built in memory of her father, and Christ Church in Alexandria, which she identified as "the church of my parents and grandparents and of my own childhood." Each received $10,000.
Perhaps no other incident in her life best capsulizes her staunch independence and determined will than one that occurred in Alexandria on June 13, 1902. It also involved the movement of some of her luggage, as reported in the Gazette the next day.
While taking a trolley from the District of Columbia to Alexandria, Miss Lee had taken a seat in a section of the trolley "reserved for colored people" supposedly because there was more room for her "heavy traveling case and several other bundles."
Upon crossing the Long Bridge and entering Virginia, the conductor informed her that she had to move to the section of the coach "reserved for white people" because there was a separate-seat law in Virginia. She, in turn, informed him "that all other seats were taken" and "she was situated in regard to the moving of her heavy baggage."
After several more attempts by the conductor to persuade her to move, he sent a telephone message to the City, and when the trolley reached Payne Street, she was arrested and then released on her own recognizance after posting bail of five dollars. She was ordered to appear at 10 a.m. the next morning in police court.
"Miss Lee averred that she knew nothing of the new law regarding the separation of the races," according to the Gazette. She declined to appear and left for Ravenworth, the family estate in Fairfax, the next day, forfeiting the bail. She was 67 at the time.
Mayor Simpson continued with the hearing regardless "for the benefit of the electric railway company in order that they could be set right before the community. ... Mayor Simpson ... said the conductor had performed his duty ... and had he acted otherwise, he would have been fined himself," the Gazette reported.
ONE OF THE ITEMS FOUND in the trunks was a letter from Mary Custis Lee's mother, Mary Anna, to members of the U.S. Congress seeking their aid in the return of items that had been pillaged from Arlington House during the War. Perhaps their response is among the other documents.
The answer to that and many other questions is now in the hands of the Virginia Historical Society. But for the last 84 years, there were two more links between Alexandria, American history, and Burke and Herbert Bank and Trust Co. maintaining a silent vigil in the silver vault. Maybe the vault should be renamed in line with the old saying, "Silence is golden."