Thursday, July 12, 2007

Lee Letter Collection Profiled

In what must be one of the most extensive archives-related stories I've ever seen in a mainstream newspapers, the Washington Post has a lengthy profile of a letter collection just opened for research at the Virginia Historical Society. The 4,000-item cache of letters, ephemera and documents was collected by Mary Custis Lee, the eldest daughter of Gen. Robert E. Lee. The collection, stored in two steamer trunks, was forgotten from 1917, when they were stored in a vault at Burke & Herbert Bank & Trust in Alexandria (VA), until 2002, when a bank administrator found them.

A Lee descendant, Rob E.L. deButts Jr., brought the documents to the Virginia Historical Society and sifted through the jumbled mess; archivist Lee Shepard told the Post "He'd pull out a pile of her postcards and then he'd pull out something from the Colonial period and then he'd pull out letters from Robert E. Lee. There was no rhyme or reason to it. She was the unofficial family historian, but she was also a bit of a pack rat."

"A few weeks ago, Shepard opened the Mary Custis Lee papers to the public. It's a strange and eclectic collection. There are postcards that Mary Custis Lee gathered in Paris, Egypt and Atlanti City. And a fan she picked up in China. And a dried rose she plucked in a garden in Khartoum. There's a list of 266 slaves owned by one of her ancestors in 1766. And an account book kept by her mother's step-great-grandfather, George Washington. There's a handful of letters her father wrote to her during the Civil War. And another collection of letters that illuminate - but do not quite solve - the mystery of how Robert E. Lee's daughter happened to be arrested in Alexandria in 1902 for refusing to leave the black section of a trolley car."

Historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor examined the collection for her book Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through his Private Letters," published this spring. She says one portion of the collection was particularly fascinating: letters between Robert E. Lee and his future wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis. These letters - which have not yet been made public - "'sparkle with sexuality, and with an impatient young man who hates his boss,' Pryor says. 'Again, it's a very different person from this rather austere image that we've had. One of the great things about all these letters is that he had a great sense of humor, a laughing-out-loud-in-the-library sense of humor.'"

Peter Carlson's Post article goes through some more high spots of the collection, so I recommend reading the whole thing, which is nicely done and, frankly, much appreciated.

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