The lady aristocrat who was raised in such privilege was Ann Hill Carter, granddaughter of the colonial magnate of Virginia “King Carter.” The washed up soldier she married was Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee of Revolutionary War fame. Their fifth child was Robert Edward Lee. The Academy where he excelled was West Point.
Less than two years after the death of his mother, Robert E. Lee married socialite Mary Anna Randolph Custis. All of the tragedies of his parents were behind him and the young couple looked forward to life with faith and optimism. They spent much of their first years living with her parents at Arlington, the mansion Mary’s father had built as a memorial to his adopted father, George Washington.
Since Robert was in the military, he was frequently relocated. Sometimes Mary, or “May” as he called her, went with him. And sometimes, she remained with family. She was very devoted to family.
However, Mary was also an educated lady who studied several languages and read the newspaper every day. She was socially aware and strongly opposed slavery. She followed her mother’s footsteps in working to educate black children wherever she was stationed.
Mary was a gifted artist. Some of her paintings are displayed today at Arlington. She actually had many talents, but she also had been somewhat spoiled as the only surviving child of her illustrious parents. It was difficult for her to adjust to the hard work of running a household on her own – and one with 7 children and a husband who was frequently absent.
However, Mary was extremely industrious and generous. She found ways to reach out to anyone in need. When her husband was working as a superintendent at his alma mater West Point, she looked out for the young cadets. In later years, during the Civil War, she organized groups to knit hundreds of pairs of socks to send to soldiers. She always found needs that she could somehow minister to.
But Mary’s life had taken an unexpected turn. Shortly after the birth of her second child, Mary became gravely ill. She was plagued with the pain, swelling, and stiffness of what we call today Rheumatoid Arthritis.
She was never able to walk properly again. Periodically, her health would improve. However, the symptoms would return and her condition would worsen. (It was the same pattern of flares and remissions which is familiar to many dear readers of this blog.)
In 1857, Lee returned home from an assignment in Texas in response to an urgent message. His famous father in law, George Washington Parke Custis, had died and Lee was needed to execute the estate. When he arrived at Arlington, he was shocked to see for himself the dramatic changes in his delicate bride.
People said of Lee: Never was a man so changed and so saddened. Robert had seen this before. He recognized that Mary’s condition mirrored that of his beloved mother Ann. He knew what Mary’s future held. Lee grieved: I have no enjoyment in life now but what I derive from my children.
Robert was no pessimist. However, he had intimate knowledge of the suffering which his beloved would endure. Together they often went to visit the “curing waters” of the mineral springs of Virginia. They lived out their lives in the midst of the painful Rheumatism. Mary moved about with great difficulty, using wheel chairs and canes.
Mary had five more children and continued her life of service to others. The cheerful way she faced her trials impacted many lives. Although frequently bedridden, she believed that every child of God is useful to him, saying, “There is no such thing as an indolent Christian!”
Her response to her disability even influenced Mary’s legendary husband. Her example was one of constant submission to the will of God. She relied upon God’s arms to bear her up in her constant pain and frequent deprivation of two wars. She wrote,
“I do not improve at all in walking & have to be lifted in & out of carriage by 2 men & the physicians do not give me hope that I shall be any better – sad it is – not to renounce all hope. I can only pray & strive for submission to God’s holy will.”
Lee biographers have acknowledged the influence of both Ann and Mary upon his character. They taught him how to practice contentment in the face of grave disappointment. Douglas S. Freeman stated, “The man who was to order Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg got part of his preparation for war by nursing sick women.”
Much of our mystery is revealed today, yet part remains. What connection is there between the Lee story and yours truly?