This Memorial Day, we remember a different kind of war tragedy.
Mary was born in Virginia in 1807, eight years after the death of her famous grandfather. She was lovely and vivacious, could speak Latin and Greek, and single-handedly edited and published her family’s letters. She was pursued by many suitors, including Sam Houston.
But she fell for her second cousin Robert. He was the son of a Revolutionary War hero and so was of equally high standing. Mary and Robert were married at her family’s home just outside Washington in 1831. Though Robert was a military man and often away from home, they had seven children, whom Mary raised and educated mostly on her own. In her spare time, she painted landscapes of her property and worked in her rose garden.
But then, in 1861, the nation went to war. Robert was called up as a military adviser, and later led his country’s entire army. Fearing for Mary’s safety, he sent her to Richmond. Off she went, suffering from acute rheumatoid arthritis and the terrifying prospect of never seeing her home again.
Her fears were well-founded. In 1863, Mary sent agents to Washington to pay the taxes due on her land. But the federal government rejected the payment, on the dubious grounds that the property-owner needed to deliver the money in person. As a result, in January of 1864, Mary was informed that all was lost; her family home had been confiscated.
After the war, with nowhere else to go, Mary and Robert moved to Lexington. By this time, Mary was an invalid, confined to a wheelchair. But in 1873, she declared, “I do not think I can die in peace until I have seen it once more.” She had her servants carry her to her carriage, so she could be driven back to the place where she was born, was married and where she had raised her family.
When she arrived, she barely recognized the place. All but the main building had been destroyed. Much of the landscaping had been uprooted to make way for a massive military cemetery. In the place where she had once tended her roses stood a stone crypt holding the remains of 1,800 men killed in the Battle of Bull Run.
Mary was shattered. She returned to Lexington, broken-hearted, and died a few months later. She was buried on the campus of a college named for her grandfather, George Washington, and her husband, Robert E. Lee. Her full name was Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee.
And as for the home she lost? Today, there are over a quarter of a million people buried in her yard. We know it as Arlington National Cemetery.