Mary Custis Lee unpacks the Washington relics: a revolutionary inheritance in museums, 1901-1918

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University of Delaware
Mary Custis Lee (1835-1918), General Robert E. Lee’s eldest daughter and a descendant of Martha Washington, offered George Washington’s military tents for sale to benefit the Home for Needy Confederate Women in Richmond, Virginia in 1906. This decision exemplifies how Lee mobilized her inheritance to preserve her family’s private history and make its legacy accessible to a national audience. The tents were part of a group of household items known to her family as the “Mount Vernon relics,” confiscated by Union military occupants at Arlington House in 1861, displayed in the United States Patent Office and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum from 1862 to 1901 and inherited by Mary Custis Lee when President McKinley restored the relics to the Lee family in 1901. Between 1901 and 1918, Lee simultaneously managed, promoted, exhibited and interpreted the Washington relics in ways that presaged modern museum work. This collaborative project required Lee to repurpose two travel trunks and create a personal archive to house the Washington, Custis and Lee family records, which set historic precedents for her engagement with museums and historical institutions. She added correspondence, diaries, souvenirs and ephemera to the collection of family papers (1694-1917), all of which compose the Mary Custis Lee Papers at Virginia Historical Society. This thesis uses the trunks and their contents, discovered in Lee’s bank vault in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2002, as a fundamental starting point for mapping Lee’s social networks in Richmond; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; New Orleans and many international destinations. Addressing Mary Custis Lee’s previously untold biography, this thesis studies her papers and objects to tell her story using a material culture framework. Retracing Lee’s work to unpack family heirlooms offers new information about selected Washington relics’ provenance. Her experiences as a tourist, participation in commemorative events, strategic interactions with American museums and targeted dispersal of the relics impacted how and why today’s visitors can view historic artifacts interpreted as George Washington’s belongings, once considered eighteenth-century relics to a nineteenth-century public. Mary Custis Lee’s convictions about her revolutionary inheritance and these objects’ cultural relevance to distinct institutions transformed the collective understanding of her family’s heritage in American memory.