Newspaper gets it wrong about Robert E. Lee

Published 10:01 am Thursday, August 27, 2009

I fear you have been had. On Aug. 1, you published a “Historical Fact” describing in two parts (the second published August 9) that “Robert E. Lee’s Mother [was] Buried Alive.”

Despite being vouched for by Warfield Lee, “who is familiar with the incident, [and] is in a position to know for he is a grandnephew of General Lee.” I became immediately suspicious as I read the account.

Though not any relation to Lee, I have been working on a documentary film biography of the general. As with any documentary project, one tends to become overinformed on the subject. For example, I knew that Lee’s mother, Anne, was a member of the Carter family. Though they were not themselves a First Family of Virginia, they were not the owners of the Arlington House (where the story says she was buried), which belonged to the Custis family, that of Lee’s wife, Mary.

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My suspicions raised, I turned to several experts who are involved in my project. Prof. Richard McCaslin, author of “Lee in the Shadow of Washington,” explained that the story has been about for some time. However, “it has almost no basis in fact, and no contemporary accounts verify it ever happened.” And Emory Thomas, the author of Robert E. Lee, and or many the primary academic source of Lee information today, said that the story was not believed by “serious scholars or anyone else for that matter.”

As an aside, Anne Lee did not, as noted in the piece, live to a “ripe old age,” but died in 1829 at age 56, after being sickly for years. Robert for much of his youth was the only male in the household and tended to her. Her death came in the same year as his graduation from West Point, truly marking his transition into manhood.

The film, by the way, is in production now, even as we continue to raise funds for it. Titled “Your Obedient Servent: R.E. Lee,” it will be in five parts and is intended for release onto public television and DVD.

Bruce Young, Lexington, Va.