- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Two steamer trunks full of travel journals, family photographs and letters belonging to Robert E. Lee's oldest daughter have been found in an Alexandria bank vault.
The discovery could give historians new insight into one of Virginia's most prominent families.
"You can't help but get excited that what we'll find in these trunks could ultimately change scholars' interpretation relating to this family," says Charles F. Bryan Jr., president of the Virginia Historical Society.
The trunks, which sat in the vault for at least 84 years, are believed to have accompanied Mary Custis Lee, the last surviving child of the great Confederate commander, on her trips abroad from 1870 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
The trunks were found in the silver vault of the Burke & Herbert Bank & Trust Co. on South Fairfax Street, where Miss Lee left them for safekeeping sometime before she died in 1918, says E. Hunt Burke, the bank's senior vice president. Mr. Burke helped locate the trunks this past summer at the request of Miss Lee's great-great-nephew Robert E. Lee deButts Jr.
Mr. deButts, 45, a New York City lawyer, said yesterday he learned that Miss Lee's trunks were still in the vault when he began researching his great-great-aunt's life for a magazine article he was writing.
"Nobody knew these trunks existed," he said. "Everyone thought all of her trunks were retrieved right after she died. We don't know why these were left behind."
Historians say the items could give researchers new information about Miss Lee, one of seven children and the oldest of four sisters. Little is known of Mary Lee's life and ideas.
"All of these items can shed a lot of light about her life and her reflections on her family," said Jessica Austin, an archival assistant at Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County, the Lee family's ancestral home, which is operated by the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association. "We don't know much about Mary Custis Lee because she was the most independent of the Lee family."
With the family's permission, the trunks and the items are being held at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, where they will be analyzed and preserved.
"This latest find is an amazing collection," said Mr. Bryan, the society's president and chief executive officer. "The Lee family is one of the most important families that played a key role in the history of Virginia and in the history of this country."
Most of the trunks' contents were covered or wrapped with newspapers dating back to the 1790s, and almost all of them were related to Miss Lee's travels: picture postcards, hotel stationery, travel booklets, journals and souvenirs, Mr. deButts said.
Other items included photographs of Gen. Lee and other family members and of Ravenworth, her family estate in Fairfax, Mr. Burke said. Also found was a child's primer, letters written and received by Miss Lee, and a collection of photographs and a few hair clippings of foreign dignitaries whom she met during her travels around the world, Mr. Burke said.
"Collecting hair clippings of famous dignitaries was one of her hobbies," Mr. Burke said.
The items will not be available for public display for at least three years, or until archivists at the Historical Society analyze, catalog and preserve each item. Most of the items are in "reasonably good condition," Mr. Bryan said.
"I never cease to be amazed at how much is still out there in attics, basements, closets and old trunks," he said.
It is well known that the Lee family held accounts at the Old Town Alexandria bank, a family-owned chain founded in 1852, when the Lee family still lived in the area. Miss Lee dwelled with her parents, Gen. Lee and Mary Anne Randolph Custis Lee, and her six siblings on Mrs. Lee's family plantation at Arlington, the estate from which the city and county took its name, from 1831 to 1861. The home now overlooks Arlington National Cemetery.
Miss Lee used the bank's address as her home address when she was traveling overseas and named the bank's founders, John W. Burke E. Hunt Burke's great-great-grandfather and Arthur Herbert, as executors of her estate. Miss Lee never married.
She was the only daughter of Gen. Lee to leave a will. "She left $500 for Mr. Herbert for being her executor, and a thank-you note for Mr. Burke," Mr. Burke said.
Miss Lee must have dropped off the trunks at the bank in the fall of 1918 before leaving for Hot Springs, Va., where she lived in the Homestead Hotel until her death Nov. 22, 1918, at the age of 83, Mr. deButts said.
Mr. deButts said when Miss Lee died, family members went to the bank and retrieved some of her belongings, which included other trunks, from the vault. But he said he doesn't know why these two were left behind.
"Maybe they figured that they could pick the trunks with the letters sometime later and just forgot about them," he said.


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