A Student of History

September 28, 2007

The Lost Lee Trunks

Filed under: Early America,Historic Preservation — John Maass @ 1:49 pm

On October 18th, I am going to a lecture in Alexandria, Va., by Dr. Lee Shepard of the Virginia Historical Society, who will speak about the “Lee trunks.”  Apparently the lecture is sold out now, having been mentioned yesterday in the Washington Times.  From an old news release, one can get the gist of the story here about the lost trunks, a pretty neat tale…

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 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.

In 2002 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.  For the past three years, VHS archivists have been inventorying and cataloging the contents of two wooden trunks.  These trunks, discovered by Robert E. L. deButts, Jr., and E. Hunt Burke, contained letters, legal papers, journals, travel souvenirs, financial records, and smaller artifacts that were collected by Mary Custis Lee, the eldest daughter of General Robert E. Lee.

Examples of materials found in the Mary Custis Lee trunks include: a 1694 letterbook copy of a note from John Custis II; accounts from the 1760s and 1770s kept by George Washington concerning the his step-children; an 1824 letter from George Washington Parke Custis, the builder of Arlington House; an 1860 letter to Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, from Robert E. Lee concerning relations between Mexico and the United States; an 1872 letter from former Arlington House slave Selina Gray to Mary Randolph Custis Lee; a list of 266 African American slaves owned by John Parke Custis in 1766; and an 1863 order from Robert E. Lee, in his own hand, announcing the death of Civil War General Stonewall Jackson.

A photo of the trunks is at the VHS website, which absolutely forbids (!) anyone from posting the image on their website without specific permission, etc. 


  1. Have you been to the bank premises? not reasonably possible that the trunk could remain “undiscovered” for so many years, given the small building it supposedly sat in, the basement certainly was examined on a daily basis. The trunk is obviously not a trunk that belonged to Mary Custis Lee, Lee’s daughter. The only hotel stamp on its surface is one from the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond. Mary Custis Lee lived in Europe for many years until she returned to the US shortly before she took residence in Lexington and died. She mentioned nothing about the trunk in her will. The trunk belonged to Mary Lee, the daughter of Rooney Lee. Both male Lee descendants sat on the bank board and obviously used their access to the bank to “plant” the trunk. Why go through such a trick? Ask them.

    Comment by Joe Ryan — August 1, 2010 @ 1:54 pm | Reply

    • This does not mean the letters found therein were not Lee’s.

      Comment by John Maass — September 29, 2010 @ 8:38 am | Reply

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