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Lot 61: Lee, Robert E. Autograph letter signed, 3 pages, Old Point [Virginia], 15 June 1831.Platinum House
July 11, 2014
Calabasas, CA, USALive Auction
61. Lee, Robert E. Autograph letter signed, 3 pages (9.62 x 7.87 in.; 244 x 200 mm.), Old Point [Virginia], 15 June 1831, to Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis; with attached address overleaf addressed in R.E. Lee’s hand.
Fresh out of West Point, the young and poor Robert E. Lee writes to his future mother-in-law just two weeks before he is to marry Mary Custis.
Lee writes in full: I have but little time before the Boat passes, my dear cousin Molly, to answer your letter which I last night received. I am truly & sincerely distressed to find that your sickness, which I had supposed was a but a slight attack of the Ague & fever, has been so great. Should you wish to try the effect of the air at Old Point, I have no doubt we could make some arrangement to enable you to do so. But those ‘two little rooms’ must be thrown entirely out of the question, for they would not answer as you would see at a glance, still less would they accomodate Anne who of course would bring her boy & servant & we should all be brought into such close contact that we should not be able to distinguish one from each other. The month of August too is the time that Genl [Charles] Gratiot [Chief of Engineers], who commenced this work & still has the normal superintendance of it, has been in the habit of making his inspection & as he brings down his family & occupies these quarters (not ‘the rooms’) I fear with so many you would have little pleasure. Perhaps the best arrangement would be for me to take separate quarters & as from my last visit to Norfolk, I found I could not even get the most common articles, except at an exorbitant price. I had determined to follow the example of others, & procure them in Alexandria & send them down in the Potomac, a week or two before we came. And you know all & everything could be got at the same time & sent by the same conveyance. The Quarters I could get on this side would not be very comfortable in comparison with these, but such as are occupied by others & about on a par perhaps with those of other Watering places in Va. I thought that I ought to tell you the ‘whole truth’ - And any plan you may adopt I shall be equally & willingly ready further as far as I am able, which I hope you already know & will believe without any stronger asseverations.
I was entirely unprepared to hear of Anne’s sickness, as I had learned from Uncle Wms, I have seen, that her health was better than usual. I hope that it does not proceed from the cause you mentioned & that at any rate she may be enabled to desire the benefit she generally received from Sea Bathing here or elsewhere. Of all these things we will talk when we meet, when I hope & trust you may be well & I shall have more time. There is nothing I covet so much as the power of benefitting those I love, though I fear it will be many years, if ever, before my means will equal my desires.
The orderly has just come to tell me that the Boat is in sight, which cuts me short. Tell Miss Mary [Mary Custis - Lee’s future wife] I cannot answer her Postscript, but I believe it is unnecessary as respecting what she has asked has been discharged in a former letter. Excuse this hasty illegible & unsatisfactory scroll & Believe me Yours most truly & sincerely R. E. Lee
Lee adds in a postscript: I will write to Anne Mrs. M[arshall]. which will be about the sixtieth time without her taking the least notice of it- Mildred [Mildred (1811-1856), Lee’s younger sister] since her marriage has been as bad.
On 11 August 1829, Robert E. Lee was breveted 2nd Lieutenant, and was ordered, by the middle of November, to report to Major Samuel Babcock of the Corps of Engineers for duty at Cockspur Island, in the Savannah River, Georgia. It was a god-forsaken place near Savannah, the largest city and the principal port in the state. Lee’s post, at Cockspur Island, was 12 miles downstream, and most of it was flooded marshland. In the summer, it had to be abandoned because of mosquitoes, heat, and fever. It was Lee’s training school in military engineering. Day after day, in his task of constructing a heavy fort, he spent in mud and water up to his armpits.
In this early letter, Lee writes to Mrs. Custis, the mother of Mary Custis, the young woman Lee was courting, despite her mother’s opposition. At the time, the Lee family had experienced financial tragedy, and Mrs. Custis did not want her daughter to marry Lee, who was earning very little money as a second lieutenant.
Lee’s first commander at Cockspur, Major Babcock, was succeeded by J. K. F. Mansfield, who concluded that the original plan was unsuitable; work would have to be suspended for at least a season. Lee was reassigned to Old Point Comfort, Virginia. He reported at Hampton Roads on 7 May 1831. Lee’s new duties were to finalize the construction of Fort Monroe, later known as Fort Wool,–computing costs, ordering supplies, and directing men in hauling earth, in grading, and in excavating the ditch that was to surround the fort. Continuing his courtship of Miss Custis, he asked her to be his bride. Reluctantly, Mrs. Custis consented to the marriage. They were married at Arlington on 30 June 1831.
Provenance: Christie’s New York, 18 November 1988, lot 210.
$5,000 - $8,000