RICHMOND, Va. -- Two old steamer trunks sit in the rare-book room at the Virginia Historical Society, looking worn and forlorn. The smaller one was once red but the paint has faded to a dull rust. The larger one is brown with a piece of tin patching a hole. On one side, a name is stenciled: "M. LEE."

That's Mary Custis Lee, Gen. Robert E. Lee's adventurous eldest daughter. In 1917, she stored these wooden trunks in the "silver vault" in the basement of Burke & Herbert Bank & Trust in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va. A year later, she died at 83. Her trunks sat in a dusty corner of the vault for 84 years, unclaimed, until Hunt Burke, the bank's vice chairman, discovered them in 2002.

Burke called his high school classmate Rob E.L. deButts Jr., Robert E. Lee's great-great-grandson. Together, the two men descended into the vault. Burke carried a basket of old keys.

"The first one I pulled out was a perfect fit," he said.

The trunks were stuffed with Lee family papers: a priceless cache of 4,000 letters, photographs and documents. DeButts carted them here to the Virginia Historical Society, which houses the world's largest collection of Lee papers. He spent a week there, picking out treasures and trash from Mary Custis Lee's trunks.

"He'd pull out a pile of her postcards and then he'd pull out something from the Colonial period and then he'd pull out letters from Robert E. Lee," said Lee Shepard, the society's senior archivist. "There was no rhyme or reason to it. She was the unofficial family historian, but she was also a bit of a pack rat."

One day, deButts called Shepard's office from the library. "You have GOT to come down here," he said. Shepard hustled downstairs and deButts showed him what he'd just found: an envelope containing three cloth stars -- general's stars -- that Lee cut off his Confederate uniform after surrendering at Appomattox.

A few weeks ago, Shepard opened the Mary Custis Lee papers to the public. It's an eclectic collection. There are postcards she gathered in Paris, Egypt and Atlantic City. And a fan she picked up in China. And a dried rose she plucked in a garden in Khartoum. There's a list of 266 slaves owned by one of her ancestors in 1766. And an account book kept by her mother's step-great-grandfather, George Washington. There's a handful of letters her father wrote to her during the Civil War. And another collection of letters that illuminate -- but do not quite solve -- the mystery of how Robert E. Lee's daughter happened to be arrested in Alexandria in 1902 for refusing to leave the black section of a trolley car.

'Marvelous letter-writer'

On Christmas Day 1861 -- the first Christmas of the Civil War -- Robert E. Lee wrote to his daughter Mary.

"Having distributed such poor Xmas gifts as I had to those around me, I have been looking for something for you," Lee wrote. "I send you some sweet violets that I gathered for you this morning while covered with dense white frost that glistened in the bright sun like diamonds and formed a broche of rare beauty and sweetness, which could not be fabricated by the expenditure of a world of money. Yet how little it will purchase. But see how God provides for our pleasure in every way. May he guard and preserve you for me, my dear daughter. Among the calamities of war the hardest to bear perhaps is the separation of families and friends."

It's a sweet, sentimental letter, but when he brings up a painful subject -- the fact that the Union Army has occupied their estate, Arlington -- his anger is palpable.

"Your old home if not destroyed by our enemies has been so desecrated that I cannot bear to think of it," he writes. "I should have preferred it to have been wiped from the earth, its beautiful hill sunk, its sacred trees burned rather than to have been degraded by the presence of those who revel in the ill they do for their own selfish purposes."

It was typical of the letters that Lee wrote to his seven children: lyrical, passionate and filled with sometimes contradictory emotions.

"He's a marvelous letter-writer -- expressive, lusty, funny, charming," said Elizabeth Brown Pryor, who included some letters from the trunk in her new book, "Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters."

"Far from being this remote person, he's telling us what it was like to be there and what it was like to be him," she said. "He is a very complex, vulnerable, engaging yet troublesome human being."

On Sept. 23, 1862, a few days after Lee's army retreated to Virginia after an unsuccessful invasion of Maryland, he wrote to Mary: "We had two hard fought battles in Maryland and did not consider ourselves beaten as our enemies supposed. ... We were greatly outnumbered and opposed by double if not treble our strength and yet we repulsed all their attacks, held our ground and retired when it suited our convenience."

That's an interesting spin on the Battle of Antietam, which Abraham Lincoln considered a Union victory.

Pryor was the first historian to see the letters in the trunks. And she's the only historian who has read a batch of letters that Lee wrote to his fiancee, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, before the young Army engineer married the rich great-granddaughter of Martha Washington in 1831. The Lee family requested that the letters not be open to the public, but Shepard believes they will be available within a year or two.

"These letters sparkle with sexuality, and with an impatient young man who hates his boss," Pryor said. "Again, it's a very different person from this rather austere image that we've had. One of the great things about all these letters is that he had a great sense of humor, a laughing-out-loud-in-the-library sense of humor."

SPARKLE WITH SEXUALITYfi Robert E. Leefi

"I don't know if I'd describe them quite that way, but then again I'm a guy," said Shepard, laughing. "But they do provide a fresh perspective on their relationship. This was obviously not a marriage of convenience. I mean, he was crazy about her. He really was."

World traveler

Buried deep in one trunk was a letter that former slave Selina Gray wrote to Robert E. Lee's widow, the woman who'd once owned her. It's one of several letters to reveal the complex relationship between the Lees and African Americans.

"Mrs Lee, I received your letter and was happy to hear from you," Gray wrote in 1872, "and I was hoping to see you once more at Arlington."

Arlington had changed since Mrs. Lee had last seen it in 1861, when the Union Army occupied her family home. In 1864, Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery Meigs showed his contempt for Lee by burying more than 16,000 dead soldiers on his lawn, now known as Arlington National Cemetery.

"The place is changed so you would hardly know it," Gray wrote to Mrs. Lee. "Your things at the time of the war was taken away by every body so the officers would have them in their tents and all over the ground ... the book case that you speak of I cannot tell you any thing of it. I don't remember seeing it since you left. I suppose it was carried off like everything else."

After the war, the Union Army allowed hundreds of former slaves, known as freedmen, to settle on the Lee plantation. "The whole of it is rented to the freemen (sic)," Gray wrote. "They have little huts all over that beautiful place."

Lee family members sued to reclaim its estate and in 1882 the Supreme Court ruled in their favor. They did not want to live in a cemetery, so they agreed to accept $150,000 for the land -- a huge sum in those days.

By then, Mary Custis Lee, who never married, was traveling the world, spending months in London, Paris and Rome, and a year in Australia. She took a round-the-world cruise, stopping in Japan, China, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Java. She traveled to Palestine, Egypt and Sudan, to Mexico, the West Indies, Venezuela. She met Queen Victoria and Pope Leo XIII.

Her trunks were stuffed with souvenirs: a bill from Milan's Palace Hotel. A menu from a Paris restaurant. A letter from novelist Henry James, responding to her request for an autograph. In the archive biz, such stuff is known as "ephemeral material" -- a nice way of saying junk. But buried among the ephemera -- and the priceless letters from her father -- were papers related to June 13, 1902, when she was arrested in Alexandria.

"She was sitting in the African American portion of the streetcar and a conductor told her to move and she refused," Shepard said. "He came back and she refused again. They took her to the police station, and when they found out who she was, she was released."

The arrest made news worldwide. Was Robert E. Lee's daughter a forerunner of Rosa Parksfi

"She was perceived that way by some people," Shepard said. "I don't know if it's accurate or not."

One newspaper reported that she refused to move because her luggage was too heavy, another because she was sitting with her black maid. "It's something we need to do more research on," Shepard said.

He smiles. "My understanding is that Mary Custis Lee was a rather formidable person," he said. "You didn't want to mess with her."

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page B1.

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