Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 115 / Number 4
Lee in Love: Courtship and Correspondence in Antebellum Virginia
- By Robert E. L. deButts, Jr., pp. 486–576
Twenty-one recently discovered letters that Lt. Robert E. Lee wrote to Mary A. R. Custis during the couple's 1830–31 engagement provide the best account we are likely to have of this period in Lee's life and shed light on the courtship and correspondence practices of the southern elite and on the meaning of betrothal during this period. This article includes fully annotated transcriptions of thirteen of Lee's letters and of the only two known letters that Mary Custis wrote to him before their marriage. The accompanying essay presents the known facts about the couple's courtship and describes the extended kinship group within which it took place. It also explores the role of written correspondence in courtship during the early nineteenth century and the survival of traditional courtship ritual—in particular, formal deference to parental authority—in Virginia society at a time when many couples in other regions enjoyed greater freedom. Since Lee was on military assignment during most of the engagement, the couple relied upon letters not only to relate day-to-day experiences but also to establish and maintain emotional intimacy. Among other things, Lee discussed his friends and social life in Virginia and Savannah, Georgia, his feelings toward Mary Custis, the engagements of other family members, work on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers coastal defense projects, his responses to apparent comments from Mary Custis on his moral and religious improvement, and preparations for the couple's wedding.