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George Washington Custis Lee

By John T. Marck

Custis Lee was the oldest of Robert E. Lee's three sons, being born on September 16, 1832 at Fort Monroe, Virginia. He was educated at private schools in Virginia, and attended West Point in 1850, having graduated first in his class.

Following graduation, Custis Lee entered the military as a 2nd lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. Shortly thereafter he was assigned to the office of the chief engineer in Washington, D.C. He was promoted to 1st lieutenant when the Civil War began, and resigned on May 2, 1861. He then entered Confederate service as a captain of engineers, and spent this time building various fortifications around Richmond. Although he desired to have a filed command, he spent the majority of the war serving as a military aide to Jefferson Davis and his staff. As a trusted and valued person on Davis' staff, he was sent to the front at times to determine defenses to be used, as well as deliver confidential messages. He was promoted to brigadier general on June 25, 1863, and again to major general on October 20, 1864. Additionally, he served Jefferson Davis as a consultant on the reorganization of the army.

As much as Custis Lee desired a field command, and although Davis was reluctant to give him one as he was so valued as an aide, Custis was unsure of his abilities, should he ever get to the field. Davis finally gave him the opportunity in August 1864 as the commander of the Department of Western Virginia. However, illness combined with his own self questions of ability kept him from accepting this appointment. He did however, finally get into the war on the battlefield at Petersburg, during the Confederacy's last retreat, as the commander of the Mechanics regiment. In this, Custis Lee and his command were a part of General Richard Ewell's division. At Sayler's Creek, upon being outnumbered by the Union forces, Custis Lee surrendered rather than further endanger his men. Within a short time after his capture, he was paroled to visit his mother, who was quite ill.

After the war, in October 1865, Custis Lee could not go to his inherited family estate at "Arlington," as it was now in the hands of the Union. He then traveled to Virginia where he accepted a position at Virginia Military Institute teaching engineering. On February 1, 1871, he succeeded his famous father as president of Washington and Lee College, a post he held until illness forced him to resign on July 1, 1897.

As his father had instilled in him the necessity to succeed, he never quite measured up in the shadow of Robert E. Lee, nor did he rise to the level of his brother, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee.

His younger brother, William H.F. Lee had inherited another of the families' estates, "Ravensworth," in Fairfax City, Virginia. It would be here that Custis Lee lived in retirement until his death on February 18, 1913.

Copyright 1993-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.