Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Somewhere out there...are letters

One evening in late December, I received a call from my brother….a very excited brother who had just returned from an auction in Urbanna, Virginia. Among his purchases were a pencil drawing of Robert E. Lee and a letter from Ann Hill Carter Lee to her son Sidney Smith Lee. He didn’t pay an exorbitant sum for them and had little competition from other bidders. The reason why? The “letter” was a collection of small rectangular pieces of paper stuffed into a small envelope. He explained that my task, since I worked with old documents, was to piece it back together for him. What are sisters for, anyway?

I had previously seen only two letters written by Ann Carter Lee, wife of Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee and mother of Robert E. Lee. Coincidentally, those letters were also from Ann to her son Smith and were placed on loan to Stratford by Smith Lee’s descendants. Knowing what those letters looked like was very helpful in slowly reassembling the pieces of my brother’s newly purchased fragments.

The letter had split at every fold, but, surprisingly, all of its pieces were in the envelope. We may never know who had saved the letter, but are thankful that its contents are now available to researchers since my brother allowed me to copy and transcribe it along with other letters in our collection.

Ann’s letter was transcribed by library volunteer Maurice Capone and it is very similar in content to her few known letters to Smith, who had embarked upon a career in the U. S. Navy. Evidently, 17-year-old Smith hated writing letters and Ann often used her precarious health (she had tuberculosis) to urge him to do so. Whether or not her imposed “guilt trip” was successful is unknown, but, since few or no letters from Smith survive, Ann’s insistence was probably in vain.

Family news took up a small portion of the letter. Ann’s desire to give her children a good education can be plainly seen—24-year-old Carter was in law school, and 11-year-old Mildred and 15-year-old Robert were both attending classes. Her older daughter Ann Kinloch had been to Philadelphia, getting medical treatment for her arm; although the letter gave a good report on her hand, she eventually had to have part of her arm amputated due to tuberculosis of the bone. Perhaps Ann’s greatest hope for Smith and her other children was for them not to suffer the fate of her former husband, “Light Horse Harry,” who had fallen from the rank of esteemed Revolutionary hero and respected politician to that of an impoverished, broken man. She wished to “hear that all respect & love my Son” and that he “should deserve the esteem of the whole world.”

So…..we never know what letters are still “out there” just waiting to be discovered. Sometimes scraps of paper in an envelope can reveal certain aspects of a family’s dynamics that ultimately influence the course of history. Have you checked your attic lately?

By Judy Hynson, Director of Research & Library Collections

1 comment:

  1. Oh! how thrilling is such a find! I appreciate such sharing, being a bit of a history buff. Thank you! Beth (Whitney) Lee, wife of a King George, Virginia Lee family.