The mystery of Lee's mother
Thea Marshall resurrects a story about Robert E. Lee's mother, who may have been buried alive -- or not!
To be buried alive is beyond question the most horrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality. Well, for fans of the macabre, that's Edgar Allen Poe at his best.
Many folks think that he based his tale, "The Premature Burial," on another tale, a fairy tale, perhaps, that may or may not really have happened to the mother of Robert E. Lee, Anne Hill Carter. Family lore and historical fiction have kept the story alive that, at one point in Anne Hill Carter Lee's life, perhaps around 1804, she fell ill, was thought to have died, was put in a casket, then sent to the family mausoleum. She awakened, maybe from an attack of sleeping sickness, in a horrific state of terror, and she screamed, was heard by a servant and was rescued.
Well, there's nothing I can find to tell us what effect this had on the rest of her life, if indeed it happened. Robert E. was born in 1807 and though Anne was frail and an invalid for quite some time, both before and after the so-called incident, she seems to have recovered somewhat in the later years of her life.
We also know that Anne had an impressive effect on son Robert E. Lee, who frequently said he owed all he was to his mother. Her admonitions to him: Be honest, be truthful, be gentle, but strong, all of which seems to be pretty accurate portrait of Anne Hill Carter Lee. She was born into great wealth at Shirley Plantation and was one of the many generations of Carter and Hill women to be married there.
Her strength, well, it may not have been physical, but she seemed to have been mighty sturdy when necessary, like when her husband, the Revolutionary War hero and good friend of George Washington's, Henry, better known as "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, was in debtor's prison in Montross. They say she would ride on horseback each day with his dinner.
Another fairy tale? Well, who knows? It's no fairy tale that when he exiled himself to the West Indies, Anne managed to raise her children, keep them clothed, fed and educated, without much inherited fortune, but with the kindness and love of lots of Carter kin. There's something quite amazing about those Carters, particularly those Carter women, the ones descended from the Northern Neck's great Robert "King" Carter.
Historian Douglas Freeman has teased out of all their histories this most fascinating insight, quote, "The males of the Carter stock did not often aspire to public life or shine in it, but the women of the blood of "King" Carter, when they married into other lines, became the mothers and grandmothers of a most extraordinary number of distinguished men," unquote. Not the least of whom was Robert E. Lee, whose mother was the great-granddaughter of Robert "King" Carter.
This is Thea Marshall.