Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray by Dorothy Love
Dorothy Love paints this unlikely but historical friendship between Mary Custis
Lee, famous wife of Robert E. Lee and granddaughter of George and Martha
Washington, and Selina Gray, her slave.
I was surprised to find that unlike most Confederates, Mary and Robert Lee
did not support slavery. Dorothy Love wrote to me, “General Lee did not choose to lead the
Confederate army because he believed in preserving the institution of slavery. He inherited a few
slaves but the record suggests that by the 1840's he didn't own any…. Robert and Mary Lee were on
the same side of the slavery question.”
Mary and her mother gave up any rights to inherit slaves from her maternal relatives
the Fitzhughs, in exchange for a written promise that the children of those slaves would be free.
Mary was heiress to the Arlington estate, now part of Arlington National Cemetery. She and her mother had an
illegal school there for their slaves and raised money to buy and then free slaves and helped them move to Liberia.
Selina Gray was brought up on the Arlington Plantation. She had opportunities to escape to freedom, yet
out of loyalty to Mary, remained. During the occupation of Arlington by the Union forces, Selina protected the artifacts of
George Washington housed there.
Dorothy described the historical incident. “The incident is factual. When Mrs. Lee was forced to flee her
home at the start of the war, she left Mrs. Gray in charge. Mrs. Gray took her job seriously. When Union soldiers began
looting the house, which still contained some items that had belonged to President Washington, Selina Gray confronted the
Union general with then demand that his men stop stealing ‘Miss Mary's things.’ He sent a wagon up to the house and had
‘Miss Mary's things’ taken across the Potomac River to the US Patent office for safekeeping. Selina Gray thus became the
‘savior of the Washington treasures and earned her place in history. She was incredibly courageous--a slave confronting a Union general. I was blown away by her story and wanted more people to know about her. I hope I have done her justice.”
These two strong women's friendship is layered with complexity. After the Lee family freed all the Arlington slaves, the two women continued to write to each other for the next ten years, until Mary’s death.
A large portion of the book is set during the war years. Instead of focusing on battles and strategies, Love bring the tragedies of the war home in the details of the day—the lack of food, the nursing of the wounded or making socks for the soldiers. These more domestic details convey the war in a different but personal manner. Dorothy explained, “Most histories of the war focus on battles and generals and troop movements and who won or lost. But the women of the South suffered terribly due to Union blockades of ports and William T Sherman's murderous march to the sea. Many… nearly starved. Women suffered in grievous ways and their suffering was just as meaningful as that of the men. I wanted to share with readers the realities of war as it affected those left behind to survive as best they could.”
Food defines the status quo. We see in The Robert E. Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book the abundance that existed for the plantation owners and historical records show us the frugal daily fare of the slaves from their own gardens or leftovers from the master’s house.
Dorothy’s favorite recipe or receipt as Southerners called them, from this book is “Mrs. Lee's Cake because it calls for the juice of oranges and lemons. It seems a very refreshing cake for a summer afternoon on the porch at Arlington, taken with tall glasses of lemonade. I can imagine Selina Gray bustling about with a tray, pitcher, cake plates and glasses, the Lee children tumbling about on the grassy lawn, Robert and Mary sitting side by side while Robert reads aloud to her.”