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General Robert E. Lee's Buried Treasure — Washington's Silver

Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, Martha Washington's great-grand­daughter and wife of General Robert E. Lee, buried her family heirlooms and avoided the destruction of valuable Washington objects during the Civil War. Years later, the silver found its way back to Mount Vernon thanks to Lee's descendants.

In 2007, Martha Washington descendants Mary Lee Bowman and her brother Robert E. Lee IV returned newly-discovered and important silver artifacts. Their generous donations, which once graced George and Martha Washington's table over 200 years ago, remind us of the lengthy journey that Washington-owned items often take in order to find their way back to Mount Vernon.

Anticipating large presidential entertainments, George Washington ordered twelve wine coolers from England in October 1789. Gift of Mary Lee Bowman and Robert E. Lee, IV, 2007 [W-4577]
Anticipating large presidential entertainments, George Washington ordered twelve wine coolers from England in October 1789. Gift of Mary Lee Bowman and Robert E. Lee, IV, 2007 [W-4577]
The 1800 estate inventory of Mount Vernon represents over 40 years of George and Martha Washington's purchases of furniture, porcelain, and silver. The inventory included silver tablewares George Washington purchased for his Revolutionary War camp table, as well as the silverplated wine coolers and sterling silver bottle roller he ordered for the presidential dining table. The history of many of the Washingtons' belongings ends with this terse and often cryptic list.

The silver, however, remained in Martha Washington's care after her husband's death and has a rich story that continues into the 21st century. In her will, Martha Washington bequeathed "all the silver plate of every kind of which I shall die possessed, together with the two large plated cooler the four small plated coolers with the bottle castors," to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis.

Read Martha's Will

The Custis/Lee Family Connection

The Custis/Lee Family Connection

The Custis/Lee Family Connection

Residing at Arlington House, 14 miles north of Mount Vernon, George Washington Parke Custis cherished the silver and other relics from his grandparents, George and Martha Washington.

George Washington Parke Custis's daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, inherited this collection as well as Arlington House, where she had grown up among the material legacies of George Washington. At the start of the Civil War, Mary Custis Lee lived at Arlington with her husband, Robert E. Lee, and three of their seven children.

Arlington House from a sketch made before 1861 (Wikimedia)

Washington's Great Grandson-in-Law Goes to War

Unfortunately, this idyllic picture did not last. On April 22, 1861, General Robert E. Lee rode away from Arlington House for the last time. Leaving behind his wife and children, he traveled to Richmond and accepted command of Virginia's forces.

The state had severed ties with the Union just five days earlier and America's Civil War was just a breath away. Lee knew that Arlington was a strategic and symbolic target for the Union forces, proudly situated on the heights overlooking Washington, D.C. Soon after his departure, he urged his wife to be ready to evacuate: "l think therefore you had better prepare all things for removal, that is the plate, pictures, &c., & be prepared at any moment." 

In her memoirs, Mary Custis Lee wrote that "the family plate so long treasured, especially that portion of it which my Father inherited from Mt Vernon was first secured."

With Federal troops advancing on Northern Virginia, the flatware engraved with Washington's crest, the large wine coolers, and even the bottle rollers were packed into trunks and sent first to Alexandria, and then on to Richmond. General Lee forwarded them to the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington for safekeeping.


General Robert E. Lee, George Washington's Great Grandson-in-Law in 1863 (Wikimedia)

Established in 1839, the Virginia Military Institute is a state-supported military college in Lexington, Virginia, and is the oldest in the United States.

Mary Anna Randolph Custis and Robert E. Lee sent their precious family heirlooms, Martha and George Washington's silver, to this more secure location during the Civil War.

Union Occupation of Arlington House

With the family silver safely out of reach of the Union troops, Mrs. Lee readied Arlington House for the impending occupation. She sent the family portraits and George Washington's bed to Ravensworth, her aunt's home in Fairfax County, where she would spend part of her time during the war. The books were locked in closets and the "Cincinnati & State China from Mt Vernon was carefully put away & nailed up in boxes in the cellar." Believing the family's prized possessions were safe, she and her children abandoned the mansion.

On May 23, 1861, Federal troops crossed the Potomac River and occupied Arlington Heights and the Lees' home. Major General Charles Sandford wrote on May 28: "Finding the mansion vacated by the family, I stated to some of the servants left there that... I would, by occupying it myself, be responsible for the perfect care and security of the house and everything in and about it." He did not keep his promise.

While the structure of the house remained largely intact, Union soldiers looted many of the Lee family's belongings. Even though General Irwin McDowell sent a significant portion of the Washington items to the U.S. Patent Office, these too were subject to the curious Federal troops occupying Arlington.

Mrs. Lee later mused: "How little could I foresee the nature of that enemy who were to pry into every corner of my house, & rob it of articles that even they should have held sacred."


Union soldiers at Arlington House (Wikimedia)

While Union officers pilfered the Lee's possessions at Arlington House, the Washingtons' silver was safely ensconced in Lexington, Virginia, protected by the longtime superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, Francis H. Smith.

Sergeant John Hampsey Hides the Silver

It was not until June of 1864, as Union Army General David Hunter raided the Valley of Virginia, that these relics were in danger of falling into enemy hands. Although Mary Custis Lee openly worried about these possessions, her husband attempted to calm her fears, writing: "It will be impossible to remove the silver, &c., from Lexington. It will incur more danger in removal than in remaining. It must bide its fate."

The silver was saved from destruction by the actions of Superintendent Smith and ordnance sergeant, John Hampsey. As General Hunter advanced on the town of Lexington, Smith arranged for Hampsey to bury the two large trunks that held the sacred Washington silver.

On Sunday, June 12, Union troops set fire to all of the public buildings on the VMI campus. Concealed beneath the earth's surface, the Lee's family heirlooms avoided destruction.

Robert E. Lee wrote to Superintendent Smith a few weeks later thanking him "for the care of the relics [he] so kindly undertook to guard" and also expressed gratitude to "the trusty friend who acted in the matter." As the war came to a close, Mrs. Lee wrote to Smith thanking him for his careful protection of their "silver and papers." 

After the cessation of hostilities , Mary Custis Lee wished to return to Arlington House, but her hopes were crushed when she learned that Federal troops had turned Arlington into a burial ground. With retirement to a quiet life at Arlington no longer an option, Robert E. Lee accepted the position of president of Washington College in Lexington (later Washington and Lee University).

John Hampsey, VMI Ordnance Sergeant, in 1877 (VMI Archives Photographs Collection)

Robert E. Lee, Jr. Unearths Two Treasure Chests

In the fall of 1865, as the Lees settled into their new home, they called upon their "trusty friend," John Hampsey, to help unearth the two large chests of buried treasure.

Hampsey escorted Robert E. Lee, Jr., to the burial site, and the General's son later reminisced: "I was sent out with him to dig it up and bring it in. We found it safe and sound, but black with mould and damp, useless for the time being, so my father opened his camp-chest and we used his forks, spoons, plates, etc., while his camp-stools supplied the deficiency in seats."

In appreciation for his assistance, General Lee gave Hampsey an autographed picture of himself. On the back of this, Mary Custis Lee inscribed her gratitude for "preserving by his faithfulness for me the most valuable property saved from Arlington."

The Washington silver remained in the Lees' home at Washington College until Mary's death in 1873. While Mary Custis Lee bequeathed many of the family relics to her unmarried daughter, Mary, pieces of the Washingtons' silver descended to all branches of the family.

Mary Custis Lee and her son, Robert E. Lee Jr in 1845 (Wikimedia)

Over the course of the 20th century, a number of these descendants graciously returned George Washington's silver to his home and the care of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. A few pieces though, including the buried silver, remained elusive. Curators believed the silver was lost, yet continued to hope that these objects would be discovered.

Rediscovered in the Basement

Good fortune struck in the summer of 2007, when two Custis descendants, Mary Lee Bowman and her brother Robert E. Lee IV, decided to open a pair of storage trunks that had long resided in a corner of Mrs. Bowman's basement. The trunks revealed a cache of George Washington's silver. Tucked away among mostly 19th-century artifacts was a large silverplated wine cooler and a silver bottle roller used by the Washingtons during the presidency and afterwards at Mount Vernon. Two Revolutionary War spoons decorated with Washington's griffin crest were also sheltered in the trunks.

Mrs. Bowman and Mr. Lee immediately thought of Mount Vernon, where their loyalties were already strongly established. Mrs. Bowman had served as an active member of The Founders, Washington Committee for Historic Mount Vernon, for more than two decades. Mr. Lee was a past member of both the Mount Vernon Inn Board and the Mount Vernon Advisory Committee, and his wife, Carew, served as the Vice Regent for Maryland from 1972-2006, and as Regent from 1996-1999.

Mrs. Bowman and Mr. Lee had previously donated family silver to Mount Vernon in the 1980s, so they were well aware of how important these additional discoveries would be to the collection.

Due to their generosity, after two centuries of traveling in and around Virginia, above and below ground, these remarkable pieces of Washington silver have found their way back home. These tablewares highlight the care that Washington took in setting his Revolutionary War and presidential tables, and their long journey back to Mount Vernon emphasizes the enduring legacy of George Washington.

Upon his retirement from the presidency, George Washington brought this bottle roller and its mate to Mount Vernon, where they continued to facilitate the orderly flow of wine at dinner. Gift of Mary Lee Bowman and Robert E. Lee, IV, 2007 [W-4578]

The Collection at Mount Vernon

The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association is indebted to the many individuals who have safeguarded original Washington objects through the centuries. Their gracious donations, past and present, have enabled us to present a more detailed and authentic depiction of life at Mount Vernon.

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Historic Preservation at Mount Vernon

George Washington's Mount Vernon is owned and maintained by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the oldest national historic preservation organization in the United States. Founded in 1853 by Ann Pamela Cunningham, the Association has pioneered many important historic preservation concepts since purchasing the property from George Washington’s heirs in 1858, including: the restoration and interpretation of the estate's outbuildings; relying on scientific analyses to determine paint colors; and embracing archaeological research as a primary source for learning about the past.

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