Mary was the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington's stepgrandson, and Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, daughter of William Fitzhugh  and Ann Randolph. Her godmother, Mary Randolph, wrote an early housekeeping and cookbook. Mary's birth year is usually given as 1808, but it appears in the Custis family Bible and in records kept by her mother as 1807, and is also referred to in a letter her mother wrote in the autumn of 1807. Mary was well educated, having learned both Latin and Greek. She enjoyed discussing politics with her father, and later with her husband. She kept current with the new literature and, after her father's death, edited and published his writings as "Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, by his Adopted Son George Washington Parke Custis, with a Memoir of this Author by his Daughter" in 1859.
Mary was diminutive and vivacious and had known Robert E. Lee from childhood. Among her other suitors was Sam Houston. The pair were married at her parents' home, Arlington House, on June 30, 1831 and had three sons and four daughters: George Washington Custis "Custis", William H. Fitzhugh "Rooney", Robert Edward Jr., Mary, Eleanor Agnes (called Agnes), Anne, and Mildred.
Mary inherited Arlington House from her father after he died in 1857. The estate had long been the couple's home whenever they were in the area during her husband's military career. Mary was a gracious hostess and enjoyed frequent visitors. She was a painter, like her father, and painted many landscapes, some of which are still on view at the house. She loved roses and grew 11 varieties. She was deeply religious and attended Episcopal services when there was one near the army post. In Arlington, Virginia, the Lees attended the Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia, the church she and Robert had attended in childhood.
Mary taught her female slaves to read and write and was an advocate of eventual emancipation. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and this became increasingly debilitating with advancing age. By 1861, she was using a wheelchair.
With the advent of the American Civil War, Lee and their sons were called to service in Virginia while Mary delayed evacuating Arlington House until May 15, 1861. Early that month, Lee wrote to Mary Anna saying:
- "War is inevitable, and there is no telling when it will burst around you . . . You have to move and make arrangements to go to some point of safety which you must select. The Mount Vernon plate and pictures ought to be secured. Keep quiet while you remain, and in your preparations . . . May God keep and preserve you and have mercy on all our people."
Mary and her daughters initially moved between the several family plantations. In May 1862, when she was caught at her son Rooney's White House Plantation in New Kent County behind the Federal lines, as Union forces moved up the York River and the Pamunkey River toward Richmond. In a gentlemanly gesture by Union commander George B. McClellan, she was allowed to pass through the lines in order to take up residence in Richmond --- McClellan's campaign goal, ironically.
Mary and her daughters finally settled at 707 East Franklin Street in Richmond, Virginia for the bulk of the War. After the War, after they lived in Powhatan County for a short time, she accompanied her husband to Lexington, Virginia, where he became president of the Washington College, later renamed Washington and Lee University. She was able to visit her beloved Arlington House once more before her death, but she was unable to leave the carriage. She hardly recognized it except for a few old oaks and some of the trees she and Robert had planted. Mary died at the age of 66 and is buried next to her husband in the Lee family crypt at Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee.
- ↑ Perry, John. Mrs. Robert E. Lee : The Lady of Arlington. Multnomah Publishers, 2003. ISBN 1-59052-137-4.
- ↑ Custis, G.W. Parke. Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington by G. W. Parke Custis, of Arlington. Compiled from Files of the National Intelligencer, etc. Washington: William H. Moore, 1859. ASIN B000ITPZ4Y.
- ↑ Lee, Captain Robert E. (son). Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee. New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1904. ISBN 978-1-43262-231-2