First General Lee Counts and Sorts; and Then To Mary He Reports

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First Sergeant
Aug 6, 2016

Photo - The American Civil War Museum

April 7, 1865 - 57 years old Mary Custis Lee is in Richmond while her husband Robert is in the final days of the Civil War. The following communications have been sent between Grant and Lee - the surrender is just days away - - -

5 P.M., April 7, 1865.

Commanding C. S. A.

The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.


General Lee replied on the evening of the same day as follows - - -

April 7, 1865.

GENERAL: I have received your note of this day. Though not entertaining the opinion you express on the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid the useless effusion of blood, and therefore before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.

R. E. LEE,


Meanwhile In Richmond

Richmond had fallen and is now in the control of the Federal Government. Mrs. Robert E. Lee is occupying herself with what she has done quite a bit in the past few years - she is knitting socks for the soldiers. On this day she gives her unfinished piece with needles attached to Mrs. William S. Simpson saying - -

“Take this my child and finish the pair, they may do for our poor soldiers.” {1}

It had been reported that during the evacuation and fires that occurred on April 3, 1865, Mrs. Lee sat on her porch and knitted, but her passion for supplying knitted socks for the troops began much earlier.

A Desperate Request

It’s Christmas 1863. Robert E. Lee has left Richmond to spend the holiday with his army. Mary Lee, at this point in the war, is in Richmond as well. In time, Mary received the following letter from her husband as he expresses his frustrations with the deteriorating condition of his army - - -

“I have had to dispense the cavalry as much as possible to obtain forage for their horses. Provisions for the men too are very scarce, and what with light diet and light clothing I fear they suffer. But still they are cheerful and uncomplaining. I received a report from one division the other day that over 400 men were barefoot and over 1000 without blankets.”

Mary Lee has a mission and she becomes an enthusiastic knitter. She lived in a house at 707 East Franklin Street in Richmond, originally rented to her eldest son, Custis and several young confederate officers. They had affectionally nicknamed the home as “The Mess”. Mary Chestnut in her diary observed “The Mess”, now filled with the “Lee Girls”, and she gives it a new name - - -

“Her room looked like an ‘industrial school’; everybody so busy. Her daughters were all there plying their needles, with several ladies”.


Stewart-Lee House - “The Mess” - Library of Congress

When material was difficult to find, Mary and the ladies as most women of that time were forced to do, would gather any knitted garment and unravel the “precious” yarn to make warm socks for the troops. John Stewart, the nephew of the original owner of the Franklin Street home, had his servants unravel his socks and gave the yarn to knit for warm clothes for the troops.

The Socks Arrive

“Thanks to the efforts of Mary Lee, by May 2, 1864,
392 soldiers from the Stonewall Brigade had warm dry feet.” {4}

Although General Lee requested the much needed socks, he had a habit of counting every pair that Mary sent him, and apparently, Mary may have been a knitter and encouraged others to join her in this project, she had difficultly in keeping track of how many pairs she sent her husband. An examination of 14 letters that Robert E. Lee sent to Mary during January 20th and May 2nd in ’64, only one letter did not contain some reference to the “socks”. A few examples - - -

“There were 67 pairs instead of 64 as you supposed.”

“the number of pairs scarcely ever agree with your statement”

“there were only 23 pairs and not 25 as you stated”

“I opened the bag and counted them myself twice”.

She was still knitting in 1865; and General Lee was still counting - - -

“January 8, 1865 - He writes on that day that he counted twice the pairs in her most recent shipment and found forty-five instead of the fifty pairs she claimed. Almost as afterthought about the day he noted, ‘The enemy made several attempts to drive us in but failed’ “. {4}

And then there is this interesting correspondence - - -

“Get one of the girls to count them accurately and set down the number”.

with perhaps (??) a note of praise or not in the following letter - - -

“The number stated by you was correct. 30 prs. good and true. I am glad to find there is arithmetic enough in my family to count 30. I thought if you placed your daughter at work all would go right”. {5}

Why Socks? - Why Not?

Most books I have read regarding Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary Anna Custis Lee have included the story of the general counting socks during the 1864-1865 years and try to explain his behavior.

There is no doubt, as seen in his letter requesting socks, Lee was aware and concerned about the condition of his army and its’ future. He had also suffered an extreme amount of loss in his personal life. He and Mary had lost their home, lost much of their wealth and their historic treasures were carried away and scattered about and not all were protected as the Union Army moved in and discovered.

In addition, they also had personal tragedies. Perhaps the hardest loss was their daughter Anne Carter (June 13, 1839- October 20, 1862), but in addition to her death they also lost; daughter-in-law (Mrs. Rooney {Charlotte} Lee (1841-December 26, 1863), and 2 children from Rooney’s marriage - Robert Edward (March 9, 1860 - June 30, 1862) and Charlotte Carter (October, 19, 1862 - December 6, 1862). They had 3 sons in the war, Rooney had been wounded, captured, and threatened with death. There has been speculation that General Lee was suffering from heart problems and not always feeling in the best of health. Mary, at this point in her life, suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, was in constant pain and confined to a wheelchair.

There is certainly enough here to cause anxiety and then consider the state of the war during the last year. All manner of supplies were running out for Lee’s army and his beloved troops. The countryside is stripped of supplies and General Grant’s siege is getting tighter and tighter, so General Lee counts and reports to his wife all her mistakes.

Several books I have read suggested General Lee counting pairs of socks was something he could accomplish, while everything around him was “careening out of control”. - - -

“When Mary accumulated several dozen pairs, she sent them to her husband. Lee commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia and engaged in a desperate campaign for the survival of his country, incredibly took the time to count pairs of socks and correct his wife’s in subsequent letters. Surely he had more important things to do; counting socks may have been the most reliable index of how acutely he felt the stress of command”. {6}

Was Mary truly inept at counting socks?; or was General Lee (trained as an engineer) just too persnickety on the issues of socks? Whatever you think the answer is it certainly gives another dimension to this unique couple.


Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee
October 1, 1807 – November 5, 1873
Virginia Historical Society

If Interested in the Subject of Knitting Socks in the Civil War: Check Out - - -

4. “Robert E. Lee” by Emory Thomas, pages 318; 347.
5. “Mrs. Robert E. Lee - The Lady of Arlington”, by John Perry, page 272.
6. Intimate Strategies of the Civil War; Military Commanders and Their Wives”, edited by Carol K. Bleser and Lesley J. Gordon, page 37.


Sergeant Major
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Jul 30, 2018
One of my sources for your trivia question (link) suggests that "bookkeeping had never come naturally to the Custis clan".

Knitting socks may have been Mary's way to deal with the loss of daughter, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. If it helped her husband's soldiers - comrades of her sons - all the better. Knitting might also have been a way for her to forget about her rheumatoid arthritis.

Thanks for the lovely thread!

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Feb 14, 2012
Central Pennsylvania
I'd have strangled him with a few of the left over socks tied together. Honestly. Leave R.E. Lee, the famous guy out of the story and make him just any husband- Joe Whatsinbloom. He'd be walking funny.

I mean really? The man has an entire war on his hands and he takes the time to count socks, much less get snippy about sock accounting?
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