The SafeEstates Blog

Strike The Tent!

This April marks the 155th anniversary of the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia on April 9, 1965. General Grant later was elected President of the United States in 1869. General Lee became President of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in 1865. Lee led the college until his death in 1870 at age 63.

Robert E. Lee wrote his last will and testament in 1846 while stationed in Brooklyn, New York, as a U.S. Army captain of engineers. At the time he was married with seven children. His wife, Mary Custis Lee, was a great-granddaughter of Martha Custis Washington. As the youngest child of a bankrupt soldier and politician, Robert Lee had little wealth of his own. In his will he left his estate to his wife for life, then to his children “in such proportions to each as their situations &; necessities in life may require &; as may be designated by her . . . .”

During the years after 1846, Lee lived the Army officer life, He moved where his orders took him, including a post as superintendent of West Point. His family lived intermittently at Arlington, the Custis family’s Virginia plantation overlooking the Potomac River and Washington, D.C. When Mary’s father died in 1857, Arlington passed to Mary for life and then to her eldest son, Custis Lee. During the Civil War, Arlington was occupied by the Union army, sold for taxes and became an army cemetery. When the war ended, Lee had very little money and no home. He had numerous job offers and chose to return to higher education. Until his death he lived in a house owned by Washington College. Through thrift and wise investment in good securities, his net worth was about $88,000 when he died.
A lesson from Lee’s story is that a well written estate plan may not need to be changed frequently. It must be reviewed regularly, and must be changed when circumstances change, but the plan established at one stage of life may work when needed many years later. Another lesson is the utility of a power of appointment, a topic discussed in previous issues of this newsletter.
I recently finished reading Douglas Southall Freeman’s excellent four volume Lee biography. I highly recommend it to patient students of American history. Robert E. Lee’s last words: “Strike the tent!” signaled he was ready to move on to the next great adventure.
~ Randy Hooper