Finding Robert E. Lee

When I went to Virginia last year for a series of speaking engagements, I spent half a day at the Virginia Historical Society. Half a day was far from enough time. I could have spent a week looking through documents and images. On one hand, walking through the exhibitions was exhilarating. On the other, it was incredibly frustrating. At each turn, I found an object or a painting of a family member or distant relative. That was the fun part. The downside was that I was alone, and it seemed odd to gasp, then grab a nearby person and say, “That thar, why that’s my great-grandpappy.” So I went about this incredible discovery with only the guards to keep me company.

I feel amazingly lucky to have so much of my family’s history intact and easy to access. I’m also glad to know that my grandmother wasn’t totally loony and making up stories. My great-great grandmother, Ocatvia Mildred White, was General Robert E. Lee’s first or second cousin. I’m not sure which since the intermarrying tended to create a tangled mess of fishing lines. My grandmother was quite proud that her Grandmama Octavia was General Lee's god-daughter. Now I won’t go into a lengthy historical review of General Lee’s biography, but he seemed to be rather an upstanding man. One of my favorite images from the VHS is this photograph of General Lee after the Civil War. It was taken in 1869, when Lee was president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. It’s an arresting and haunting image, with a composition that highlights a sense of isolation. It doesn’t feel heroic like other Lee images; it’s a quiet surrender.

Oh baby, when I look in your eyes I go crazy

Amelie Rives, Princess Troubetzkoy

One of the benefits of having a family obsessed with old family stories is, just that, many old family stories. My grandmother is from an ancient Virginia family and she often referred to cousins, aunts, and great-great grandparents in polite and obscure language. “Well,” she would say, in a very slow Virginia drawl, “she was a true beauty, and quite eccentric.” And that would be that. As I’ve looked deeper into some of these relatives, the truth is far more interesting.

For example, my grandmother’s cousin Amelie Rives' godfather was General Robert E. Lee and granddaughter of Senator William Cabell Rives. She was born at the end of the civil war and lived at Castle Hill, built by one of my distant grandfathers Dr. Thomas Walker, near Charlottesville. In 1888, she married John Armstrong “Archie” Chanler, grandson of John Jacob Astor. The marriage was a disaster with details including morphine addiction in France, affairs, and eventual madness. The Astor family claimed that Amelie drove Archie mad, my family claimed that he was already mad. Donna M. Lucey’s biography, Archie and Amelie, Love and Madness in the Gilded Age retells the story, albeit in a salacious way.

In the end, Archie descended into madness, including delusions that he could put himself into a sort of trance in which his face would somehow morph into the death mask of Napoleon. In the meantime, Amelie became the toast of European society, divorced Archie, and married Russian Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy, "an artist and an aristocrat," who possessed more glamour and panache than money. The two settled at the family home, Castle Hill and were together for the rest of their lives. The scandals continued, when Amelie began writing novels and plays including the shocking The Quick and the Dead?, an erotic story. However, as my grandmother said, “Why, she was such a fine beauty.”

Castle Hill, near Charlottesville, Virginia

Amelie Rives Troubetzkoy

Amelie Rives 1890

John Armstrong "Archie" Chanler

John Armstrong "Archie" Chanler as Napoleon's death mask, and riding

Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy

Amelie Rives Troubetzkoy by Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy c. 1890