What secrets were lost in fire that destroyed home of Robert E. Lee relative?


On Feb. 10, 1933, the Johnston home of Richard Henry Lee burned to the ground, reportedly destroying hundreds of historic relics belonging to the famous Lee family of the south.

Richard’s fourth great-grandfather was the father of General “Lighthorse” Harry Lee, ninth governor of Virginia and Virginia Representative to the United States Congress. Lighthorse served as a cavalry officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolution and, in 1794, George Washington sent him to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion, a violent tax protest in Pennsylvania. At Washington’s 1799 funeral, Lighthorse read the eulogy. Lighthorse’s son, General Robert Edward Lee, led the Army of Northern Virginia against the Union Army during the Civil War.

Born on June 27, 1873 in Baltimore, Maryland, Richard was the son of Richard Henry Lee Sr. and Isabella Wilson. His father, who was employed as a store clerk, died when he was only ten years old, leaving his mother to raise him and his siblings – Mary, Joseph and Robert Edward – on her own.

As a young man, Richard moved to New York where he was drawn to those who lived life on the stage. He quickly befriended a number of theater actors, playwrights and stage managers. He was employed as a men’s hat buyer for Rowland Hussey Macy & Company in New York City before relocating to Providence in 1906 when he accepted a position as a hat buyer for the Outlet Company on Weybosset Street. A department store founded in 1891 by brothers Joseph and Leon Samuels, the Outlet Company occupied an entire city block and dominated the retail industry in Rhode Island. In 1910, Richard married Mary (Warner) and they settled into a home on Thayer Street. They later moved to Ontario Street and then Blackstone Boulevard. Richard’s last home was on Bellevue Avenue in Johnston.

In June of 1937, Richard retired from the hat sales industry and took his wife to Naples, Maine for a relaxing summer vacation. The couple had rented a room at the Locust House and, on the evening of Aug. 5, Richard announced that he was going to bed as he didn’t feel very well. The next morning, his wife discovered him dead in bed.

Sixty-five years later, two wooden steamer trunks were discovered in a bank vault at Alexandria Bank in Virginia. The trunks had been placed there by General Robert E. Lee’s daughter Mary many years ago for safe-keeping. The trunks contained approximately 4,000 Lee family letters, including one written by General Lee in November of 1862, after being informed that his daughter had died from the effects of Typhoid Fever. It read, “I had always counted if God should spare me for a few days of peace after this civil war had ended, that I should have her with me.”

The trunks also contained a slave manifest and letters written by slaves as well as by anti-slavery activists. Some personal chronicles of the Civil War, handwritten written by General Lee, were included among the items in the trunks as well as numerous photographs and other memorabilia such as three gold stars the general had cut off his uniform after surrendering to General Grant at Appomattox.

While the discovery of the trunks add a great many more pages to the history of the Lee family, so prominent in the story of American warfare, we will never know what was upon the pages that were turned to ash, 91 years ago, inside a house in Johnston.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.



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