Lee Shepard: The greatest finds in his career as an archivist

Historians in the News

During his 33-year career as an archivist, Lee Shepard has laid his hands on some remarkable documents and artifacts.

George Washington's earliest surviving land survey (1749) and items from the estate of Paul Mellon jump to the top of his list. But the competition has heated up since the discovery of two wooden trunks containing letters, legal papers, journals and financial records collected by Mary Custis Lee, the eldest daughter of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

One of the most powerful is Lee's 1863 handwritten note to the headquarters of the Army of Northern Virginia announcing Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's death. "The daring, skill and energy of this great and good soldier, by the decree of an all-wise Providence, are now lost to us," Lee wrote.

"It was a pretty stunning discovery," said Shepard, the director of manuscripts/senior archivist at the Virginia Historical Society. "The opportunity to work with these items is just incredible."

The trunks were found at Burke & Herbert Bank & Trust Co. in Alexandria in 2002. Robert E.L. deButts Jr., a Lee descendant and corporate attorney in New York, had learned that Mary Custis had an account there at one time. When bank personnel began to research her account, they found the trunks in the basement.

"I guess it was one of those 'out of sight, out of mind' things," Shepard said.

Heirs to the Custis estate turned the trunks over to the Virginia Historical Society in late 2002. Shepard and his staff have spent years cataloging and preserving the papers....
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