In October 1866, as the country was still in the early stages of recovering from the Civil War, a U.S. government party arrived on the doorstep of the Custis-Lee home at Arlington, the grand Greek revival mansion high on the hill overlooking Washington D.C. Robert E. Lee had left the home at the war’s outbreak, and the agents were tasked with taking possession of whatever items of value still remained in the house.
It was tough work. From May 1861 until the end of the war, the home had served as the headquarters of the Union Department of Northeastern Virginia. Federal troops had swarmed over the grounds cutting down the forests for firewood, gouging roads across the landscape and burying comrades in the gardens. The home had suffered as well. Occupiers had knocked out boards, creating holes through which they waved signal flags, and scribbled graffiti on its walls. Rufus Dawes of the famed Iron Brigade summed up Arlington House’s condition at the time: “The grand old southern homestead of Arlington, with its quaint and curious pictures on the wall, its spectacular apartments, broad halls and stately pillars in front, was an object of especial interest; but, abandoned by its owner, General Robert E. Lee…it was now a desolation. The military headquarters of McDowell’s division was in the Arlington House, which was open to the public and hundreds tramped at will through its apartments.”
The government agents worked their way through the house to the mansion’s loft, where according to an account of the visit in the Alexandria Gazette, “Many valuable heirlooms, including some of the family portraits, had been purloined….These boxes had been broken open and everything of real value taken away, and the letters and private papers of Gen. Lee scattered over the loft.” Elsewhere furniture, bureaus, gilt picture frames and other artifacts were “tumbled together, broken, bruised, and in a most vandalized condition.” Standing guard over these family effects was one Mrs. Gray, described as “the old and faithful household servant” by the newspaper reporter.
In 1866 Selina Gray was, by modern standards, hardly old; in fact, she was only 43. Yet her faithfulness in a time of war had certainly been well proven. Today the Gray family story is a key part of the history of Arlington House, and the continued existence of some of America’s most treasured artifacts can be attributed to this one remarkable woman. The recent discovery of a rare stereoscopic photograph of Selina Gray, dressed in period finery, is the latest chapter in her story.
In May 1861, with persistent rumors circulating in Virginia of Union troops building fortifications along the Arlington Heights, and the Potomac River growing ever more crowded with shipments fueling the nascent war effort, General Robert E. Lee’s wife, the former Mary Anna Custis, was preparing to leave the home she had made with her husband since 1857, the place where they had been married exactly 30 years earlier. Mary’s father was George Washington Parke Custis, the step-grandson and adopted son of George Washington, and the Lees were in possession of several cherished heirlooms from Mount Vernon.
The general, for his part, had long since decamped to Richmond to assume his duties with the Confederate Army. From there, he had written a letter to Mary urging her to take measures to protect herself and their most precious belongings. Among the troops coming from the capital city, he wrote, “it might be considered a smart thing to cross into Va & rob, plunder &c especially when it is known to be the residence of one of the Rebel leaders—I think therefore you had better prepare all things for removal that is the plate pictures &c. & be prepared at any moment….”
Mary did as she was advised. On a beautiful day in mid-May, she entrusted the keys to the house, and all the history it held, to Selina Gray. By the end of the month, the Union Army had indeed occupied Arlington.
When George Washington Parke Custis had begun construction on Arlington House not long after his adoptive father’s death in 1799, having a place to properly showcase what he called “the Washington treasury”— furniture, china, Revolutionary War tents and more—was paramount. Custis had also inherited some of Mount Vernon’s slaves, among them Selina Gray, a descendant from this first generation of Arlington slaves. Born into slavery at Arlington in December 1823, Selina was just slightly older than her future husband, Thornton Gray, a field hand and handyman at Arlington who was born in April 1824. The two were married around 1847, and legend has it that Mary Lee was so supportive of the union that she had an Episcopal minister perform the service in the same room where she and Robert had wed. (In Reading the Man, Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, the historian casts some doubt on the veracity of the wedding story, stating that “the slaves also had their idealized tales of warm bonds and powerful connections,” and that in such stories “truth melds into the wistful desire to believe in a harmonious connection between master and slave.”)
Thornton and Selina would have eight children—six girls and two boys—all born into slavery and listed in the Custis property rolls alongside livestock and farming equipment. Yet Selina and other slaves were undoubtedly treated better at Arlington than other slaves elsewhere. Among other things, the Custises and Lees offered education to their enslaved workers, including Selina. “They believed it was their Christian duty to teach them, not only so that they could read the Bible, but so that they could live successfully once they were freed,” says Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, a National Park Service spokesperson. So it is perhaps not surprising, given their relationship, that Mary Lee entrusted Selina Gray with the keys to Arlington House when hostilities began. As General Lee expected, Union troops quickly occupied the estate. Although Gray reportedly did all she could to protect the “Washington treasury,” soldiers often made their way inside the house and ransacked the Lees’ belongings. Legend has it that Gray confronted looters on one occasion and demanded that they stop; her words likely had little effect. Finally Gray sent word to the commanding officer of the Department of Northeastern Virginia, Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell, and told him Washington family heirlooms were at risk of being lost forever. With Gray’s guidance, McDowell arranged for several important artifacts—including a bookcase, knife boxes, dinner plates, a creamer and other china, and a side table among them—to go to the U.S. Patent Office for safekeeping. In many ways, Gray was unintentionally among the first historic preservationists.
Little is known about Selina Gray’s life after she became a free woman and left Arlington House. Sources say that Thornton and Selina bought some land not far from the Arlington estate, in the southern part of present-day Arlington County (called Alexandria County until 1920) and grew produce, which they sold at a stand in downtown D.C. Census records from 1880 and 1900 show Thornton listed as a farmer and Selina occupied with “keeping house.”
According to the NPS, Selina saw several of the Lees after the war when they came back to visit Arlington, including Robert’s brother, Sydney Smith Lee, and Mary Lee, one of the Lee daughters. When Mrs. Lee visited the house for the only time in 1873, she may have met with Selina there too. It is thought that Selina died in 1907, in her mid-80s, and that Thornton succumbed around that time as well, although where they are buried is a mystery.
A few years ago, two trunks left behind by Mary Lee, the eldest daughter, were discovered in the cellar of a bank in Alexandria. In one of those trunks was a letter written by Selina Gray to Mrs. Lee in 1872. “It was a cordial, even somewhat friendly letter telling things about Selina’s family and expressing warm wishes for Mrs. Lee,” Anzelmo-Sarles says. “She even told Mrs. Lee that she hoped that she’d get her home back one day.”
Mrs. Lee, of course, never did get her family home back, but her story, and that of her one-time slave Selina Gray, remain forever linked to Arlington House.
Where Is Selina Buried?
The final resting places of Selina and Thornton Gray are not known, but the story of their son, Harry Gray, offers some possible clues. Born a slave at Arlington, Harry was an intelligent, ambitious man who became a skilled mason and found work with the Department of the Interior. (According to family history, Harry helped to build the original masonry wall surrounding Arlington Cemetery, some of which can still be seen.) Harry did well enough to eventually purchase a 10-acre property near the former Arlington estate, where he built a stand-alone brick house modeled after the row houses of Washington, D.C. On his death in November 1913, his property was subdivided among his four children. Today his house still stands, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
According to burial records, Harry Gray was interred in the graveyard of the Stevens Lodge of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization founded in 1870 by 12 African-American men, some of them former Arlington slaves. Harry Gray had become a duespaying member in 1873. The lodge had a meeting hall and a two-acre graveyard on Columbia Pike, located between Arlington Cemetery and Gray’s house.
In 1964 a private developer made an arrangement with the lodge to reinter those buried there in another cemetery, to make way for new development along Columbia Pike (a Sheraton Hotel now stands on the site). Graves with markers would be moved to Coleman Cemetery in Alexandria, a church and fraternal burial ground not far from Mount Vernon. Three known graves that were moved along with their markers were those of Harry Gray and two of his sisters, Emma and Sarah. Also relocated, however, was a Gray family headstone marked for Thornton and “Salena,” one of several alternate spellings of Selina. The marker indicates it was “Erected by their daughter Sarah G. Wilson.” No dates are listed.
Does this mean Thornton and Selina are buried in Coleman Cemetery? No one knows for sure. Today Coleman Cemetery is in a state of disrepair, and burial records are incomplete. (Most of the records of the old Stevens Lodge were burned in a fire too.) It’s possible that their daughter simply placed the headstone in the Stevens Lodge graveyard as a memorial. Another possibility is that Thornton and Selina were buried in the cemetery at Freedman’s Village, which was created in 1863 and stood on the southern end of the former Arlington Estate for more than 30 years. But this theory is not backed by any evidence.
There’s one grace note to the mystery of Selina’s final resting place: Thornton H. Gray, lawyer son of Harry Gray and grandson of Thornton and Selina, fought with the U.S. Army in World War I and died in 1943. He is now buried in Section 8 of Arlington Cemetery, not far from the spot where his grandparents were born.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.