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[Picture of Shirley Plantation Main House]

Picture of Shirley Plantation, Childhood Home of Charlotte Wickham

Charlotte Wickham (1841-1863)

High born Charlotte Wickham lived a life of wealth and married the son of General Robert E. Lee. Yet her life was filled with trauma, from the untimely deaths of her parents, to the loss of both her infant children, to finally her own death in her early twenties after her wounded husband was captured by Union troops.
Charlotte Wickham, christened Georgiana, was the posthumous child of George Wickham, of the U.S. Navy, and Charlotte Carter, daughter of Williams Carter of Shirley Plantation in Virginia. Her mother died while she was a baby, so Charlotte was reared by her maternal grandfather at Shirley. George Wickham, her father, was the son of John Wickham and his second wife, Elizabeth Selden McClurg, of Richmond, Virginia. John was an acclaimed attorney who successfully defended Vice President Aaron Burr during his trial for treason. A native of Long Island and the son of an Anglican minister, John came from a well regarded family whose members included Parker Wickham, one of Long Island's largest landholders, and Thomas Wickham, a Yale graduate who advised General Washington on military affairs in New York State during the American Revolution. Among the uncles on his mother's side, there was Edmund Fanning, an ardent Loyalist, who was instrumental in putting down a revolt in North Carolina in 1771, then went on to become a British general and colonial governor. Among John's many noted cousins was Nathaniel Fanning, who was second-in-command during the famous naval battle where John Paul Jones replied "I have not yet begun to fight!" During the course of that battle, Nathaniel led the assault which, against all odds, successfully compelled the British surrender. Charlotte's mother was also from a highly successful family, the Carters, who were one of Virginia's largest landholders.

As a descendant of some of Virginia's most prominent families and living on one of the area's finest estates, Charlotte traveled in an elite social circle as she entered adulthood and soon became engaged to General Robert E. Lee's second son, William Henry Fitzhugh "Rooney" Lee (see picture), who was her second cousin through their shared Carter ancestry. Rooney was born at the family home of Arlington in Virginia on May 31, 1837 and was nicknamed to distinguish him from his cousin and contemporary Fitzhugh Lee of Clermont, Fairfax County. He was a lively and likable child, who his father called a “large heavy fellow” who needed to be watched closely. At eight years old, Rooney snipped off the tips of the forefinger and middle finger on his left hand while playing with a set of straw cutters. He had his heart set on attending West Point, but was unable to do so because of regulations prohibiting brothers from attending West Point at the same time, since his older brother, Custis, was already a cadet there. Instead, he reluctantly entered Harvard in 1854 as one of just three Virginians at the school. At Harvard, he was popular with Boston society and joined the school's crew team, but instead of graduating he secured a commission in 1857, with the aid of General Winfield Scott, as a 2nd lieutenant in the 6th Infantry and fought in the Utah Expedition of 1858 under Albert S. Johnston against the Mormons and subsequently served in California. After two years of service, he opted for the life of a Virginia planter and resigned from the army in 1859.

On March 23, 1859, on the eve of the Civil War, Charlotte, described as a beautiful young bride, married Rooney. The wedding took place at Shirley Plantation, where she had grown up as an orphan. Still owned by the Carters to the present day, this estate with its attractive mansion on the James River in Charles City County has been the seat of the Carter/Hill Family since 1638 and is considered America's oldest family owned business. It was in the same great hall that General Lee's parents were married, since his mother was born and reared there. In many ways, the wedding was a climactic conclusion to a glorious way of life that was destined to come to an abrupt and terrible end in the impending Civil War. Attended by some of Virginia's leading families, the wedding was generous and old-fashioned in style. A letter from attendee Thomas H. Carter describes how he sat opposite Robert E. Lee and to the left of Hill Carter (1796-1875), owner of Shirley, and Carter Lee, who "paid close attention to the pleasures of the table and assuredly looked on the wine when red." Carter Lee was also described as putting the young officers "under the table with laughter." The groom's father, Robert E. Lee, laughed a good deal, but limited himself to two glasses of Madeira. He was also one of the trustees under the generous marriage settlement of Charlotte.

Charlotte and Rooney settled down to farm the White House, the 4,000 acre estate on the Pamunkey River in New Kent County, Virginia he had inherited from his maternal grandfather George Washington Parke Custis, the stepson of George Washington. In 1860, they had Robert E. Lee's first grandchild, Robert Edward Lee, whom Charlotte and Rooney insisted on naming after him. The flattered grandfather wrote, "I wish I could offer him a more worthy name and a better example. He must elevate the first, and make use of the latter to avoid the errors I have committed. I also expressed the thought that under the circumstances you might like to name him after his great-grandfather, and wish you both, 'upon mature consideration,' to follow your inclinations and judgment. I should love him all the same, and nothing could make me love you two more than I do." A second child, Mary Custis Lee, was born in 1862, but both children died in infancy. When the Civil War began, Rooney joined the Confederate army as a captain, then was promoted to major upon joining the Confederate cavalry. During the summer of 1861 he served in Western Virginia in Brigadier General William Loring's cavalry. He then spent the remainder of 1861 and a portion of 1862 in and near Fredericksburg. Meanwhile, Charlotte remained at the White House and was visited by her mother-in-law, who was there when McClellan's army began the march up the Peninsula. On May 11, 1862 the women left the White House, pinning on the front door a note: "Northern soldiers who profess to reverence Washington, forbear to desecrate the home of his first married life, the property of his wife, now owned by her descendants." A few days later there was written under the note: "Lady, a Northern officer has protected your property in sight of the enemy, and at the request of your overseer." Though the Federal army stored supplies on the estate, General McClellan gave specific protection to the residence, but in the confusion after McClellan's defeat at Gaines' Mill on June 27, 1862, the White House was set afire and burned.

Rooney continued to do well in the field and was appointed a lieutenant colonel and within a short time was promoted again to colonel, serving under Major General J.E.B. Stuart. At the crucial Battle of South Mountain on September 14, 1862, he was thrown from his horse and knocked unconscious. Still, he excelled in his responsibilities and was promoted to brigadier general the next day. As a brigadier general, Rooney continued to shine, commanding the 3rd Brigade at the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. At the Battle of Brandy Station on June 9, 1863, Rooney saved the day for the Confederate forces, but was wounded with a severe leg injury. In that era, it was common for the wealthy to recuperate from battlefield injuries at a family estate, so Rooney was taken to Hickory Hill plantation, where Charlotte's uncle William Fanning Wickham resided with his family, which included his son Williams Carter Wickham, the Confederate general. (In the convoluted world of Virginia aristocracy, Williams' mother was a Carter, so he was a first cousin of Charlotte on her father's side and a second cousin on her mother's side.) Rooney's family was fond of visiting the Wickhams there, with his father once writing after staying with William Fanning Wickham that, "I am so glad now that I stopped at Hickory Hill on my return to Lexington. It has given me pleasant thoughts for the rest of my life." Rooney was put under the care of his brother, Robert E. Lee, Jr., and his wound began to heal superbly. Charlotte also joined them, as well as Rooney's mother and sisters, who came up from Richmond. He occupied "the office" in the yard, while Robert slept in the room adjoining and became an expert nurse. In a letter to Charlotte, written on the 11th, her father-in-law penned: "I am so grieved, my dear daughter, to send Fitzhugh to you wounded. But I am so grateful that his wound is of a character to give us full hope of a speedy recovery. With his youth and strength to aid him, and your tender care to nurse him, I trust he will soon be well again."

On the morning of June 26, 1863, about two weeks after Rooney's arrival, the party at Hickory Hill was finishing up at the breakfast table and moving out to the front porch, when they were surprised to hear two or three shots down in the direction of the outer gate, where there was a large grove of hickory trees. The Wickhams thought someone must be hunting squirrels, as there were many in those woods, so Robert was asked to run down and stop whoever was shooting them. Grabbing his hat, he headed off, but had gone only a hundred yards toward the grove when he saw five or six Federal cavalrymen coming up at a gallop to the gate. Realizing what it meant, he rushed back to the office and told his brother. Rooney immediately directed his brother to leave at once, so he dashed out, clambered over the fence and ducked behind a thick hedge, just as he heard the "tramp and clank" of a large body of troopers riding up. Behind this hedge Robert crept along until he reached a body of woods, where he was safe. From a nearby hill he ascertained that there was a large raiding party of Federal cavalry on the main road, and heavy smoke ascending from the Court House, about three miles away, told him that they were burning the railroad buildings there. After waiting until he thought it was safe, Robert worked his way very cautiously back to the vicinity of the house to learn what was going on. He took advantage of the luxuriant shrubbery in the old garden behind the house, and when he peeked out from the last boxwood that screened him, a mere twenty yards from the back porch, Robert perceived that he was too early, for there were still numerous Union soldiers standing, sitting and walking around. He jumped back behind the group of boxwoods, then flung himself flat under a thick fir and crawled up close to the trunk beneath the low-hanging branches, remaining there for some hours. He saw Rooney being brought out from the office on a mattress and placed in the "Hickory Hill" carriage, to which was hitched the plantation's horses, and then saw him driven away, a soldier on the box and a mounted guard surrounding him. He was carried to the White House plantation like this, and then sent by boat to Fort Monroe.

Rooney was placed in the hospital at Fort Monroe and was allowed liberties on his assurance that he would not attempt to escape, but on July 15 he had been ordered into close confinement and was threatened with death by hanging if the Confederate authorities executed Captain W. H. Sawyer and Captain John M. Flinn. These two Federals had been selected by lot from among the officers held at Libby prison and were under sentence in retaliation for the killing of Captain T.G. McGraw and William F. Corbin, C.S.A., who had been caught as spies behind Federal lines in Kentucky. The Federal threat prevented the execution of Sawyer and Flinn, so Rooney's life was spared, though he was kept in close captivity for several weeks. However, Charlotte became traumatized after witnessing her wounded husband's capture, with the excessive grief causing her to become seriously ill. It was decided to take her to a resort of her choosing, the Hot Springs in Alleghany County. About July 17, she and her mother-in-law started for the resort in a box car fitted up as a bedroom, but the vacation was not successful. Charlotte's condition grew worse and her family began to fear for her life. When the news reached Rooney that Charlotte might be dying, he asked for a parole of forty-eight hours to visit her, with the assurance that his brother Custis, his equal in rank, would stand hostage for him, but his request "was curtly and peremptorily refused." Her father-in-law tried to comfort Charlotte with the assurance that her husband would be well cared for, urging: "You must not be sick while Fitzhugh is away, or he will be more restless under his separation. Get strong and hearty by his return, that he may the more rejoice at the sight of you.... I can appreciate your distress at Fitzhugh's situation. I deeply sympathise with it, and in the lone hours of the night I groan in sorrow at his captivity and separation from you. But we must bear it, exercise all our patience, and do nothing to aggravate the evil. This, besides injuring ourselves, would rejoice our enemies and be sinful in the eyes of God."

Since all prisoner exchanges were suspended, Rooney was uncertain when he would be released, but for a time was hopeful of an early exchange. The restraints on him were gradually relaxed, but he received so much attention from friends and visitors at Fort Monroe that the authorities decided to send him to Johnson's Island, where he would not be lionized. Fortunately for him, the orders were modified to permit his transfer to Fort Lafayette in New York harbor, allowing him to leave on November 13, 1863. His father told his family that this was a gain, since "any place would be better than Fort Monroe, with Butler in command;" adding, "his long confinement is very grievous to me, yet it may all turn out for the best." With Rooney now placed on the same status as other prisoners, his father was convinced the worst was over, but Charlotte's condition became daily more serious. By Christmastime, the news from Charlotte was somewhat more encouraging and her family was hopeful that she might recover, but on the 26th she died. Her bereaved father-in-law stated, "It has pleased God to take from us one exceedingly dear to us, and we must be resigned to His holy will. She, I trust, will enjoy peace and happiness forever, while we must patiently struggle on under all the ills that may be in store for us. What a glorious thought it is that she has joined her little cherubs and our angel Annie in heaven" (see her grave).

Rooney spent nine months as a prisoner of war before being exchanged in March, 1864. Given a new command, Rooney was promoted to major general on April 23, 1864, and upon accepting this promotion, became the youngest officer to attain that rank in the Confederacy. During the final year of the war, as the ranks of Confederacy officers thinned through attrition, Rooney's role mushroomed. In August 1864, near Petersburg at Globe Tavern, he commanded a cavalry brigade and near war's end, in April 1865, Rooney was the second-in-command during the retreat from Petersburg to Appomattox, having the total responsibility for the army's right flank. When the war ended, Rooney returned to his plantation, the White House, where he rebuilt his destroyed home, farmed the land, and served as president of the Virginia Agricultural Society. He was remarried to Mary Tab Bolling on November 28, 1867 and they had two children, both of whom reached adulthood, including one again named Robert Edward Lee. Rooney went on to become a state senator followed by his election as a Democrat to the House of Representatives in 1887. In 1890, while helping a black Republican with a pension claim, he stated, "I represent all of the people of my district, and will help them all alike." Long after the Civil War, when his childhood days at Arlington were but dim memories, he still maintained the old regimen of evening tea, prayers before breakfast and at bed time, and Sunday evening hymn singing. While serving his second term, he died at Ravensworth, his wife's home in Alexandria, Virginia on October 15, 1891. Rooney is buried at the Lee Mausoleum on the campus of Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, near his famous father, and grandfather.



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