My Research Adventures

A Robert E. Lee Letter with a Sketch of Charles L. Powell

Is that a sketch of Charles L. Powell on a Robert E. Lee letter? Probably. I came across this pencil sketch on the back of one of Lee's letters while performing research at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

The letter was from Robert E. Lee to his daughter Mildred Childe Lee in March of 1861. She was at school with the Powells in Winchester, VA, and the back of the folded letter reads, "At Mr. Powell's - Winchester." Beneath this wording is the pencil sketch shown here of an older man with his arm raised in an authoritative or instructive manner. Could this be a sketch of Charles L. Powell? Since I had no image of him at the time, I wondered whether this could be the only potential image I would have. I wondered who drew the sketch. Robert E. Lee was known to draw sketches to send to his children when he was away. However, his sketches were far more accomplished and detailed. By contrast, this one appears to have been drawn by someone still learning. Perhaps it was Mildred drawing an image of her teacher and principal, Charles L. Powell. I found at least one other letter in the Lee Family Papers that contained sketches on it. It was also from Robert E. Lee - but this time to his wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee. But Mildred was with her mother when the letter was received (at a home called Kinloch, according to the book, "The Lee Girls" by Mary Coulling). Since Mildred had access to both letters, I think it's likely that she is the artist. The Powells offered an optional course on drawing in their curriculum, and Mildred may have elected to join the class. It was intriguing at the time to wonder whether the sketch above could be an image of Hattie's father. I didn't yet realize I'd find his image by accident the following Monday - where there is a resemblance.

Image courtesy of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mildred Childe Lee dated March 15, 1861, Lee Family Papers, Mss1.L51c.277 (Section 15).

©2020 by Alison Herring