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My Research Adventures

Lillie & Fanny: Misidentified in a Robert E Lee Letter for 60 Years

Imagine being 18 years old in 1863 and encountering Robert E. Lee on his retreat from Gettysburg. Then imagine that Lee mentioned seeing you in a letter to his daughter. Your name is in a war-time letter of Robert E. Lee's - an epic encounter for anyone, regardless of his or her opinions on the war. Now imagine that your name was misidentified for over 60 years. Ouch.

In March of 2017 I read through the family papers of Robert E. Lee at the Virginia Historical Society in order to look for references to the Powells. Robert E. Lee's youngest daughter Mildred was in school with the Powells in Winchester from 1860 through part of 1862, and I knew there would be references to the school that would provide insight to my research.

I read a letter that Lee wrote to his daughter Mildred on July 27th, 1863 from Camp Culpepper. At some point near the time he passed through Winchester, Lee encountered two friends of Mildred's from her time in the area, and he wanted to tell her that they enquired about her. Lee named the two girls as follows:

1. Lilly Dandridge

2. Fanny Mc--- (Lee forgot her last name, but remembered that it began with "Mc", and noted that her mother was a Nelson). He otherwise left her last name blank.

I found the mention of these two young women fascinating: both were friends of Mildred's, both were likely students in the Powells' school, and both encountered Lee in the path of his retreat from Gettysburg.

When I tried to transcribe the first name, it looked like "Silly," but I decided it must be Sally with an errant dot above the "a". I then tried to find the name in the list of girls who attended the Powells' school. I did not find a Sally Dandridge, but the name Lillie Dandridge caught my eye. Remembering the errant dot, I wondered: could Sally be Lilly? I confirmed that the Lillie Dandridge in the Powells' school had no sisters or other relatives of the right age named "Sally" or who had any name where Sally could be a nickname. Therefore, my transcription was wrong. The "S" was an "L," the dot was not errant, but part of an "i," and Lee had spelled her name "Lilly" instead of "Lillie."

Later the same day I learned that many of Lee's war time letters have been transcribed and published in a book titled "The Wartime Papers of R. E. Lee" by Clifford Dowdey and Louis Manarin. I looked through the book for letters that I had transcribed in order to check my accuracy. I found the letter noted above and discovered that Mr. Dowdey had also miss-transcribed Lillie's name as "Sally," so I felt I was in good company. Proper names are very difficult to transcribe because the context of the sentence often isn't helpful in the same way that it is when transcribing other words. So poor Lillie was missidentified.

Lillie Dandridge's full name was Sarah Goldsborough Dandridge. She was the daughter of Philip Pendleton Dandridge and Caroline Fitzhugh Goldsborough. She appears several times in my research on Winchester. Lloyd Powell mentions her in his letters home when he sends his love to Lillie and other girls in the school. She's also mentioned in Robert T. Barton's memoir as published in Margaretta Barton Colt's book, "Defend the Valley." The passage from page 381 of the book reads:

"Among the many pretty girls at Winchester the prettiest by far was Lily Dandridge. I do not think I ever saw a prettier girl, and in all other respects she seemed equally attractive. She had many lovers, but of them all she preferred E. Holmes Boyd and they were married in October 1866."

Lillie's husband E. Holmes Boyd was the son of the Presbyterian Minister Andrew H. H. Boyd, a familiar name to Winchester history buffs.

The second young woman Lee mentioned in his letter had the misfortune of only a partial last name. Lee wrote that she was, "Fanny Mc-----." He could not remember her last name and included a dash instead. But he did remember that her, "mother was a Nelson." This may not seem like much, but I was confident that I could identify her with these hints. This young lady was Frances "Fanny" MacCoughtry. She was the daughter of William O. MacCoughtry and Mary Elizabeth Nelson. She was not listed in the Powells' school between 1856 and 1859 (the only catalogs that survive), so she either joined later or knew Mildred outside of school.

So, two young women somehow manage the distinction of encountering Robert E. Lee on his retreat from Gettysburg AND were mentioned by him in a war time letter to his daughter. And yet one name has been misidentified in published transcriptions, and the other name is incomplete. Ouch! It is all the more rewarding to properly identify those two young women and give them their place in history.


I have written more about this Robert E. Lee letter in my post titled, "Robert E. Lee in Winchester."

Image from, "Two Women Seated by A Woodland Stream" by Mary Cassatt

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