The Aristocratic Carters of Virginia

August 16, 2012

A portrait of Robert "King" Carter 1663-1732

The families into which these daughters and granddaughters of “King” Carter were married in the eighteenth century were among those, to be sure, from which the leaders of an aristocratic society would naturally spring…. It is hard to believe that pure chance should have made the five daughters of Carter the ancestresses of three signers, three governors, and two Presidents. Again, although the families with which the blood of the daughters of the Carter stock was blended, by these various marriages, were socially of equal distinction, this fact can be established: outside the branches that formed the Carter connection, none of them produced more than the average number of men of superior intellect and achievement…. [O]ne is almost forced to conclude that there was something in the stock of the Carters that bred greatness through the female side, or else that something in the dealings of the Carter mothers with their sons inspired successive generations to high endeavor. The Alexandria boy who played on the lawn of Shirley [Plantation], during his mother’s visits, was wholly unconscious of it but his possession of his mother’s blood, in descent from Robert Carter, was the best endowment for greatness that he could have had in the Virginia of his day. In some subtle way, he was advantaged in the contests of men because his mother was of the Carters of Corotoman.

Robert E. Lee at age 31, then a young Lieutenant of Engineers, U. S. Army, 1838. Painting by William Edward West

By those same Carters at Shirley, as by his mother in his own home, Robert [E. Lee]  saw exemplified a very simple, straightforward loyalty to family, to church, and to God.


Douglas Southall Freeman, R. E. Lee: A Biography (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934), Vol. I, p. 26. Editorial comment: —

On both sides, General Lee hailed from two of Virginia’s respected traditional elite families. This aristocratic heritage was more precious to him than a great fortune and it was of inestimable value during the Civil War when he became, not just the commander of the South’s army, but a leader who symbolized its way of life and noblest aspirations.

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