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Cornerstone Contributions: 1887 Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association Annual Report—Mrs. Ball and the Lee Monument

The 1887 Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association Annual Report. Photo: DHR.

What’s the significance behind the inclusion of the 1887 Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association Annual Report in Richmond’s Lee monument cornerstone box? The author explores the link between the owners of the historic Mount Vernon estate and America’s first president, as well as how the association became a part of the memory and meaning behind its placement in the Confederate statue cornerstone.

 

One item among the contents of the cornerstone box points to an even more famous Virginian than Robert E. Lee: George Washington. Aside from their familial connection through Lee’s marriage to Martha Washington’s great granddaughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, the two generals are often compared and contrasted for their leadership skills and military prowess among other attributes. Some token of admiration or respect for Washington in the cornerstone box, such as an engraving or biography, would be an obvious addition. The inclusion of the 1887 Annual Report of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA), however, hints at an even more curious link with this women’s organization, as well as Washington himself.

 

Signed agreement between John Augustine Washington III and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association for the purchase of Mount Vernon, April 6, 1858. MVLA Archives.

As the owners of Washington’s historic Mount Vernon estate since 1858, the MVLA printed this yearly report to inform the public of the previous year’s activities and restoration work. They distributed their annual reports to many interested parties, so it is unclear if its placement in the cornerstone box should be attributed to the Ladies’ Association themselves, or to a supporter of their work, or simply as a reference to George Washington.

 

The entry for the 1887 Annual Report was listed in the Richmond Dispatch inventory as “Emma R. Ball, report Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 1887.” Mrs. Ball herself may have purposefully given the item for inclusion in the cornerstone box.

 

Emma Read Ball was the MVLA’s Vice Regent for Virginia from 1874 until her death in 1918. She was George Washington’s great-great-grandniece by her marriage to Charles Burgess Ball, a descendant of Charles Washington, the first president’s youngest brother. Mr. Ball represented Loudon County in the Virginia House of Delegates and later became a state senator during the Confederacy. As a long-serving member of the MVLA and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, Emma Read Ball held a strong devotion to her state’s history.[1] It is currently unknown if she was involved with the erection of the Lee monument in any way. As a Richmond resident and past Confederate citizen, however, she likely knew of the proposed monument and approved of it.

 

Portrait photograph of Emma Read Ball by Davis Gallery. MVLA Archives.

If it was indeed Mrs. Ball who presented the Annual Report as a gift for the cornerstone box, there could be many reasons for this choice. Perhaps she was proud of the Ladies’ Association’s work toward the preservation of Washington’s home and legacy, and thought it related to the goal of those who were constructing the Lee memorial. She may have hoped to include something that represented herself as well as Washington. An interesting consideration is how southern MVLA members like Mrs. Ball rationalized their reverence for George Washington, a founding father who helped unite his country, while also upholding the memory of secessionist leaders.

 

It is much less likely that the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association as a whole supported the Lee monument or contributed the Annual Report to the cornerstone box. The MVLA is made up of women from around the country and its northern members may not have consented to any ties between their organization and a monument to a Confederate. Nevertheless, there was a connection between the MVLA and the Lees through the Lee family’s generosity in returning Washington relics to Mount Vernon. Two of Robert E. Lee’s children, George Washington Custis Lee and Mary Custis Lee, gave such treasures as Washington’s bedstead and mahogany washstand.[2][3] Later Lee descendants followed their example and continued to give valuable original pieces to the estate. Decades after the dedication of the Lee monument in Richmond, the MVLA did state their support for the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation’s (now the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association) efforts to preserve Stratford Hall, the Lee family home.[4] So, it’s possible the MVLA agreed to the inclusion of their Annual Report in the cornerstone box through Emma Read Ball, but they did not mention this in their Council meeting minutes.

It’s easy to accept the presence of the 1887 MVLA Annual Report in the cornerstone box as simply an attempt to equate the greatness of these two men or to draw parallels between them. Although if this was the objective, a more straightforward depiction of Washington would send a clearer message. Whether intended or not, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association became a part of the memory and meaning of its placement in the cornerstone box. It is fascinating to speculate on the underlying statements behind these objects that were thoughtfully gathered and stored inside, not knowing if it would ever be opened again in the future, by whom, and what changes the world would experience in the interim.

—Rebecca Baird
Archivist for the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington

 

Other posts in the Cornerstone Contributions series may be found in DHR’s archive of Archaeology Blogs.

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References:

[1] Vice Regent Emma Read Ball vs. the Virginia Legislature, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, https://www.mountvernon.org/preservation/mount-vernon-ladies-association/their-legacy/emma-read-ball/ (Accessed February 28, 2022)

[2] Report of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, p. 8. Farmer Office Steam Presses: Bridgeport, CT. 1877.

[3] Annual Report of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, p. 19. Mount Vernon, Virginia. 1908.

[4] Annual Report of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, p. 12. Mount Vernon, Virginia. 1936.

Originally posted: March 9, 2022
Updated: March 30, 2022