Mary Custis Lee's Note, And A Polite Reply Before History Vanished In Flames

Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Messages
19,663
Location
Central Pennsylvania
whl wedding.JPG

From an 1854 lithograph from Washington, The Citizen, by Junius Brutus Stearns, available on LoC, George Washington marrying Martha Custis, in the artist's image before the minister in a church. Martha lived on the Pamunkey River, Virginia, in a large, White House. Then they both lived there.

It's funny, we have a knee-jerk, nearly Pavlovian tendency associating iconic names from the war with various ' new ' history grown like weeds surrounding them over 150 years. Or oak trees, since it's been awhile. Occluding the view ( however charming ) once in awhile a chain saw is required.

From an officer there, at the time, during McClellan's peninsular campaign.

" A small piece of paper, bearing the following inscription, was pinned on the casing of an inner door: " Northern soldoers, who profess reverence WASHINGTON, forbear to desecrate the house of his first married life, the property of his wife, now owned by her descendents. ( signed )

A Granddaughter of Mrs. Washington "

So we have Mary Custis Lee, beyond having tried mightily to document her father's life's work ( boy does that get skipped over. Her father's life's work was documenting American History The building shrine to it. ) , trying to save more of our History. We know she left, taking with her , according to military records, 100 enslaved so no, as awful as it was being forced to flee yet another home, it was not as a huddled refugee hounded by the pangs of hunger. And I like Mary Custis, honest. A lost sidenote here is over 150 of the enslaved population was left behind. of those? Were families split up, a community lost, stories untold? Probably.

" Lady " a rely was written " A Northern officer has protected your propery in sight of the enemy, and at the request of your overseer. "

Mary Randolph Custis Lee left her home at the White House, Virginia, on the Pamunkey in advance of the Union Army.
whl ruins.JPG

An officer reports it was never ordered not burned as the main army moved on.


LoC gifts us a plethora of photographs entitled ' White House Landing, Pamunkey River '. A few show the ruins of ' The White House ' Interesting stuff, camps, boats, a Christian Commission hospital.

whl pamunk.JPG

Just love this one, a Sanitary Commission flag among the tents, veritable organized chaos in the harbor- fascinated- and from officer's reports, delighted local, black populations fascinated with new neighbors. And new, paid employment. Yes, I can source that.

Then there's a church, St. Peter's Episcopal Church. It's part of the same story, so deeply American and Virginian it should be in American school children primers as " ' S ' is for St. Peter's. George Washington was married there. " But hang on- and please, those who are extremely well versed in our history, no snark. It is not helpful. And yes, we know, no proof exists they were married there. But they probably were, as the parish church of a religious family.

The White House, it transpires, is at least on the spot where George and Martha Custis lived and where many Washington relics saw the light of a Virginia morning for the last time. Before some were packed away on barges, before an iconic piece of American history was torched as a retreating army moved away.
whl original house.JPG

I cannot find the reports of the original fire? Somewhere they exist although the house seems old- perhaps it was a partial fire.
whl pamunk paint.JPG

This idyllic painting is hysterical compared to the photos showing hysterical acticity.


According to letters reprinted in the New York Times, Washington and Custis family articles were boxed up and sent away. No idea if the family recovered these or, like those at Arlington, they were considered American history and claimed as such.
whl relics 1.JPG


Why The White House was torched was contentious at the time. Orders had been issued it be excluded from the general ' it all goes ', order on property. A misunderstanding apparently. Well, there had been some hard feelings over the building. McClellen had indeed protected it, perhaps to zealously. Wounded in need of shelter were without shelter while this hallowed building remained empty- Lincoln swore some chaste, Lincoln swear words, quite a bit over the situation, we know.

There's a LOT more but long threads are a big snore. Like the Native American population on the island across from White Landing. It's a GREAT story.

Why the White House, Virginia has now faded into obscurity despite connections to our most venerated past and one of the most iconic Civil War generals is baffling- beyond baffling. But it's vital History, already preserved- we just have to glue it together.

whl family.JPG

It isn't always a perfect or pretty History. It's our History. American History- and we owe it to our ancestors and children to get it right.
 

Attachments

diane

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
Jan 23, 2010
Messages
20,647
Location
State of Jefferson
What a wonderfully detailed article! :thumbsup: That's what brings history really alive.

There's only one account I've ever read of that event, and it was in a biography of Jeb Stuart. He and Rooney Lee, who was the inheritor of White House, were scouting for a crossing. Rooney said he knew where there was a good ford for just that purpose and he and Jeb went looking for it. As they approached the vicinity of White House, Stuart saw smoke billowing up far over the horizon... hey, good buddy, is your house on fire? Rooney looked over and said he guessed it was then went back to searching for the ford. Stuart looked at him for a couple minutes then said, "If that was my house on fire, I would have a much stronger reaction!"
 

Eleanor Rose

Captain
Forum Host
Joined
Nov 26, 2016
Messages
6,112
Location
central NC
Don't want to lead us astray of the Civil War, but the OP reminded me of George Washington and Sally Fairfax. Interesting story for anyone interested in learning more about our first President. Apparently Mary wasn't bothered by it. Sally and her husband attended the wedding and are visible in the painting of the ceremony.
 
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Messages
19,663
Location
Central Pennsylvania
Don't want to lead us astray of the Civil War, but the OP reminded me of George Washington and Sally Fairfax. Interesting story for anyone interested in learning more about our first President. Apparently Mary wasn't bothered by it. Sally and her husband attended the wedding and are visible in the painting of the ceremony.

I don't think it leads anything astray, deepening History as it pertains to discussions. Chimneys left among rubble by the war, and I don't care if it's White House Landing, Virginia or Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, are skeletons. It doesn't seem possible we understand this war's impact unless fleshing them out again.

America is a collection of stories in the end, layered like leaves shed year after year from which our great forests spring.
 

GS

Retired User
Joined
Jan 31, 2017
Messages
2,528
The more I learn of Civil War history, the clearer I see the utter devastation to our country, its families... Union and Confederate. I still cannot understand why "two sane men from each side, negotiating behind closed doors" (as CW soldiers' diaries proclaimed) could not have prevented this travesty, this horrible mar on America's history. Slavery could have been abolished, sectional differences settled, high tariffs and power struggles reconciled... for the good of a new nation. The fact that it took a four-year war to put down that rebellion doesn't bode well for those of us living in 21st Century America.
 

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Messages
19,663
Location
Central Pennsylvania
The more I learn of Civil War history, the clearer I see the utter devastation to our country, its families... Union and Confederate. I still cannot understand why "two sane men from each side, negotiating behind closed doors" (as CW soldiers' diaries proclaimed) could not have prevented this travesty, this horrible mar on America's history. Slavery could have been abolished, sectional differences settled, high tariffs and power struggles reconciled... for the good of a new nation. The fact that it took a four-year war to put down that rebellion doesn't bode well for those of us living in 21st Century America.

Sounds like an excellent ' What If ' thread, Gladys! And whoa, a contentious one. Not from here, be sure. I'll be in the bleachers with my soggy hot dog.
 
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!

Canadian

Sergeant
Joined
Jul 24, 2017
Messages
627
Lots of historical echoes in the destruction of Washington's places during the Civil War.

The Lees must have felt close to Washington, given Mary Custis' relationship to Martha and Robert E. Lees's father's role in the Revolutionary War. They were only a generation or two removed. I can imagine Lee modelling himself on Washington, the embattled commander of a starving, outnumbered army fighting for the birth of a new country. Whenever I think that Lee should have surrendered sooner I recall thatWashington held out when all seemed lost and that were glad he did.

The slaves in question were part of the estate inherited front George and Martha Washington. Washington was a great man in many ways and America is lucky he was in charge rather than some of the alternatives, who wouldn't have kept things together nearly as well. But his blind spot was slavery. Don't know whether he couldn't imagine life without them or whether he thought slavery would die out, but the decision to kick the can down the road ended up with the country he founded in Civil War.
 

Burning Billy

Sergeant
Joined
Jul 6, 2016
Messages
949
The more I learn of Civil War history, the clearer I see the utter devastation to our country, its families... Union and Confederate. I still cannot understand why "two sane men from each side, negotiating behind closed doors" (as CW soldiers' diaries proclaimed) could not have prevented this travesty, this horrible mar on America's history. Slavery could have been abolished, sectional differences settled, high tariffs and power struggles reconciled... for the good of a new nation. The fact that it took a four-year war to put down that rebellion doesn't bode well for those of us living in 21st Century America.
In a perfect world regional differences could have been settled peacefully and slavery abolished, but the Civil War did not occur in a perfect world. It occurred in ours, during an era where at least one section of the country believed slavery was a moral good, that subjugation of people of African descent by whites was the natural order of things, and that abolition would bring ruin and devastation to the South. A civil war could not have been avoided so long as view was a bedrock of white Southern culture.

The only true potential for a negotiated settlement that would have prevented the bloodletting was either something like the Missouri Compromise, or once the secession ball got rolling...letting the states of the Deep South depart the United States. In either case the cost of preventing the war would be prolonging the enslavement of millions of Americans for perhaps decades.

War is a terrible thing but peace purchased at any price is sometimes worse. I'm thankful the Civil War happened. It freed millions of Americans and although the work wasn't done yet, it was an important milestone on our country's journey to finally being a place that truly recognized "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."
 

James N.

Lt. Colonel
Forum Host
Civil War Photo Contest
Annual Winner
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Feb 23, 2013
Messages
12,381
Location
East Texas
... From an officer there, at the time, during McClellan's peninsular campaign.

" A small piece of paper, bearing the following inscription, was pinned on the casing of an inner door: " Northern soldoers, who profess reverence WASHINGTON, forbear to desecrate the house of his first married life, the property of his wife, now owned by her descendents. ( signed )

A Granddaughter of Mrs. Washington "


" Lady " a rely was written " A Northern officer has protected your propery in sight of the enemy, and at the request of your overseer. "

... It isn't always a perfect or pretty History. It's our History. American History- and we owe it to our ancestors and children to get it right.
Lots of historical echoes in the destruction of Washington's places during the Civil War...
Another Washington site that might easily have been destroyed and lost is Mount Vernon itself - it had only recently been purchased from heirs in a ruinous state by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, which was made up of women from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. It had yet to be restored in any way and the verandah porch was about to fall off, braced by a few old ship's masts! A lady who Annie needs to research and write about - if she hasn't already - is the head of that organization who took up residence there for the duration of the war, protecting it from hordes of curious sightseers and soldiers who otherwise would've carried it off piece-by-piece as souvenirs, as was the custom of that day as well as later!
 
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!

Eleanor Rose

Captain
Forum Host
Joined
Nov 26, 2016
Messages
6,112
Location
central NC
War is a terrible thing but peace purchased at any price is sometimes worse. I'm thankful the Civil War happened. It freed millions of Americans and although the work wasn't done yet, it was an important milestone on our country's journey to finally being a place that truly recognized "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."
Beautifully said @Burning Billy !!! I hope others ponder your post and appreciate its eloquence. I was especially impressed by, "peace purchased at any price is sometimes worse." There are so many times in everyday life we (people in general) quietly observe or hear the voice of injustice and don't do or say anything because we want to "keep the peace." That would have been a mistake then and it still is now. I'm not advocating for social unrest, but I am an advocate for taking a stand for what is right even if it ruffles a few feathers. I hope this makes sense and doesn't detract from your words.
 

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Messages
19,663
Location
Central Pennsylvania
Another Washington site that might easily have been destroyed and lost is Mount Vernon itself - it had only recently been purchased from heirs in a ruinous state by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, which was made up of women from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. It had yet to be restored in any way and the verandah porch was about to fall off, braced by a few old ship's masts! A lady who Annie needs to research and write about - if she hasn't already - is the head of that organization who took up residence there for the duration of the war, protecting it from hordes of curious sightseers and soldiers who otherwise would've carried it off piece-by-piece as souvenirs, as was the custom of that day as well as later!

Sorry, missed this- and of course I haven't! :confused: One of you deep researchers touched on this gosh, a few years ago? Now, with the addition of ship's masts, gee whiz! I foresee time with my nose plunged in Hathi, Archives, LoC....... and thank you! Love these historical rabbit holes- problem is, every time you go down one, there are 5 more!

And what was that, with carrying away bits of ' stuff '? Mary Lincoln complained her curtains were in tatters at the White House- visitors just hacked off pieces and took them home!
 

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Messages
19,663
Location
Central Pennsylvania
Most think they were. Martha was married to her first husband in this church as well.

Yes, I cannot find where the contention lies but am not a professional researcher. You keep bumping into it ' May or may not have been married here '. I don't know. Given what we know of how powerful an influence the church was in peoples' lives plus the fact that ' parish ' churches played an even greater role, it would take something unusual for them not to be married there.

It's not that far away, is the thing- I mean time wise. Not really. This is also a hugely well documented family. It's not exactly like England somehow losing an entire King through many centuries and rediscovering him under a parking lot- famous marriage, small place. Can't see where the confusion would be?
 
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!

Eleanor Rose

Captain
Forum Host
Joined
Nov 26, 2016
Messages
6,112
Location
central NC
Yes, I cannot find where the contention lies but am not a professional researcher. You keep bumping into it ' May or may not have been married here '. I don't know. Given what we know of how powerful an influence the church was in peoples' lives plus the fact that ' parish ' churches played an even greater role, it would take something unusual for them not to be married there.

It's not that far away, is the thing- I mean time wise. Not really. This is also a hugely well documented family. It's not exactly like England somehow losing an entire King through many centuries and rediscovering him under a parking lot- famous marriage, small place. Can't see where the confusion would be?
You are so right! I am by no means a professional researcher either, but this has intrigued me. The Mt. Vernon website actually states that, "Martha Dandridge Custis married George Washington at her home in New Kent County." They also note that she wore" brilliant purple slippers and a dress that was to be “grave but not Extravagent nor to be mourning,” perfect for a bride in her situation."

slippers.jpg

Martha Custis to Robert Cary and Company, 1758 in “Worthy Partner”: The Papers of Martha Washington, ed. Joseph E. Fields (Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1994), 25-26.
 

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Messages
19,663
Location
Central Pennsylvania
grave but not Extravagent nor to be mourning,” perfect for a bride in her situation."

Ok, why did her situation require a dress seemingly one step up from mourning? Because she was previously married or somehow thought to be still in mourning? Bright purple shoes ( still cute centuries later ) kind of blow any somber note anyone may have wished for Martha. Purple was weirdly a mourning color so it does seem odd for any wedding.
 
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!

diane

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
Jan 23, 2010
Messages
20,647
Location
State of Jefferson
I've always liked the story of how George Washington managed to win Martha. Think it's true! She was a young, pretty, wealthy widow with a couple kids and was concerned about picking the right man for them and their future. She had a line of suitors all the way around the block and back again - men literally hanging out at her place taking turns to see her. Washington, who was surprisingly shy, joined the line but rather despaired of standing out much beyond his height! However, fate has its weird ways. Martha was heartily tired of the gentlemen constantly at her door and told her servant to tell them she would be seeing no one today as she was ill. They all shooed away - peace and quiet. Later in the afternoon, Martha glanced out the window looking onto the front porch and saw one lone man sitting in the chair gazing over the yard. She asked the servant about him. Yes, she'd told him to scat with the others but he had refused and said he would wait until he heard she was feeling better, and if she needed any medicines or anything from town he would be honored to go fetch it for her. But he positively was going nowhere until he knew she was better. Out of all those men, this guy was the only one who was concerned enough about her to sit all day on her porch waiting see if she was all right or if he could do something to help out. Yep...this one just might be a keeper!
 

Eleanor Rose

Captain
Forum Host
Joined
Nov 26, 2016
Messages
6,112
Location
central NC
Ok, why did her situation require a dress seemingly one step up from mourning?
Based on what I have read, Martha would have been cognizant of the appearance of her wedding dress due to the time frame of events. Her first husband died on July 8, 1757. She began courting in the Spring of 1758 and married George Washington on January 6, 1759. A replica of her wedding dress is on display along with the original shoes at Mt. Vernon.

“Martha was married in a yellow brocade dress that was trimmed with lace at the neck and sleeves. Some historians describe her wedding dress as a gold damask dress. Underneath her gown she wore a white silk petticoat with silver threads. Her shoes were purple satin and trimmed in silver metallic lace and sequins. She wore pearls in her hair. George wore ‘a blue suit with a white satin waistcoast and blue buckles on his shoes.’ “

Source: Ruth Ashby, George & Martha Washington, page 17.

I have read that Martha often wore the purple and gold color combination she chose for her special day.



mount-vernon-martha-washington-replica-wedding-dress.jpg

Pinterest
 
Last edited:
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!
Top