Arlington House - The Robert E. Lee Memorial
This exhibit explores Arlington House and its most famous resident, Robert E. Lee, and three influential families, the Washingtons, Custis’ and Lees. It highlights the home as a memorial to President George Washington, its importance to the Lee family, and military traditions from the American Revolution to the Civil War. Family stories are vividly told through personal belongings that were used and treasured at Arlington House.
Arlington House is uniquely associated with three of Virginia's most influential families; the Washingtons, Custises, and Lees. It was the home of George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington and her first husband, Daniel Custis. After his father died, the young Custis went to live at Mount Vernon. There Martha Washington and her second husband, George Washington, raised him as their own son.
Even as an elderly man, Custis loved to be referred to as “the child of Mount Vernon.” He dedicated life to honoring the Washington’s memory through his speeches, plays, and art. Custis had a huge collection of Washington memorabilia, and delighted in showing his “Washington Treasury” to all.
Artist Benson Lossing painted a watercolor of Arlington House and described the Treasury in a Harper's Weekly article in September, 1853.
Custis and Lee Families at Arlington
The Custis and Lee families immigrated to Virginia from England in the 1600s and acquired large landholdings. In 1750 Daniel Parke Custis married Martha Dandridge. After his death, his widow took over management of their extensive lands, fisheries, gristmills, and other businesses. In 1759, she married a young officer, Col. George Washington. Her son married Eleanor Calvert, a granddaughter of the sixth earl of Lord Baltimore. After Daniel's death in 1781, their two youngest children, George Washington Parke Custis and Nelly, were raised by General and Mrs. Washington at Mount Vernon.
G.W.P. Custis married 16 year-old Mary Lee “Molly” Fitzhugh in 1804. Mrs. Custis devoted herself to her family, the education of the Arlington slaves, and the Episcopal Church. She was deeply attached to her only surviving child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis. Exceptionally devout, Mrs. Custis was responsible for the emphasis on religion and spiritual growth that distinguished family life at Arlington. She conducted family prayers twice each day and was likely responsible for the creation of a chapel on the plantation. Mrs. Custis provided organized religious instruction for her daughter as well as the enslaved people. The family worshipped at Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia.
Great-grand-daughter of Martha Washington, Mary Custis and Lt. Robert E. Lee, her distant cousin and childhood sweetheart, exchanged wedding vows in the parlor at Arlington in 1831. The marriage united two of Virginia’s “first families.” Lee was descended from a long line of famous soldiers and statesmen. His father was “Light Horse Harry”, American Revolutionary War hero, governor of Virginia, and member of Congress. Two of Lee’s father’s cousins signed the Declaration of Independence.
Between 1832 and 1846, Mrs. Lee bore seven children. Six were born at Arlington House. Lee once referred to their children as “the annuals of the season.” The Lees divided their time between Arlington and US Army duty stations. When his military obligations took Lee to remote locations, Mary and the children remained at the plantation with her parents. Although separations proved difficult for the entire family, Robert and Mary accepted them as a fact of military life.
Home Life at Arlington House
Life at Arlington House was distinguished by religion and education, as well as warm hospitality and close family life. Lee often read to the children in the evening. Mrs. Lee, who read Latin, French, and Greek as well as four daily newspapers, oversaw the children’s early education. From their grandfather, the Lee children heard tales of life with George and Martha Washington, and thrilling stories of the American Revolution.
The family gathered together twice each day for prayers, and again at mealtimes. Christmas was an especially happy occasion for it was one of the few times that the entire family was together at home. For over twenty years, three generations of the Custises and Lees enjoyed a family life at Arlington.
Although plantation business, formal education, and religious endeavors occupied a significant part of each day, time remained for entertaining and personal pursuits. The family was especially fond of gardening, painting, and music. Visitors to Arlington described it as a home distinguished by warm hospitality.
Social calls were popular in the 19th century among the middle and upper classes. The family’s social prominence insured a steady stream of guests, some of whom were famous. One of the most celebrated was the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution. His 1824 visit to Arlington was a state occasion. Sam Houston, enamored of Mary Custis, visited the home as a potential suitor. Several well-known writers called upon the family, including Lydia Sigourney, the most popular female writer of the day, Washington Irving, and Jared Sparks. President Franklin Pierce and his wife, Jane, made a visit during his administration. Many of the leading officers of the army found their way to Arlington.
Art and Music
The Custises and Lees were particularly fond of art and music. Mr. Custis was an accomplished violinist. He also composed original scores for several of his plays. He had received music lessons as a young boy at Mount Vernon and enjoyed performing to the end of his life. Among the ladies of the family were several accomplished pianists. Each of the four Lee girls studied music. They often played the piano at Arlington along with their cousin, Markie Williams. The girls taught a variety of hymns to the slave children during Sunday school. The family also owned an organ and a harpsichord.
Mr. Custis was the most prolific artist of the family. He enjoyed painting scenes of the important battles of the Revolutionary War, one of which was displayed in the US Capitol. Custis took pride in his status as a “self-taught” artist and loved to quiz visitors about their opinions of his paintings.
Mrs. Lee, who formally studied art, was an accomplished artist in her own right. She painted a number of seascapes and several whimsical watercolors. Robert E. Lee was a talented sketch artist. During the Mexican War, he passed the lonely hours by drawing sketches to send to his family. Markie Williams so enjoyed painting that she once declared her intention never to marry so as to devote herself to her art.
Food and Hospitality
The key to good hospitality was food. Mary Lee’s cousin and godmother, Mary Randolph, wrote what is widely regarded as America’s first cookbook. Titled “The Virginia Housewife Or, Methodical Cook,” the book features a range of recipes from around the world as well as useful tips for managing a household. The cookbook reflects a distinct southern style of cooking with recipes influenced by African culture.
Slaves working in plantation kitchens prepared meals that included okra and eggplant and a variety of other ingredients previously not widely used in the United States.
Many of these recipes appear in Mary Lee’s own cooking notebooks and were likely offered to visitors at Arlington House.
Physical pursuits and outdoor recreation were popular at Arlington. The ladies spent many hours working in Arlington’s renowned flower garden. Each of the Lee girls had a small plot in which to grow her favorite flowers. The men enjoyed hunting in the 600-acre forest on the property. Riding was popular with nearly everyone; the family owned several mounts, including a pony named Santa Anna. The Lee children swam in the Potomac River in the summer. In the winter months, they enjoyed ice skating on the Alexandria Canal. The large, virgin woodlands behind the mansion proved a delightful venue for games of hide and seek.
Festivals at Arlington
Custis sponsored a number of festivals at Arlington that were open to the general public. In 1805, he hosted his first sheep-shearing contest to encourage the development of a native wool industry. The festival, an annual event, often drew more spectators than competitors. The event always culminated in a feast held under General Washington’s war tent. Other guests attended festivities at Arlington Spring, a picnic pavilion developed by Custis. Sometimes several hundred people visited the spring in a single afternoon. A German music festival and jousting tournament were among the most popular events held at Arlington Spring.
Military traditions played an important role at Arlington. Custis intended his home to be a memorial to General Washington. Among his most prized pieces of the “Washington Treasury” were Washington’s tents from the American Revolutionary War. Custis often used the tents during festivals at his home. He greatly admired the veterans of the Revolution and featured them in his epic paintings. Custis often hosted veterans at Arlington, including the much-revered Marquis de Lafayette.
George Washington Parke Custis served in the Federal Army in 1799, prior to an anticpated war with France that never occured. He was commissioned as a lieutenant. Custis served for several months and earned the rank of Brevet Major before his discharge. Custis served in the militia at the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814, during the War of 1812. His experiences during that war led to his advocacy for a professionally trained, standing army. He allowed his estate to be used for military training and sponsored a competition for marksmen.
Robert E. Lee and the Lee Family
In 1831, Lt. Robert E. Lee became a member of the Arlington household when he married Mary Custis. Lee, an 1829 graduate of West Point, was from a distinguished military family. His father, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, was a celebrated cavalry officer during the Revolutionary War and was well acquainted with General Washington. His account of his wartime military service, Memoirs of War in the Southern Department of the United States, is still in print.
Army service took Robert E. Lee throughout the country, including posts in Georgia, Louisiana, New York, Texas, Maryland, and Missouri. Although Mrs. Lee and the children sometimes accompanied him, long separations were common. Lee was away from his family for nearly two years while serving in the Mexican War. He distinguished himself during the conflict. Lee’s combat performance during the Battle of Chapultepec resulted in the rank of Brevet Colonel. When Lee returned to Arlington after the war, he had been away so long that he did not recognize his youngest son, Robert E. Lee, Jr.
During the 1850s, the Lee men were active in the army. From 1852-1855, Robert E. Lee was Superintendent of West Point. In 1859, he commanded the military forces sent to subdue John Brown and his raiders at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. In 1854, George Washington Custis Lee, the oldest son, known as Custis or Boo to the family, graduated at the head of his class and entered the Army Corps of Engineers. William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, the second son, known as Rooney, was unable to secure a desired appointment to West Point. He entered the army in 1857. After several years of campaigning in the West, Rooney left the military to marry his cousin, Charlotte Wickham.
The Civil War
The Civil War [1861-1865] brought irrevocable changes to Arlington. It was here that Lee made the difficult decision to resign from the United States Army after more than thirty years of service. After writing his resignation letter, he left for Richmond. On April 23, Lee assumed command of Virginia’s military forces. After the Lee family left Arlington in May, 1861, Union forces occupied the estate.
Slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia in 1862. The following year, seventeen acres of the Arlington estate were converted into a village for freed slaves. It became known as Freedmans Village.
In 1864, Mrs. Lee lost Arlington for failing to pay her property taxes in person. The Federal Government purchased the estate when the property was put up for auction. That same year, Arlington was put to use as a national cemetery for Union war dead.
The Civil War was especially hard on the Lee women. Annie died of typhoid fever in 1862 while living in North Carolina. That same year, Charlotte Lee, Rooney’s wife, lost both her infant children. After she witnessed the capture of her gravely-wounded husband, Charlotte succumbed to tuberculosis the day after Christmas, 1863. Agnes Lee was devastated by the loss of her sweetheart, Orton Williams, when the US Army executed him as an enemy spy.
Arlington National Cemetery
For many years, Arlington House served as the headquarters of Arlington National Cemetery. In 1925, Congressman Louis Convers Cramton, the son of a Union veteran who had fought against Lee, sponsored legislation to have the mansion restored to its pre-Civil War appearance. Cramton wanted to recognize Lee’s efforts to help heal the nation’s wounds after the war. “There was no man in the South who did more by example to help bring about our reunited country,” Cramton declared.
When Custis took possession of the property in 1802, he brought many slaves from Mount Vernon. The early slaves shared valuable memories of George and Martha Washington with Custis. This first generation of slaves helped build Arlington House and the various plantation outbuildings, and worked on the 1,100-acre estate.
The enslaved community included several large, extended families. Slaves were domestic workers and field laborers. While the field slaves had limited contact with the Custises and Lees, the house slaves interacted with the family on a daily basis. Field slaves planted and harvested crops, raised truck gardens, and tended the livestock. House slaves cared for the Lee children and worked as cooks, maids, and valets. Some of the domestic slaves, including George Clark, Ephriam Derricks, and Selina Gray, occupied the two brick and stucco quarters immediately behind the mansion. Among the most well-known slaves were George Clark, the celebrated cook from Mount Vernon; Charles Syphax, the head of the dining room; and Eleanor Harris, the nurse who was "much respected by all."
Educating Arlington Slaves
Molly Custis established the tradition of educating the slaves at Arlington. When no teacher was found for the school at Arlington, Mrs. Custis assumed the responsibility. She conducted rudimentary lessons for the enslaved people three times each week. Molly convinced her husband to provide for the emancipation of his slaves in his will. Religious education for the slaves also originated with her. She and the succeeding generations of women in the family conducted Sunday school and Bible studies for the slaves. Some of the enslaved people accompanied the family to services at the plantation chapel, and others attended daily prayers at the mansion. Although the family encouraged the practice of the Episcopal faith, many of their slaves preferred the Baptist Church.
Freeing Arlington Slaves
The family experimented with various methods of freeing individual slaves. In the 1820s, the Custises were active members of the American Colonization Society, an organization that supported the colonization of free blacks in Africa, particularly in Liberia. Colonization was unpopular with the African-American slaves. Of the Arlington slaves, only William Burke and his family chose to move to Liberia. Mr. Custis lost interest in the Society, but his wife and daughter continued to support it for many years. Individual slaves, mostly women and children, received their freedom. Over the years, a number of enslaved people ran away from the Arlington plantation.
Inspired by his wife, Custis provided for the emancipation of his slaves in his will. Slaves were to be freed after financial obligations had been met. Custis set a deadline of five years from the time of his death for the slaves' emancipation. The slaves believed they had been promised their freedom immediately upon Custis' death. Robert E. Lee, who managed the estate after Custis' death, hired out some of the slaves to raise money to settle his father-in-law's debts. This caused resentment among the slaves. In 1862, freedom came to the enslaved people of Arlington when Lee executed a deed of manumission. Some of the slaves settled in Freedman's Village, a community for former slaves established at Arlington in 1863. The village remained in operation through the end of the 19th century.
In the 1920s, the memories of former slaves proved vital to the restoration of Arlington House. Jim Parks, Emma Gray Syphax, Annice Gray Baker, Ada Gray Thompson, and Sarah Gray Wilson were still alive when the War Department began the restoration. Their memories of the house and plantation provided important historical and architectural details. They owned a number of original furnishings that had come from the mansion, which they generously donated to Arlington House.