- Historic Sites
A Son’s Tribute
Three long-lost paintings of Washington in action (above, at Germantown) were part of G.W.P. Custis’ lifelong effort to glorify the foster father he adored
February 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 2
In 1953, at Freeman’s Auction House in Philadelphia, three large paintings of Revolutionary War scenes were offered for sale. They were obviously the work of an untrained hand, and in all three the mounted figure of George Washington was the lotus of the somewhat primitive composition. The battles they depicted were not identified with any certainly, no one knew when they had been painted, and the name of ihe artist was not given. The crowd at Freeman’s showed litlle interest in the battle scenes, and the bidding was sluggish. They were finally sold to an agent representing Mr. and Mrs. Rockwell Gardiner, antiques dealers of Stamford, Connecticut. The price for the three was $600. Hut as soon as the Gardiners saw the paintings they felt certain that they had made a discovery of historic importance. For they suspected thai lhe lhtce paintings were from the hand of George Washington Parke Custis and that the canvases of red and green and gold spoke of an extraordinary link between the American Revolution and the Civil War.
Few men in American history have so completely bridged the gap between iwo eras, touched with their own hands two distant epochs, as did Custis. He was the adopted son of one great Virginian, the “Father of His Country,” who made the union of the American colonies possible, and the father-in-law of another, who led lhe armies of the rebellion against that union, which lie felt had become oppressive.
Custis’ father, John Parke Custis, the son of Martha Washington by her first marriage, died of “camp fever” in the closing hours of the Revolution, leaving four young children. George Washington—who had rushed’ from Yorktown to be at the dying man’s bedside—announced on the spot (so it is said), “I adopt the two younger children as my own.” George Custis was then six months old; the other child adopted by Washington, Eleanor (“Nelly”) Parke Custis, was about two years older. Their mother, Eleanor Calvert Custis, a granddaughter of the fifth Lord Baltimore, was quite able to take care of them, but she consented to the wishes of the childless Washingtons, who longed to have children at Mount Vernon.
“Little Wash,” or “Tub,” as he was called, was America’s first presidential child. Living with the first First Family when the federal capital was in New York and in Philadelphia, he met all the great men who came to visit the President and was fourteen when he saw Washington lay the cornerstone of the Capitol. He adored the General, and all his life gloried in the epithet, “the child of Mount Vernon.” After Washington’s death in 1799, he continued to live there with his eminent grandmother until she died in 1802.
Custis, then a young man of twenty-one, moved to Arlington—or Mount Washington as he first tailed it—a tract of more than 1,000 acres, once his father’s property, across the Potomac from the federal city. There he began to build a mansion (hat would be, above all, a shrine to George Washington. In its final form it was just that, a temple with eight heroic Doric columns that still dominates the view across (he Potomac into Virginia. “It gives the impression,” Douglas Southall Freeman wrote, “of being built to be looked at, rather lhan to be lived in.” To it young Custis brought many of the Washington family portraits, the lantern from the hall of Mount Vernon, a set of china presented to the first President by the Society of the Cincinnati, pieces of Washington’s furniture, his camp equipment, his deathbed, and even the Negro maid who had been in the room when he died.
But the master of Arlington was not content to be merely a curator of memorabilia, preserving Washington’s memory like some glorious thing trap|)ed in amber. His position as a gentleman farmer of independent means gave him the time to use his talents to add to the Washington legend. He was among the first to write plays on native American subjects, and the theme was almost invariably American patriotism as Custis believed Washington would have wanted it expressed. In addition, every year on Washington’s birthday he contributed an article to the National Intelligencer , a leading newspaper published in the capital. His subject, of course, was his “recollections” of the Pater Patriae . Amazingly enough, he found something new to say on the subject every February 22 for thirty long years.
His voice was quite as ready as his pen to serve the cause of his hero on any national holiday, especially the Glorious Fourth, in fact, it was so ready that he earned for himself the sobriquet “the inevitable Custis.” On one such occasion his verbal stamina was blamed for the death of a President. It was July 4, 1850, and Zachary Taylor, a man well into his sixties, remained for some time in a very hot sun to listen to a Custis peroration. That night the President, undoubtedly in desperate need of refreshment, ate a great quantity of fresh cherries and drank a great deal of iced milk. He took sick and five days later died. Officially his death was attributed to cholera, but there were unkind souls who blamed it all on Custis. He was an honorary pallbearer at the funeral.