A Son’s Tribute

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Custis was not one to permit the influence of Washington to stop at the water’s edge. He saw in every struggle for national independence—in Ireland, in Greece, in Poland—a reflection of America’s own Spirit of ’76, and when these causes needed a spokesman, he was ready. Irish independence was particularly close to his heart—perhaps because of the memory of the struggle of his Catholic Calvert ancestors for religious liberty. It is recorded that for twenty-seven years he appeared at St. Patrick’s Day banquets dressed in a green frock coat, playing the role of, as he termed it, “the old orator for young Ireland.” He hoped for only one thing in return, that “years after my mortal body shall have been laid in the bosom of our common mother, some honest Irish heart may come, and dropping a shamrock on my grave, say ‘God Bless him.’” To this day, on every March 17 Irish fraternal orders do just that.

But was there not some further way for Custis to show his love and admiration for Washington? There was: he would record on canvas the General’s greatest military exploits. Though it is likely that Custis received some instruction from the artist William Dunlap, who taught his sister Nelly, his training was at best sketchy. He freely admitted that he was “but the artist of nature, without science or instruction.” However, Custis made up in amplitude what he lacked in skill. As early as 1809 he supervised the preparation of a forty-foot allegorical painting in tribute to Washington, for display in the ballroom of Caton’s Hotel in Alexandria, Virginia. And for several years he worked on a large canvas of Washington at the Battle of Trenton, which was finally completed in 1836 and was hung in the United States Capitol. Its rank amateurishness caused such an outcry from congressmen that Custis ordered his agent to remove it.

Undiscouraged, he continued his painting. In 1853, Benson J. Lossing, that Samuel Pepys of American history, happened to be in Washington for the inauguration of Franklin Pierce. Lossing had been in correspondence with Custis, and he was invited to visit Arlington. Never one to let an opportunity slip by unused, Lossing published an account of his visit in the September, 1853, number of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine . Among the matters he described in great detail were his host’s Revolutionary battle paintings. By that time there were at least six, and Lossing named them: Trenton, Princeton, Germantown, Monmouth, Washington at Yorktown , and the Surrender at Yorktown . Lossing says that Custis had painted the pictures in the five years previous to his visit to Arlington and that he was still working on the Surrender at Yorktown . Even more important for the subsequent history of the paintings, as it turned out, was the fact that Lossing had engravings made of all six to illustrate his article in Harper’s .

Lossing had seen Arlington at the zenith of its glory. Custis was seventy-two and was adored by the seven children of his daughter, Mary, the wife of the Superintendent of West Point, Colonel Robert E. Lee. Within four years Custis would be dead and buried on the estate he loved; within eight, Arlington, the shrine of Washington and the home of the Custis-Lee family, would be a prize for strangers.

For when on the momentous night of April 19, 1861, Robert E. Lee resigned from the United States Army, he just as certainly resigned possession of the great house in which he wrote his resignation. He knew that Arlington, from which he could see the still-unfinished Capitol dome, would not long remain out of Federal hands. Three days later Lee left for Richmond. (He would see Arlington only once more—from a train, after the war, when he was on his way home after testifying before a congressional committee.) Mrs. Lee remained, but on April 26 Lee wrote to her: “You have to move and make arrangements to go to some point of safety, which you must select. The Mount Vernon plate and pictures ought to be secured.” In a rush, pictures and other possessions were dispatched to various places of safety: to the homes of friends and relatives, to a warehouse, and to an art dealer in Alexandria; guns and clothing were sent to Lee in Richmond; the family silver was placed in a trunk which was eventually buried in Lexington, Virginia—where, ironically enough, Lee and his wife ended up after the war. Left behind when Mrs. Lee quit the house early in May were many of the Washington relics gathered over the years by her father. Carefully packed and clearly marked, the various items were placed in the attic and cellar. There is no record of whether the Custis paintings were among them, or whether they were sent elsewhere for safekeeping. All that is known for certain is that they had been in the house as late as 1859, when Mrs. Lee mentioned them in a memoir of her father.

About a week after Mrs. Lee’s departure, Federal forces crossed the river and Arlington became the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac. During the first months of the occupation the house was pretty thoroughly looted, even though guards were assigned to protect it. They must not have taken their duty very seriously, for it is reported that a visiting doctor had a sofa carried away. The Washington relics did not escape the general pilfering. In 1862 those that were left were transported to the Patent Office and displayed under a sign which read “Captured at Arlington.” The estate was seized by the Federal government in 1864 for nonpayment of a special wartime real-estate tax of $92.07.