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Custis spent his large inherited fortune building Arlington House on the Potomac opposite Washington D.C. After Custis’ death, the estate was left to the Lee family, but confiscated after the Confederate surrender. Later, the confiscation was rescinded, and Congress bought the estate back from the family. The house is now the Robert E. Lee Memorial and the plantation became Arlington National Cemetery and Fort Myer.
Custis also wrote historical plays about Virginia, a number of patriotic addresses, and a memoir of life in the Washington household.
George Washington Parke Custis was born on April 30, 1781, at his mother's family home at Mount Airy, a restored mansion now in Rosaryville State Park in Prince George's County, Maryland. He initially lived with his parents Jacky Custis and Eleanor Calvert Custis, and sisters Elizabeth Parke Custis, Martha Parke Custis and Nelly Custis, at Abingdon Plantation (partially now at Ronald Reagan National Airport), which his father had purchased in 1778. However, six months after G.W.P. Custis was born, his father died of "camp fever" at Yorktown, shortly after the British army surrendered there. His father's widowed mother Martha had married George Washington, who raised his young namesake Custis at Mount Vernon and adopted him. G.W.P. Custis' two oldest sisters, Elizabeth and Martha, remained at Abingdon with their widowed mother, who in 1783 married Dr. David Stuart, an Alexandria physician and associate of George Washington.
The Washingtons brought George and Nelly, 8 and 10 years old, respectively, to New York City in 1789 to live in the first presidential mansion. Following the transfer of the national capital to Philadelphia, the original "First Family" occupied the President's House from 1790 to 1797.
G.W.P. Custis (nicknamed "Wash") attended (but did not graduate) from the Germantown Academy in Germantown (now Philadelphia) Pennsylvania, the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. George Washington repeatedly expressed frustration about young Custis, as well as his own inability to improve the youth's attitude. Upon young Custis' return to Mount Vernon after only one term at St. John's, George Washington sent him to his mother and stepfather at Hope Park saying, "He appears to me to be moped and stupid, says nothing, and is always in some hole or corner excluded from the company."
In January 1799, Custis was commissioned as a cornet in the United States Army and as promoted to second Lieutenant in March. He served as aide-de-camp to General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and was honorably discharged 15 June 1800.
When G.W.P. Custis came of age, he inherited large amounts of money, land and property from the estates of his father and grandfather. Upon Martha Washington's death in 1802, he received a bequest from her (as he had upon George Washington's death in 1799) as well as his father's former plantations because of the termination of her life estate. However, her executor Bushrod Washington refused to sell to G.W.P. Custis the Mt. Vernon estate where he had been living, so he moved into the four-room, 80 year old house on land inherited from his father, who had called it "Mount Washington."
Almost immediately, G.W.P. Custis began constructing Arlington House. Hiring George Hadfield as architect, he built the first non-government Georgian style building, as the highlight of the largest plantation in the new capital city. He built on a prominent hill overlooking both the Georgetown/Alexandria turnpike, as well as the Capitol across the Potomac River. Using slave labor and materials on site, and interrupted by the War of 1812 (and material shortages after the British burned the American capital city), G.W.P. Custis finally completed the mansion's exterior in 1818. Custis intended the mansion to serve as a living memorial to George Washington, and included design elements similar to Mt. Vernon. He then gained a reputation for inviting many guests for various celebrations and social events at the mansion, where he also displayed relics from Mt. Vernon, although the interior was not completed (and renovated) until occupancy by Robert E. Lee's family (including Custis' grandsons/heirs) in the 1850s.
During the War of 1812, Custis volunteered in the defense of Washington, D.C., at the Battle of Bladensburg. He also delivered and published an address condemning the death of Revolutionary War General James Lingan who was killed by a Baltimore mob for defending an anti-war publisher's right to oppose the war.
Custis achieved some distinction as an orator and playwright. In addition to the Lingam eulogy, he delivered The Celebration of the Russian Victories, in Georgetown, District of Columbia; on the 5th of June, 1813 (1813). Two of Custis's plays, The Indian Prophecy; or Visions of Glory (1827) and Pocahontas; or, The Settlers of Virginia (1830), were published during his lifetime. Other plays included The Rail Road (1828), The Eighth of January, or, Hurra for the Boys of the West! (ca. 1830), North Point, or, Baltimore Defended (1833), and Montgomerie, or, The Orphan of a Wreck (1836). Custis wrote a series of biographical essays about his adoptive father, collectively entitled Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, which was posthumously edited and published by his daughter.
Custis descended from a number of aristocratic colonial era families, as well as, through his mother, the British nobility and, very distantly, from the royal House of Hanover and the House of Stuart. George Washington Parke Custis's mother, Eleanor Calvert Custis Stuart, descended from Charles Calvert, 3rd Baron Baltimore and Henry Lee of Ditchley. His father, John Parke Custis, was the son of Martha Dandridge Custis Washington through her marriage to Daniel Parke Custis.
On July 7, 1804, Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh. Of their four children, only one daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, survived. She married Robert E. Lee at Arlington House on June 30, 1831. Lee's father, Henry Lee, had eulogized Pres. George Washington at the December 18, 1799 funeral.
Custis's death influenced the careers of Robert E. Lee and his two elder sons on the cusp of the American Civil War. Then-Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, named as the will's executor, took leave from his Army post in Texas for two years to settle the estate. During this period Lee was ordered to lead troops to quash John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. By 1859, Lee's eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, transferred to an Army position in Washington, D.C. so that he could care for Arlington plantation, where his mother and sisters were living. Lee's second son, Rooney Lee, resigned his army commission, got married, and took over farming White House and Romancoke plantations near Richmond. Robert E. Lee was able to leave for Texas to resume his Army career in February 1860.
At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Union forces confiscated the 1,100-acre (4.5 km2) Arlington Plantation for strategic reasons (protection of the river and national capital). In 1863, a "Freedman's Village" was established there for freed slaves. In 1864, Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster General of the US Army, appropriated some parts of Arlington Plantation for use as a military burial ground. After the Civil War, George Washington Custis Lee sued and recovered the title for the Arlington Plantation from the United States government. Congress subsequently bought the property from Lee for $150,000. Arlington House, built by Custis to honor George Washington, is now the Robert E. Lee Memorial. It is restored and open to the public under the auspices of the National Park Service, while the Department of Defense controls Ft. Myer as well as the Arlington National Cemetery, on the rest of Arlington Plantation.
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