George Washington Parke Custis was remarkable only in relationship to two giants, neither of whom he was actually related to.
GW Custis: Fatherless Baby
Only weeks after the fourth child and only son of John Parke Custis (1781-1857) was born, his father died of camp fever at Yorktown. He was twenty-eight.
Jack’s death devastated his mother, Martha Washington, as well the step-father who had raised him since he was four. In an effort to assuage Martha’s grief and help Jack’s widow, the Washingtons decided to raise the baby and his sister Nelly, less than two years older, at Mount Vernon. Their mother subsequently remarried with the Washingtons’ blessing, and would always be considered “family.”
George Washington Parke Custis knew no other father than his very august step-grandfather, George Washington, but he was a wealthy baby in his own right. He was the last boy-child in a line of Virginians descended from the wealthy and eccentric Daniel Parke, generations earlier. By keeping the Parke name, he inherited a substantial fortune, which, until his majority, would be capably managed by GW, an astute businessman.
George Washington was in this fifties as “Washy” was growing up. While Grandmama Martha was the hands-on supervisor, the General, even in retirement, was more hands-off, tending to his beloved plantation long neglected by his service in the American Revolution.
Washington had been step-pater familias to Jacky, now he would be step-grand pater familias to Wash: provider, business guardian, educator and role model: exactly what was expected in the 18th century.
The provider, business guardian and role model parts came naturally to the Father of his Country, who in the 1780s and 90s was a towering giant to his countrymen.
Alas, the educator part was an uphill climb, and never successful.
GWC: Student and Grandson
Jack Custis had been a headache to his step-father when it came to education.
George Washington’s own father died when he was eleven, and any chances for higher education were aborted. Whatever he learned was essentially on his own. His close proximity to the intellectual cream of the Colonies/Country made him realize the importance of education, and he consistently encouraged it within his family.
But to Washington’s family members, including his stepson and step-grandson, those effort, opportunities and experiences would be futile. The entire Custis line seemed genetically averse to book learning – and that included George Washington Parke Custis.
The President’s Step-Grandson
Once George Washington became President in 1789, the generally-remote physical proximity between Wash and his step-grandfather became even more sporadic. The new President was occupied with matters of state, with minimal time for family matters.
Wash was only eight in 1789, but he and Nelly had already been home tutored at Mt. Vernon, and were now ready for proper schooling. Accordingly they were enrolled in the best facilities in New York and Philadelphia.
Wash, personable enough, was lackluster in academics and attitude. He was Jack all over again.
During the next eight years, he was sent to various schools and academies, to include the prestigious College of New Jersey in Princeton. Despite encouraging and/or admonishing letters from the General, Wash seemed far more interested in sports and dancing and socializing. He was expelled. Like Jack.
GW Custis: Young Man
George Washington died in 1799, a few years before Wash’s majority. He was left a substantial inheritance from his step-grandfather, but his main inheritance was from his Custis estate, which included a large plot of land on a high hill overlooking the new Capital City that bore his step-grandfather’s illustrious name. In time, he built a large mansion that he named Arlington House. He filled it with Washington memorabilia.
GW Custis fought in the War of 1812, and despite a genuine interest in animal husbandry, became a middling plantation owner. He wrote and published several mediocre plays and essays, and was a popular orator on patriotic themes at public events. But he lived primarily on his income.
In 1804, he married Mary Fitzhugh, and they had several children, but only one daughter lived to maturity.
During the last two decades of his life, GW wrote essays of personal memories of George Washington. Although they were not published until after his death, they became successful, and reprinted several times.
GW Custis: Father-in-Law
Mary Anna, the only surviving child of GW Custis, grew up to be an attractive young woman courted by a young soldier with an equally impeccable First Family of Virginia pedigree: the son of Lighthorse Harry Lee and his second wife, Anne Carter.
Despite the Virginia blue-blood, GW was less than thrilled, and initially opposed the match. A young West Point Second Lieutenant did not seem good enough for the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. Nevertheless, the two married, but since her new husband was usually assigned at a
distance, they made their home at Arlington, with her father.
They had seven children, despite the infrequency of her husband’s ability to join the family circle.
GW Custis died in 1857. He was past seventy-five, and the Arlington Plantation had declined considerably. His son-in-law, by that time a Colonel, was granted leave from the Army in order to take care of family business.
George Washington Parke Custis only superficially knew the step-grandfather whose name he bore, and whose reputation he basked in. He also superficially knew Robert E. Lee, the son-in-law whose later career and reputation would do equally great honor to him and his descendants.
- Bourne, Miriam Anne, First Family: George Washington and his Intimate Relations, W.W. Norton & Co., 1982
- Brady, Patricia – Martha Washington: An America Life – Viking Press, 2005