The Other Families of Arlington House
The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 6, Number 4
The Arlington House/Robert E. Lee Memorial was originally known as the Custis-Lee Mansion: Custis, because it was built by Martha Washington's grandson George Washington Parke Custis; Lee, because it was later inherited by General Robert E. Lee's wife, Mary Custis Lee, Martha's great-granddaughter and GWP Custis' only surviving child.
In fact, Robert E. Lee was at Arlington House in 1859 when the government called him to lead federal troops to capture John Brown at Harper's Ferry in 1859. And, Lee was living there two years later when he submitted his resignation from the United States Army after Virginia seceded from the Union. Shortly after that, General Montgomery Meigs spitefully ordered that the Union soldiers killed at the First Battle of Bull Run be buried in "Mrs. Lee's rose garden." Meigs never forgave Lee for abandoning the Union, and the Lees never returned to the grounds now known as Arlington Cemetery.
Now, back to George Washington Parke Custis. He lived at Mount Vernon since the age of two and was devoted to his adopted grandfather. He left as an adult only because his grandparents died and Mount Vernon was inherited by Washington's blood relatives. On leaving Mount Vernon, Custis brought as much furniture and memorabilia with him as the Washington heirs would allow him to buy or take. His goal was to make his new home at Arlington House a memorial to the country's founder. Along with the inanimate goods, he also moved dozens of slaves with him ten miles up the Potomac River to the bluffs overlooking Washington City.
Like the Capitol and White House structures, slave labor undoubtedly built Arlington House. Arlington was a small plantation of about 1100 acres of experimental fields and gardens, all tended by slave labor. Slaves raised the Custis and the Lee children, dressed them, bathed them, nursed them, and fed them. Slaves scoured the rooms and dusted the Washington artifacts brought from Mount Vernon. After the Civil War the house itself was abandoned until the 1920s when repairs were made and it was opened to tourists to learn about the Custis-Lee heritage.
Today we are learning more about the other residents of Arlington House. The Park Service is conducting an archeological study focusing on the daily lives of the slave families and who they were. We now know that George Clark was the Lee family cook. There was Sally and Leonard Norris, and their daughter Selina Gray. There were the Parks, the Branhams, the Rowes and the Syphax families, all of whom can trace their lineage from colonial times at Mount Vernon to the Civil War at Arlington House, through both World Wars, the years of segregation, integration, Vietnam and today.
We know that it was Selina Gray to whom Mrs. Lee entrusted the keys to the house when the Lees went South. Selina protected the Lee family possessions and Washington artifacts from the depredations of Union soldiers who made the house their headquarters. During the 1929 restoration of the home, her descendants, many still living in the Virginia area, gave accounts of daily life, what the rooms looked like, and donated furniture and other mementos that were passed on to them by the Lees. Many of their own ancestors are buried at Arlington Cemetery.
One Parks family descendant tells of a 1960's school field trip to Arlington Cemetery, when a white classmate proudly told everyone his grandpa was buried there. Young Parks didn't tell the class about his great-great grandfather buried nearby, James Parks. The elder Parks was born at Arlington House in the 1840s, was raised with the Lee children, and was a pallbearer at Mrs. Lee's funeral. In spite of this close relationship, Parks' tombstone memorializes him only as a "kindly negro slave." This made his great-great grandson too embarrassed to share the story with his classmates. Fortunately, recent research at Arlington House is discovering more about the proud heritage of the people who contributed so much, but whose stories are rarely shared.
As a member of the privileged class, George Washington Parke Custis ensured his family's place in history. While it remains unknown what his slaves brought with them from Mount Vernon, we are just beginning to find out what they, and their descendants, left. Using the new information discovered at Arlington House, combined with their stories of slavery and freedom, they will establish their rightful place in our country's history.