Martha Washington had a first husband. At 19 she married a wealthy, significantly older planter, Daniel Parke Custis, and lived with him at White House Plantation in Virginia until his death in 1757. Two years later, Martha, 27, married George, almost 27. Although they had no children together, they raised Martha’s daughter (who died of an epileptic seizure at 16) and her son, John. An aide to his stepfather during the siege of Yorktown, John died during his military service in 1781, leaving a newborn son, George Washington Parke Custis, whom the Washingtons raised.
In 1802, employing slave labor, Custis began to build Arlington House (completed in 1818) on land inherited from his father. Only one of his four children, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, survived to adulthood and she married Robert E. Lee at Arlington House in 1831. It was in his and Mary’s bedchamber that Lee wrote the letter resigning his commission as an officer in the United States Army, two days before heading south to Richmond to command the Confederate forces.
I photographed Arlington House, with its spectacular contemporary view of JFK’s eternal flame and across the Potomac, the Lincoln Memorial, for Weider Publications’ Civil War Times, April 2011 issue.
It was a very cold and dazzlingly sunny day early last December when, working with picture editor Sarah Mock, I documented the condition of the mansion as much needed structural and cosmetic work was just getting underway, part of the extensive restoration of Arlington House that had already included the installation of modern climate control and fire suppression systems. The rough stucco-walled slave quarters, located behind the house, are also being restored. All work is scheduled to be completed in 2012.
To photograph, I was allowed beyond the barriers that restrict visitors, and with all the furniture removed, it was stunningly simple for me to shuffle across the entire pine floor of Colonel Lee’s second-floor bedchamber, surely walking where he had paced back and forth on the evening of April 19, 1861 until he reached his fateful decision.