January 4, 2024

Junius Brutus Stears 1849 recreation of the George Washington/Martha Dandridge Custis wedding (1759).  John Parke Custis is on the lap of the older gentleman seated right.

By Kellee Blake

On this very day, 250 years ago . . .

As news of the drama at Boston Harbor trickled southward, Eastern Shore land heir John Parke “Jack” Custis readied to marry. The nineteen-year-old Custis had often distressed his mother and stepfather, Martha and George Washington, but he was steadfast for fifteen-year-old Eleanor “Nelly” Calvert of Maryland.

Washington wanted Custis to finish his Kings College (Columbia) studies before the marriage, but even Washington could not resist the supplications of the young man, family members, and especially Martha who wished her son nearer. Martha’s daughter Patsy had died just months before.

George Washington gifted his stepson twenty-four British pounds “for [his] wedding cloaths” and joined the February marriage festivities at the Calverts’ Mount Airy mansion.  The joining of Custis and Calvert wealth in lands, goods, and enslaved workers allowed the young couple the most comfortable of colonial lives. 

For several reasons, including Martha Washington’s concerns, Jack Custis did not enter Continental service when war commenced. He proclaimed himself a “true Friend to the Independency of America” and represented Fairfax County in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1778-1781.  In 1778 Custis claimed his Eastern Shore property “from mismanagement has not, I believe, cleared me for the last three years fifty pound per annum.” By then he was securing the northern Virginia acres that would become the Arlington Estate—ultimately Arlington National Cemetery–named for his family’s ancestral Eastern Shore home.  

In September 1781 John Parke Custis joined Washington as aide-de-camp during the siege of Yorktown.  The victorious surrender of Lord Cornwallis did not stop the greater scourge of “camp fever” (typhus) and smallpox raging through the assembled humanity.  Despite the best care available, the twenty-six-year-old succumbed on November 5, 1781. He left a young widow and four children aged five and under. His two youngest children were raised by George and Martha Washington.  

Custis’ legacy is complicated and he is perhaps too quickly dismissed as the “bad boy” in studies of his family. He was not the scholar or businessman Washington wished him to be, but his writings reveal much about the home front of war and the complexities of owning property in human life.  John Parke Custis’ extraordinary witness in the crucible of nation building demands a fuller telling.  On this this day 250 years ago, though, he was just a teenager in love.  

Join WESR on the 4th of each month to learn more about Virginia and the Shore’s role in the War for Independence.  Get ready for the Revolutionary Shore! 

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