Archive for the ‘Custis, Eleanor “Nelly” Parke’ Category

“He communed with his God in secret”

Concluding the month of February’s posts on the Washingtons is a letter by Nelly Custis, granddaughter to Martha and adopted daughter of George Washington, to Jared Sparks in 1823 in reply to Jared’s questions about the Washingtons’ religious beliefs and practices as well as how they spent their Sundays.

I hasten to give you the information you desire.
Truro Parish [Episcopal] is the one in which Mount Vernon, Pohick Church [the church where George Washington served as a vestryman], and . . . are situated. Fairfax Parish is now Alexandria. Before the Federal District was ceded to Congress, Alexandria was in Fairfax County. General Washington had a pew in Pohick Church, and one in Christ Church at Alexandria. He was very instrumental in establishing Pohick Church, and I believe subscribed largely. His pew was near the pulpit. I have a perfect recollection of being there, before his election to the presidency, with him and my grandmother…
He attended the church at Alexandria when the weather and roads permitted a ride of ten miles [a one-way journey of 2-3 hours by horse or carriage]. In New York and Philadelphia he never omitted attendance at church in the morning, unless detained by indisposition. The afternoon was spent in his own room at home; the evening with his family, and without company. Sometimes an old and intimate friend called to see us for an hour or two; but visiting and visitors were prohibited for that day [Sunday]. No one in church attended to the services with more reverential respect. My grandmother, who was eminently pious, never deviated from her early habits. She always knelt. The General, as was then the custom, stood during the devotional parts of the service. On communion Sundays, he left the church with me, after the blessing, and returned home, and we sent the carriage back for my grandmother.
It was his custom to retire to his library at nine or ten o’clock where he remained an hour before he went to his chamber. He always rose before the sun and remained in his library until called to breakfast. I never witnessed his private devotions. I never inquired about them. I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray, “that they may be seen of men” [Matthew 6:5]. He communed with his God in secret [Matthew 6:6].
My mother [Eleanor Calvert-Lewis] resided two years at Mount Vernon after her marriage [in 1774] with John Parke Custis, the only son of Mrs. Washington. I have heard her say that General Washington always received the sacrament with my grandmother before the revolution. (The king of England was the head of the church and apparently Washington would not recognize him as such after the war). When my aunt, Miss Custis [Martha’s daughter] died suddenly at Mount Vernon, before they could realize the event [before they understood she was dead], he [General Washington] knelt by her and prayed most fervently, most affectingly, for her recovery. Of this I was assured by Judge [Bushrod] Washington’s mother and other witnesses.
He [George Washington] was a silent, thoughtful man. He spoke little generally; never of himself. I never heard him relate a single act of his life during the war. I have often seen him perfectly abstracted, his lips moving, but no sound was perceptible. I have sometimes made him laugh most heartily from sympathy with my joyous and extravagant spirits. I was, probably, one of the last persons on earth to whom he would have addressed serious conversation, particularly when he knew that I had the most perfect model of female excellence [Martha Washington] ever with me as my monitress, who acted the part of a tender and devoted parent, loving me as only a mother can love, and never extenuating [tolerating] or approving in me what she disapproved of others. She never omitted her private devotions, or her public duties; and she and her husband were so perfectly united and happy that he must have been a Christian. She had no doubts, no fears for him. After forty years of devoted affection and uninterrupted happiness, she resigned him without a murmur into the arms of his Savior and his God, with the assured hope of his eternal felicity.
Is it necessary that any one should certify, “General Washington avowed himself to me a believer in Christianity?” As well may we question his patriotism, his heroic, disinterested devotion to his country. His mottos were, “Deeds, not Words”; and, “For God and my Country.”
With sentiments of esteem,
I am, Nelly Custis-Lewis

Excerpts from the letter were included in a blog post by Barbara Wells Sarudy paying tribute to Martha Washington. Read a more complete version of the letter HERE.

posted February 28th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Custis, Eleanor "Nelly" Parke,Custis, Martha "Patsy",Washington, George,Washington, Martha

“the ostrich feathers . . . took fire”

When the widowed Martha Dandridge Custis married George Washington she brought her two children to live at Mount Vernon: John “Jacky” and Martha “Patsy.” Sadly, her daughter died of consumption in 1773. Jacky was a bit wild, married young, joined the army and died of camp fever shortly after the battle of Yorktown, leaving his wife and four children. The two oldest children stayed with their widowed mother. The other two—George Washington Parke Custis, called “Wash,” and his sister Eleanor Parke Custis called “Nelly”—came to live at Mount Vernon. George Washington officially adopted his two step grandchildren.

G.W.P. Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh and their daughter Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the only one of four children who reached maturity, married Robert E. Lee. In 1826, GWP Custis admitted paternity of a child born to a slave who had once resided at Mount Vernon where she served Martha Washington. During his lifetime GWP Custis put down his recollections of George Washington and life at Mount Vernon. After his death his daughter published them in a volume that can be read online. Here is an anecdote he recounts that occurred at one of Martha Washington’s levees.

Mrs. Washington’s drawing rooms, on Friday nights, were attended by the grace and beauty of New York. On one of these occasions an incident occurred which might have been attended by serious consequences. Owing to the lowness of the ceiling in the drawing room, the ostrich feathers in the head-dress of Miss [Mary] McIvers, a belle of New York, took fire from the chandelier, to the no small alarm of the company. Major Jackson, aid-de-camp [sic] to the president, with great presence of mind, and equal gallantry, flew to the rescue of the lady, and, by clapping the burning plumes between his hands, extinguished the flame, and the drawing-room went on as usual.

Custis wrote that George Washington attended his wife’s drawing-rooms.

[He] paid his compliments to the circle of ladies, with that ease and elegance of manners for which he was remarkable. Among the most polished and well-bred gentlemen of his time, he was always particularly polite to ladies, even in the rugged scene of war; and, in advanced age, many were the youthful swains who sighed for those gracious smiles with which the fair always received the attentions of this old beau of sixty-five.

Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington by his adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis, with a Memoir of the author, by his Daughter (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860), pp 395-96 and 409. I promise you will spend time reading other stories from the Memoirs online HERE.

posted February 15th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Custis, Eleanor "Nelly" Parke,Custis, George Washington Parke,Custis, John "Jacky" Parke,Custis, Martha "Patsy",Custis, Mary Anna Randolph,Mount Vernon,New York,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

“Cupid. . . . transfixed me with a Dart”

Eleanor Parke Custis, known as “Nelly,” was the youngest of Martha Washington’s three granddaughters. Martha was the widow of Daniel Parke Custis when she married George Washington; she had two children: John, known as “Jacky,” and Martha called “Patsy.” Patsy died just before the Revolution and Jacky died during the war. His wife Eleanor Calvert was left with four children: Nelly, two older sisters, and a son, George Washington Parke Custis. Martha and George Washington formally adopted Nelly and George. Martha’s two other granddaughters lived with their mother who remarried.

Martha and George Washington were very dear to Nelly. “She has been ever more than a Mother to me, and the President the most affectionate of Fathers. I love them more than any one.” Nelly was attractive and talented. And well schooled—her step-grandfather saw to that. When the President retired to Mount Vernon at the end of his second term, Nelly went too. She corresponded with her friend Elizabeth Bordley in Philadelphia; on August 20, 1797, she wrote complaining about gossip linking her romantically to one or another of the eligible bachelors.

whoever is my Husband I must first love him with all my Heart—that is not romantically, but esteem & prefer him before all others, that Man I am not yet acquainted with —perhaps never may be, if so—then I remain E P Custis Spinster for life.

A year and a half later, Nelly admitted to her friend that she had found that man and was to be married.

Mount Vernon February 3rd 1799My dearest Eliza,
Cupid, a small mischeivous Urchin, who has been trying sometime to humble my pride, took me by surprise, when I thought of nothing less than him, & in the very moment that I had (after mature consideration) made the sage and prudent resolve of passing through life, as a prim starched Spinster, to the great edification of my Friends [her grandparents] in particular, & the public in general—when I had abused & defied him, & thought my Heart impenetrable he slyly called in Lawrence Lewis to his aid, & transfixed me with a Dart, before I knew where I was. It was sometime I assure you before I could reconcile myself to giving up my favourite scheme, but resistance was vain, I had to contend with perseverance & at last was obliged to submit & bind myself to become that old fashioned thing called a Wife & now, strange as it may seem—I am perfectly reconciled & neither think “the day evil, or the Hour unlucky,” that witnessed my solemn promise to become Mrs. Lewis, & take said Lawrence for better or worse.
That promise will soon be ratifyed—the 22nd of this month is the day which will fix my future destiny. My present prospects are the most pleasing. The Man I have chosen to watch over my future happiness, is in every respect calculated to ensure it.

Lawrence Lewis, a nephew of George Washington, had come to Mount Vernon in 1798 to help deal with the constant flow of visitors; he was thus in a good position to court Eleanor. The couple were married on Washington’s birthday.

The quoted letters can be found on page 186 of In the Words of Women. Further information about Nelly Parke Custis Lewis, as well as the portrait by James Sharples, can be found here.

posted February 12th, 2015 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Custis, Eleanor "Nelly" Parke,Marriage,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

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