JULY 4TH AT ARLINGTON HOUSE
Agnes' Journal Fourth of July, 1855 O, I have forgotten to say anything about the "glorious Fourth." Grandpa attended the celebration in W. & it poured almost the whole time. After tea there was a grand display on the Arlington portico -- of cushions shawls etc. to make us comfortable while gazing at the magnificent fireworks which were to astonish the millions. Well we waited -- & waited, one or two faint efforts were made but it was "no go" & we went in much scandalized by the idea of the "4th" without fireworks.
Hopes were held out for the next nights -- another preparation -- another failure. They were wet, they would be ready by Saturday. A third effort to see what was not to be & we gave up...
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R. E. Lee to My dear son Fourth of July, 1860 San Antonio We have had crackers & sparks (?) & pistols & guns & rockets etc. going off all day in celebration of this glorious anniversary & there was a procession of the military boys & Mexicans, reading of the declaration of Independence & orations in the square, after which the military marched to each tavern, took a drink & dispersed. I have not been able to take part in any of these proceedings, having been taken with a fever a week...
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JULY 4TH INTERPRETATION NOTES "THE FOURTH OF JULY AT ARLINGTON" George Washington Park Custis considered three holidays worthy of celebration: Washington's Birthday, St. Patrick's Day, and the Fourth of July. As Custis grew up in the Mt. Vernon, New York, and Philadelphia households of the Washington, the memory of the Revolution became deeply engrained. As a small child he became personally acquainted with the men who had won independence. The mansion at Arlington estate was built by Custis, among other purposes, to serve as a proper repository for the numerous Washington relics which Custis had inherited or purchased from the Washington estate.
The most treasured of these items was Washington's war tent and cover. The cover is in the closet in the school room; the tent itself is now set up at the Museum of History and Technology [now the Museum of American History] of the Smithsonian. The tent figured into Custis' various July 4th celebrations at Arlington. Guests would gather at the famous "Arlington Spring" under the erected tent for the main oration and picnic. (Arlington Spring is - or rather was - located near the present Pentagon underneath the George Washington Memorial Parkway, on the northwest side of the Pentagon.)
For Custis, the 4th of July was the grand occasion and opportunity for self expression: verbally, in poetry, or in drama - all patriotic. In addition to the occasions at Arlington estate, Custis would participate in the affairs at the Capitol. In the late 1840's the center of Washington's celebrations for the 4th switched from the Capitol to the Washington Monument grounds. Custis was on the platform for the laying of the cornerstone in 1848.
During the years that followed, Mr. Custis participated at the placing of the various state stones in the monument as a part of the annual July 4th celebrations. The two important family weddings (G. W. P. Custis to Mary Lee Fitzhugh and R. E. Lee to Mary Anna Randolph Custis: 1804 and 1831 respectively) were scheduled near the 4th. Perhaps they purposefully scheduled their celebrations to tie in with the celebrations of the 4th of July. Custis' death in 1857 and the conflict of 1861-65 ended the July 4th festivities at Arlington.
1802 George Washington Parke Custis spent the greater part of this summer moving to "Mt. Washington" (name later changed to Arlington, perhaps because Washington was becoming too common a name). In July he was in Alexandria making the legal arrangements necessary to take over his various inheritances. He had unsuccessfully attempted to purchase Mt. Vernon from Bushrod Washington. Custis had inherited numerous relics from the Washington’s, including the tent, and had recklessly bid on other items when the estate was auctioned, getting in debt to the tune of $4,545.00. In the summer of 1802 (July-August) he was cramming all these relics into the 4-room cottage near the Potomac River at "Mt. Washington." So Custis was too busy this summer to celebrate the 4th of July in any significant manner. At least it escaped any recording. However, he was undertaking the patriotic endeavor of beginning construction on "Arlington House" so that he could rescue his relics from the pestilence of rats and moisture.
1804 George Washington Parke Custis gave his first July 4th oration before the Washington Society of Alexandria. Three days later he was married to Mary Lee Fitzhugh at her Alexandria home. Perhaps his fiancée was so fortunate to be at the celebration. Custis dwelled on a general attack upon the Jeffersonians whom he claimed to be too influenced by the French revolution, which turned into a dictatorship. He gave the typical attention to the Constitution, proclaiming rather fatalistically: "... if you cancel this bond of union, you become a prey to foreign usurpation and domestic ambition... May a union of sentiment produce a union of brotherly affection throughout the United States!"
1824 Mr. Custis attended a public dinner in Washington for Andrew Jackson, hero of New Orleans, on this 4th of July. This was the year in which Jackson would win the popular vote in the Presidential election, but lose the electoral vote to John Quincy Adams. Jackson and his protégé, Van Buren, visited Arlington often, and Custis often joined them for an excursion down the Potomac.
1825 July 4th was celebrated at Arlington, being the first of what became the customary July 4th celebrations there. Washington's war tent was set up at Arlington Spring. A dinner was served and Mr. Custis delivered his patriotic oration on the struggle for freedom going on throughout the world. Custis had much to say about Lafayette, who had visited Arlington the previous January during his still continuing tour of the nation. (Lafayette left in August and Custis went to the farewell celebration to see him off). Custis also discoursed upon Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America, having a medal prepared to present to the Colombian minister (through Lafayette) to give to Bolivar. The medal was one that was presented by the city of Williamsburg to Mrs. Washington commemorating the services of her husband. Also given to Bolivar was a locket containing a miniature portrait of Washington and a lock of his hair. Custis opened Arlington Spring to the general public for family picnics and outings by all kinds of organized groups - patriotic clubs, Sunday schools, and militia companies. It soon became one of the chief attractions of the city.
By July 1826, Custis' series, "Recollections of Washington," were appearing in the Alexandria Gazette. He had had some success with the Lafayette "Conversations," but at the encouragement of Lafayette himself Custis returned to his "Recollections of Washington" series. The first of the "Recollections" series, "The Indian Prophecy," had appeared in May. (See story in Nelligan, p. 175. On July 4, 1826, there was another celebration and oration at Arlington Spring, in which Custis spoke on behalf of Irish Independence and assistance to the Greeks.
A special for July 4th, "Washington at Mt. Vernon," another chapter from the "Recollections," was published. Custis described the General's personal life; habits, appearance, what he ate and drank, what he liked and disliked - showing Washington as a human being. He also expressed his literary talent (or lack of same) by writing a play, "The Indian Prophecy." which opened at Philadelphia's Chestnut Street Theater as a special for July 4th. It was called "trash" by critics, but did start the vogue for Indian plays which lasted until the late 1860's. Custis also attended another Jackson dinner; Jackson was finally elected President the following year.
On July 4th of this year, the family was still celebrating the marriage of their daughter to Robert E. Lee. Honeymoons were not yet customary; thus the couple remained at home celebrating for several days after the June 30th wedding. Mr. Custis went to Alexandria to take part in the ceremony marking the start of the canal that would link that city with the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal then being built up the Potomac. Probably none of the wedding party went with him. That night the entire company moved down to General Mason's house on Analosten Island [now Teddy Roosevelt Island] for a final round of festivities before breaking up the next day when the young officers had to return to duty.
Robert E. Lee wrote to Mrs. Lee about the war tent being on display at the Baltimore Museum for July 4th. Lee to Mrs. Lee, July 12, 1837.
Custis presented a silk flag to the Potomac Dragoons on the 4th of July and addressed the Georgetown College commencement dinner later in the month.
On the speaker's stand at Georgetown College, Custis went down with the rest when the platform collapsed. He found himself on the ground amid a pile of timbers and flooring, uninjured. Someone got a bloody nose. .
Custis attended a "Whig Festival" at Alexandria.
1848 Custis and his son-in-law and his family attended the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument. Custis did not speak at the ceremony, but Robert Winthrop (of Massachusetts) retold the "Indian Prophecy" story in his oration. An equestrian portrait of Washington painted by Custis decorated the banquet hall of the National Hotel for the dinner held in honor of the occasion.
Custis dedicated the City of Washington stone for the Washington Monument. This occasion was attended by President Taylor. Custis took a handful of earth taken from the Kosciusko mound at Cracow, Poland, placing it on top of the marble block so that it might enter into the cement and form part of the monument. He then delivered his typical patriotic speech. Refreshments were served at the White House. This was the occasion at which President Taylor ate some poorly cooked food and drank iced milk, and that night suffered a severe attack of cholera-morbis from which he died a few days later. Custis was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral.
In company with President Fillmore, General Scott, and other notables, Custis witnessed the presentation of the Pennsylvania block to the Washington Monument. Later in the day he accompanied the President to the Capitol to see the cornerstone of the Capitol extension put in place. Daniel Webster delivered the oration.
July 4th was celebrated at Arlington Spring, which was opened to the public. Throughout that summer over 20,000 visited the Arlington Spring.
On this July 4th, the celebrants adjourned from the spring to the portico of Arlington House to view the fireworks, but rain cancelled the display. Templeman, "Independence Day at Arlington House," Northern Virginia Sun, July 5, 1958
On July 4th, Lee made a 30-mile march across the plains in Texas and wrote of the experience to his wife, mentioning the customary celebration at Arlington as being on his mind.
Mr. Custis had died, but Lee let it be known that Arlington Spring would remain open for the public. Two thousand persons celebrated the 4th of July there without any disorder. Later on in the month a "mammoth festival" was held by the German population of Washington. Music was provided by a band and songs sung by the regular singers. Dancing and gymnastics occupied "the happy horde.... There was an abundance of good cheer in the shape of well brewed 'lager', nothing stronger being allowed." (Intelligencer) The Fourth of July at Arlington George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted son of George Washington, revered the ideals for which the American Revolution was fought. He came to live with the Washington’s before he was a year old and was privileged enough to travel with them to their homes in New York and Philadelphia.
It was in the Washington's presence that young Custis became personally acquainted with the men who had fought, both with pen and gun, and won independence for the Colonies. Through these experiences, the American Revolution and its ideals became engraved in the memory of Custis. It was one of three holidays that he considered worthy of celebration: 4th of July, St. Patrick's Day and George Washington's birthday. Mr. Custis built the mansion called Arlington with the idea that it would become a repository of the numerous Washington relics which he possessed through inheritance and purchase. Among the most treasured of these items were the Washington Revolutionary War tents.
The first recorded house celebration of the fourth of July was in 1825. The celebration consisted of dinner served under the Washington tents at Arlington Spring located near the river, with a patriotic speech by Mr. Custis on the struggle for freedom throughout the world. This was not Mr. Custis' first oration on the 4th of July. In 1804, at the age of 23, Mr. Custis spoke at the Episcopal Church before the Washington Society in Alexandria. Mr. Custis continued to participate in public and private observances of the glorious 4th throughout his life. Early public observances were held at the Capitol and later on the Washington Monument grounds. For many years, the public observances of the fourth were held at Arlington Spring.
Mr. Custis used this grand occasion for an opportunity to express his patriotism in both verbal and written expression, poetry and drama. His death in 1857 and the onset of the war in 1861 put an end to the 4th f July festivities at Arlington. It is through this program today, that we revive the tradition of celebrating the 4th at Arlington.