Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Civil War Odyssey of George Washington's Silver


     George Washington Parke Custis, and his sister “Nelly” were raised at Mount Vernon by George and Martha Washington.  When Martha Washington died in 1802 her will bequeathed, "all the silver plate of every kind of which I shall die possessed, together with the two large plated cooler the four small plated coolers with the bottle castors," to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis.

Custis died in 1857 and the silver passed to his daughter Mary, the wife of Robert E. Lee.  Mary and Robert E. Lee lived in Arlington House until 1861 when Virginia seceded from the Union and Lee went south to join the Confederate army. The Washington silver was packed into trunks and sent to Richmond.  Lee then sent the trunks on to the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia for safekeeping.

Here the silver remained safe until June 1864, when Union General David Hunter raided the Valley of Virginia and advanced on Lexington.  The Washington silver was saved from destruction by the actions of the VMI Superintendent, Francis Smith and ordnance sergeant, John Hampsey. As Federal troops advanced on Lexington, Smith ordered Hampsey to bury the two large trunks that held the Washington silver.  As the buildings on the VMI campus burned, the Washington silver lay safely beneath the ground.

After the war, Robert E. Lee became the president of Washington College in Lexington (later Washington and Lee University).  In the fall of 1865, as the Lees settled into their new home, they called upon their "trusty friend," John Hampsey, to help unearth the two large chests of buried treasure.
Hampsey escorted Robert E. Lee, Jr., to the burial site, and the General's son later reminisced: "I was sent out with him to dig it up and bring it in. We found it safe and sound, but black with mould and damp….”

The Washington silver remained in the Lees' home at Washington College until Mary's death in 1873, after which the silver was bequeathed to all branches of the family.  Some of the descendants have donated pieces to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the custodians of George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate.

The Civil War Wedding, an entertaining look at the customs and superstitions of weddings during the Civil War era.

Neither Martha Washington nor the women of the South’s leading families were marble statues, they had the same strengths and weaknesses, passions and problems, joys and sorrows, as the women of any age.  So just how did they live?

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