Mount Vernon, Virginia

The Mount Vernon mansion in Virginia, as seen from the west side, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The land that would become the Mount Vernon estate had been in the Washington family since 1674, when John Washington – an English immigrant and great-grandfather of the future president – acquired the property. It was subsequently owned by his son Lawrence, and then Lawrence’s daughter Mildred, before being purchased by Mildred’s brother Augustine Washington in 1726.

Augustine Washington was 31 years old at the time, and had a wife, Jane, and three children. However, Jane died only a few years later, and in 1731 he remarried to Mary Ball, with whom he had six more children. The oldest of these was George Washington, who was born in 1732 at Popes Creek, a plantation further south of here along the Potomac River. The Washington family lived there for several more years, but around 1734 Augustine constructed the earliest portion of the mansion house here at Mount Vernon, which was known as Little Hunting Creek Plantation at the time.

Around 1739, Augustine and his family moved to Fredericksburg, and left Little Hunting Creek to his oldest son, Lawrence. In 1743, Lawrence married Anne Fairfax, and he renamed the plantation Mount Vernon, in honor of his former commanding officer, Admiral Edward Vernon. The couple had four children here, although none of them survived childhood, and both Lawrence and Anne also died young, in 1752 and 1761, respectively.

In his will, Lawrence left Mount Vernon to his wife for the rest of her life, with his brother George to inherit the property upon her death. In 1754, George Washington began leasing Mount Vernon from Anne, and in 1758 he expanded the original house, likely in preparation for his upcoming marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis. The house had been built with only one story, along with a garret above it, but Washington added a full second story, with a garret on the third floor. Following the completion of this project, the house consisted of what is now the central portion of the building.

George Washington acquired the property outright when Anne died in 1761, and in 1774 he began the second major expansion, with two-story additions on either side of the house. The pediment was also added during this time, as was the iconic two-story portico on the east side of the house. The interior work would not be finished until 1787, but the exterior was completed in 1775, the same year that Washington left Mount Vernon to take command of the Continental Army. Washington himself is generally credited with designing the plans for the addition, thus adding architect to his lengthy list of accomplishments.

Although he would spend many years away from Mount Vernon during the American Revolution and during his presidency, the estate would be his home for the rest of his life, until his death here on December 14, 1799. Martha Washington died two and a half years later, and Washington’s nephew, Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, subsequently inherited Mount Vernon. After Bushrod’s death in 1829, his nephew, John Augustine Washington II, inherited it, followed by John’s son, John Augustine Washington III.

Throughout the first half of the 19th century, though, the various generations of Washingtons struggled to maintain the property. As is often the case with landed aristocrats, they were land rich but cash poor, and Mount Vernon suffered neglect because of the cost of upkeep. Finally, in 1858, John Augustine Washington III sold the mansion and surrounding land to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. This organization subsequently restored the property, making it one of the first historic house museums in the country.

Mount Vernon opened for visitors in 1860, and it has remained a popular tourist attraction ever since. The first photo was taken some 50-60 years later, and it shows the view of the mansion from the west, looking across the bowling green. Today, hardly anything has changed in this scene. The property is still operated by Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which remains an independent nonprofit organization, and it draws an estimated one million visitors each year. Because of its historical significance, Mount Vernon was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960, making it one of the first sites in the country to receive this recognition.

George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, Virginia

George Washington’s tomb, at his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The tomb in 2018:

George Washington died on December 14, 1799, here on his Mount Vernon estate. Four days later, his body was interred in the Washington family crypt, which was located just down the hill from his mansion, on the banks of the Potomac River. This was intended to be only a temporary tomb for Washington, as there were several different plans for his final resting place. One proposal was to bury him underneath the Capitol rotunda, and a crypt was even constructed for this purpose. However, a different plan called for Washington to be reinterred in a new, larger tomb at Mount Vernon.

It would ultimately take more than three decades for this question to be resolved, and it was only addressed after a rather bizarre act of vandalism. In 1830, a gardener, who had been recently fired from his job at Mount Vernon, decided to respond by stealing George Washington’s skull. He broke into the tomb, which was filled with the remains of at least 20 members of the family, but he ended up taking the wrong skull. Washington’s body was left undisturbed, and the perpetrator was quickly caught, but the incident highlighted the need for a new tomb that was more fitting for the father of his country

The result was this brick tomb, as shown in these two photos. It was completed in 1831, and George and Martha Washington’s remains were subsequently moved here, along with the remains of the other family members. Then, in 1837, he was placed in a marble sarcophagus, which can be seen just beyond the right side of the gate. In the process, his coffin was opened for the only time, perhaps in order to verify that his head was still in place, and observers noted that his body had been well-preserved over the intervening 38 years.

By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, the tomb had been joined by two obelisks at the front. The one on the right memorializes George Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington, who had inherited Mount Vernon upon Martha Washington’s death in 1802. He was also an associate justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, serving from 1798 until his death in 1829. The other obelisk is for John Augustine Washington II and his son, John Augustine Washington III. The elder John was a nephew of Bushrod Washington, and inherited Mount Vernon from him. The younger John later inherited the estate from his father, and he was the last member of the Washington family to own it before selling it to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in 1858.

Today, almost nothing has changed in this scene in nearly 120 years since the first photo was taken. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association continues to own the property, which includes the mansion, its many outbuildings, the surrounding grounds, and the tomb. The estate was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960, exactly a hundred years after it opened to the public as a museum, and today it remains a popular tourist attraction, with around one million visitors each year.

Arlington House, Arlington, Virginia

The Arlington House in Arlington National Cemetery, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2018:

This house was built over a period of 15 years between 1803 and 1818, and it was originally the home of George Washington Parke Custis. Born in 1781, Custis was the grandson of Martha Washington, from her first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis. His father, John Parke “Jacky” Custis, had died when George Washington Parke Custis was only a few months old, and George and Martha subsequently raised him as their adopted son. George Washington died in 1799, and Martha in 1802, leaving Custis a significant inheritance. Also in 1802, Custis turned 21, thus inheriting a fortune in money and land from his late father.

Among his father’s land holdings was an 1,100-acre estate on the Potomac River, overlooking the newly-established national capital of Washington. He named the property Arlington, and soon began construction on a mansion, which would become known as Arlington House. For the design, he hired George Hadfield, a noted architect who was responsible for several important buildings in Washington. The exterior of the house featured a very early example of Greek Revival architecture, with its most distinctive feature being the eight large columns here on the front portico. Although it appears to be built of sandstone and marble, the exterior is actually stucco-covered brick, which was intended to give it the appearance of stone.

The War of 1812 delayed construction of the house, but it was completed in 1818. Custis and his wife, Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, would go on to live here for the rest of their lives, until her death in 1853 and his in 1857. They had four children, although only one, Mary Anna Randolph Curtis, lived to adulthood. In 1831, at the age of 23, she married 24-year-old army officer Robert E. Lee, in a ceremony that was held here at Arlington House. It would be their home for the next 30 years, during which time Lee steadily rose in rank from a lieutenant to a colonel in the United States Army. He served in the Mexican-American War, and more than a decade later he led the group of soldiers that suppressed John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.

Lee’s wife Mary inherited Arlington House after her father’s death in 1857, but the family did not get to enjoy the property for much longer. On April 16, 1861, four days after the attack on Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln offered Lee command of the main Union army. However, Virginia declared its secession the following day, and Lee declined the offer. Instead, he resigned his commission in the the United States Army and joined the Confederate States Army, where he would command the Army of Northern Virginia for most of the war.

In the meantime, Arlington House quickly became a target for Union forces who were defending Washington. Because of its prominent location overlooking the city, it was imperative that it not fall into Confederate hands. The house was seized on May 24, 1861, and it subsequently became the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac. Despite this occupation, though, the Lee family formally continued to own the house until 1864, when it was taken by the federal government for nonpayment of taxes.

Later in 1864, with the Union needing more space to bury soldiers killed in the war, the property became Arlington National Cemetery. Part of the intention behind this move was to forever deprive Lee of the use of the estate, and to that end many of the early burials were right near the house. The first interment occurred on May 13, and thousands more would follow in the remaining 11 months of the war. These included the remains of 2,111 unidentified Union and Confederate soldiers, whose remains were collected from various battlefields. They were buried in a vault behind and to the left of the house, and the spot is marked by the Civil War Unknowns Monument.

Following the war, neither Robert E. Lee nor Mary Lee ever attempted to reclaim the title of the estate, although their oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, successfully sued for its return. However, not interested in living in the middle of a cemetery, he then sold the property back to the federal government in 1883 for $150,000. In the ensuing years, though, the government directed most of its attention to the cemetery itself, with little concern for the mansion. By the time the first photo was taken around 1900, the house was largely unused, and the immediate grounds had been heavily altered from their prewar appearance.

The mansion was finally restored in the late 1920s, although the original focus was on the Custis family, as opposed to the Lees. However, in 1955 the house was renamed the Custis-Lee Mansion, and then in 1972 it became Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, thus placing a greater emphasis on Lee’s connection to the house. It has remained in use as a museum since then, although it was closed for renovations in early 2018, a few months before the first photo was taken. As part of this project, the house will be restored to its 1860 appearance, and the slave quarters and surrounding grounds will also be restored. The work will cost an estimated $12.35 million, and it is scheduled to be completed in January 2020.

Drewry’s Bluff, Chesterfield County, Virginia

The view looking down the James River from Drewry’s Bluff, in 1865. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Civil War Collection.

Battlefields

The same view in 2012:

078_2012

When the top photo was published on a stereo card in 1865, the caption was “One reason why we did not go to Richmond.”  Indeed, this gun was perhaps the reason why Richmond wasn’t taken until the very end of the Civil War.  As seen in the photos, the gun overlooks a long, downstream section of the James River.  Built as part of Fort Darling, it was located downstream of Richmond, so any attacking Union naval force had to contend with this and two other guns at the fort in order to reach the capital.  An attempt was made in 1862, and five navy ships, including the famed USS Monitor, headed upstream.  At Drewry’s Bluff, the wooden ships were unable to advance, so the ironclad Monitor did.  However, the Monitor’s guns didn’t elevate enough to reach the top of the 90-foot cliff, so the Union forces had to retreat.  Another attempt was made in 1864 to capture the fort, but this too failed, and the fort remained in Confederate hands up until the final days of the war.

Today, the site of the fort is preserved by the National Park Service, and the cannon in the 2012 photo is an original cannon, although not necessarily the same one in the 1865 photo.  The carriage beneath the cannon, however, is a modern reproduction.