My dear Mary, I am very anxious about you. You have to move and make arrangements to get to some point of safety which you must select. The Mt Vernon plates and pictures ought to be secured. Keep quiet while you remain and in your preparations. War is inevitable and there is no telling when it will burst around you.
“Mother?” Agnes joined me in the parlor. “You are pale as milk. What is it?”
I handed her the letter. “Your father thinks we may be invaded.”
Only three weeks earlier Robert, newly appointed to lead the Confederates in Virginia, kissed us in farewell and rode away from Arlington. Now he was preparing for the worst while I still prayed for some miracle to save us all from the coming carnage.
Agnes frowned. “What shall we do?”
“Pack up the Washington treasures as he directs. But I’m not certain we need to leave just yet.”
“I read in the paper last week that some in the south are burying their treasures in their back yards,” Agnes said.
I had stopped reading the papers, especially those from the North for they were full of hatred for my husband.
If Mr Custis could have lived until now he would have good cause to be bowed down in grief and sorrow to behold his son-in-law following in the footsteps of Benedict Arnold.
I penned a succinct reply to the Washington paper: I cannot conceive why Lincoln has assembled such an army if it is not his intention to crush the South. I have but one great consolation now, that my dear parents are both laid low in their graves, where but for my children I would gladly lie beside them.
“So will we bury the silver, Mother? The paintings and the plates? And where shall we go?”
I called for Selina. Together we filled two crates with our silver, our papers, and those of President Washington. Those I sent by rail to Robert for safekeeping. My books and engravings were locked into storage. Draperies and carpets, the Washington china and the punch bowl that had been used at my wedding were hidden in the cellar. My girls and I worked feverishly by day and lay down at night in rooms stripped bare save for our beds. I slept fitfully, knowing that sooner or later I must flee. Dreading the moment when I must take my daughters and make for safety on my own.
A few days later I was outside enjoying a rare moment of quiet among my flowers. The May morning had dawned warm and fair. The first roses had come into bloom and air around me was thick with their fragrance.
Markie’s brother Orton Williams rode into the yard and began speaking before he dismounted. “Mary, the Union army is camped across the river. You are going to have to get out. Today if you can manage it.”
I set Daniel and his son to packing up our trunks, some paintings and our housekeeping items. Daughter and Agnes went back and forth from the house to the wagons, loading their belongings. I was too busy and too frightened for emotion until Selina appeared with a bundle of clean linens.
“Here you are, Miss Mary. These are the ones scented with the lavender you’re partial to.”
My heart was so heavy and my nerves so frayed that my reserve crumbled.
Selina frowned. “Now you listen to me. You are just as well to dry those tears. We all got to be strong till this is over. Nothing we can do to change it so we have to get through it best we can.”
“Missus?” Daniel looked worried. “If we don’t get going soon we gone be half the night getting to Ravensworth and you told me yourself what your cousin said about soldiers camping in these parts.”
Selina stood there with her hands on her hips, her eyes welling up. My own eyes burned. For thirty years Selina had been my great comfort. At times she had been my conscience. I wanted to do something to help her. Something to keep her safe.
Agnes returned with her tom snuggled securely in the crook of her arm. “I’m ready, Mama.”
Selina said, “All right then. You planning to stand there till sundown or are you going to give me the keys?”
“Well, somebody’s got to look after Arlington till you get back.”
Without another word I handed Selina the keys. Daniel helped me into the carriage. The reins snapped and the wheels turned, taking me into exile.
( Continued… )
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