For lovers of residential museums, those are the saddest of words. Altruism is alive and well, however, in numbers not too shabby in the nation’s capital. Mount Vernon, Cedar Hill, Hillwood, we’ve had the pleasure of visiting those and a few others, and now Tudor House. Sponsored by Cultural Tourism DC, this National Historic Landmark high on the heights in Georgetown opened its doors yesterday for a program focusing on how the Civil War affected its residents.
A couple of weeks ago we talked about George Washington Parke Custis, step grandson of George Washington. In 1795, one of his older sisters, Martha Parke Custis (“Patsy”), married Thomas Peter, a wealthy tobacco merchant and son of the first Mayor of Georgetown. Using the $8,000 she inherited from George Washington, they bought the entire block of land fronted by Q and between 31st and 32nd Street.
The power couple hired Dr. William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol and The Octagon, to design the Federal-style mansion overlooking the Potomac River. AIA notes Tudor Place, “anticipated the stately demeanor of the Capitol itself.”
During the Civil War, the Potomac River was a dividing line of sorts. For the most part, Alexandrians whistled Dixie. In Georgetown and Washington, a dual set of emotions was sometimes required. Daughter Britannia (1815-1911), the youngest of eight who inherited the home from Martha, held sympathies for the Confederates. But when wounded soldiers arrived in the city, she had to nuance her feelings. The Union requisitioned many large homes to use as a hospital. As Martha Lindsey Bestebreurtje notes:
Britannia knew that should Tudor Place be taken over as a Union hospital that it would be very unlikely that she would ever be able to buy it back. So, despite her Confederate sympathies, Britannia opened her home to Union officers and their wives as a boarding house. This was one of the shakiest times in Tudor Place’s history.
Our tour guide was outstanding. She seamlessly wove the bigger picture with smaller stories and anecdotes. I was curious about Brittania’s name. It came from the family’s Federalist background. Her mother and father, who had witnessed the burning of Washington in 1814 from the home, had remained staunch Federalists even after the party dissolved.
One particular story, the execution of William Orton Williams, Captain, C.S.A, and his first cousin, Walter Gibson Peter, Lt., C.S.A., stood out as the most poignant. It was very strange and very sad, the kind of thing that begs to be understood.
In the gift store, you can buy a typed up copy of the dispatch filed by the on-the-scene reporter for Harper’s Weekly (July 4, 1863). Additionally, Tonia Smith wrote, “Gentlemen, You Have Played This Damned Well, The Execution of Confederate Spies Colonel William Orton Williams and Lieutenant Walter Gibson Peter.” (Colonel Baird, the fort commander, is quoted in the HW article as saying, “Gentlemen, you have played this d-----d well.”)
I couldn’t find her article on-line but Smith wrote a summary at “Rantings of a Civil War Historian.” The short version is that Williams and Peter, evidently as a lark or a bet, dressed up as Union soldiers. They (Williams was a first cousin of Mrs. Robert E. Lee) rode into Fort Granger in Franklin, Tennessee and announced their presence as officers and inspectors. Their spy mission ended with them getting caught and hanged on June 9, 1863. By the way, the news account of the hanging might make some uncomfortable or squeamish.
The Peter family owned the house from 1805 to 1983, an astonishing six generations long run of continuity. The official website of The Tudor Foundation notes:
Numbering close to 15,000 items, the Tudor Place object collection spans the period 1750-1983. Incredible for its depth and breadth, the objects represented range from George Washington’s presidential dinner and dessert service to a full complement of 20th century kitchenware. The object collection represents the layered history of the property, with every generation of Peter family occupation represented.
The gardens are a marvel themselves and include a lily pool, flower knot and Japanese Tea House. Standing out on the south lawn is a tulip poplar, believed to be 200 or so years old. There are 400 trees in all on the property, including oaks, elms, beech, pecan, and a Kentucky coffee with its trademark large leaves.
It would be very difficult for me to pick a favorite historic home. For now, I’ll say the Tudor House is right up there. Its residents weren’t as famous as Washington, Douglass, and Post, but the legacy they left is wonderful. We thank the family for sharing this remarkable connection to the Washingtons and the Lees, a unique window into the area’s and our country’s history.
Note: The familial nature of these stories requires a sharp eye. If I made any mistakes on that (or other lines), please let me know.