George Washington Parke Custis is chiefly remembered as being the adopted son of George Washington and the father in law of Robert E. Lee, and that is rather a shame. In many ways he was a fascinating individual and deserves to be remembered in his own right. A grandson of Martha Washington, he was adopted by George Washington after his father, John Parke Custis, died at the age of 26 from “camp fever”, probably typhus, shortly after the siege of Yorktown in 1781. George and Martha took the infant George Washington Parke Custis and his sister Eleanor, to be raised as their own children. In the eyes of George Washington Parke Custis, his adoptive father was also his hero, and he did his best to emulate him his entire life. Perhaps that helps explain why throughout his life, he, like George Washington, was an ardent advocate of Irish independence.
In the 1820’s he was outspoken for his support for Catholic emancipation in Ireland. He was the chief patron of the Washington Benevolent Society that aided Irish immigrants in America. Like his celebrated adoptive father, he became a member of the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick. In 1848, a year of revolutions in Europe, he spoke before a mass audience of Irish immigrants in Washington DC on Saint Patrick’s Day and demanded independence for Ireland.
Prior to his death in 1857 he expressed a wish that some Irish might occasionally drop a shamrock on his grave and say “God bless him.” Each year a delegation of the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick travel to Arlington and unroll on his grave a covering of shamrocks, while chanting in unison, “God bless him!”.