Life as a military spouse can be lonely, anxious, and filled with social pressure. But where do those high expectations come from? Military spouses have long been expected to make sacrifices for their country—and Martha Washington, the first First Lady, helped set the tone nearly 250 years ago.
Like other upper-class white women of her day, Martha was expected to raise children, oversee her massive staff of slaves and servants, and receive her husband’s guests. But when George Washington took command of the Continental Army, her life changed irrevocably. She did not know it, but her husband would be gone for eight long years as the army struggled to defeat the larger and more technologically advanced British army.
Today, many military members’ deployments are overseas, but George was deployed nearby. Martha followed him to camp, and they spent about half of the war together.
During the 18th century, war was seasonal, and when autumn came, both armies hunkered down in winter quarters. This gave Martha a chance to see George, and he requested that she visit his winter encampment each year of the war. As the war dragged on, she became a critical comfort to the increasingly unhappy general.
Martha took an active role at camp. She managed food and essentially ran Washington’s headquarters, organizing social events and soothing the tempers of officers and their wives. She comforted not only her husband, but the soldiers she met there.
“I never in my life knew a woman so busy from early morning until latest as was lady Washington,” wrote a woman who visited Valley Forge in 1778. Martha oversaw social events, nursed sick soldiers, acted as a liaison between her husband and other officials, and cheered troops whose prospects of victory looked increasingly bleak.
She also became the general’s confidante not just in issues of love, but in issues of military strategy. “Martha had more responsibility than the other wives,” notes George Washington’s Mount Vernon. “She was the General’s sounding board and closest confidant. She acted as his secretary and representative, copying letters and representing him at official functions.” She also organized a massive donation campaign that collected funds and clothing on behalf of the troops.
Martha traveled so much during the Revolutionary War that she called herself “the great perambulator.” She risked her life by traveling through dangerous territory to reach camp, and was accompanied by an armed guard to prevent being kidnapped. She also left her family—and the world to which she was accustomed—far behind.
Without knowing it, Martha Washington had set a precedent for wives in war. The resilience and strength she displayed—and the image of military wives as long-suffering and willing to give up everything for their husbands—has persisted to this day. Military spouses are no longer expected to accompany their partners onto the actual battlefield, but they are still asked to make massive sacrifices for their country.
READ MORE: 11 Key People Who Shaped George Washington's Life
Marriage and plantation life of George Washington
Immediately on resigning his commission, Washington was married (January 6, 1759) to Martha Dandridge, the widow of Daniel Parke Custis. She was a few months older than he, was the mother of two children living and two dead, and possessed one of the considerable fortunes of Virginia. Washington had met her the previous March and had asked for her hand before his campaign with Forbes. Though it does not seem to have been a romantic love match, the marriage united two harmonious temperaments and proved happy. Martha was a good housewife, an amiable companion, and a dignified hostess. Like many wellborn women of the era, she had little formal schooling, and Washington often helped her compose important letters.
Some estimates of the property brought to him by this marriage have been exaggerated, but it did include a number of slaves and about 15,000 acres (6,000 hectares), much of it valuable for its proximity to Williamsburg. More important to Washington were the two stepchildren, John Parke (“Jacky”) and Martha Parke (“Patsy”) Custis, who at the time of the marriage were six and four, respectively. He lavished great affection and care upon them, worried greatly over Jacky’s waywardness, and was overcome with grief when Patsy died just before the Revolution. Jacky died during the war, leaving four children. Washington adopted two of them, a boy and a girl, and even signed his letters to the boy as “your papa.” Himself childless, he thus had a real family.
From the time of his marriage Washington added to the care of Mount Vernon the supervision of the Custis estate at the White House on the York River. As his holdings expanded, they were divided into farms, each under its own overseer but he minutely inspected operations every day and according to one visitor often pulled off his coat and performed ordinary labour. As he once wrote, “middling land under a man’s own eyes, is more profitable than rich land at a distance.” Until the eve of the Revolution he devoted himself to the duties and pleasures of a great landholder, varied by several weeks’ attendance every year in the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg. During 1760–74 he was also a justice of the peace for Fairfax county, sitting in court in Alexandria.
In no light does Washington appear more characteristically than as one of the richest, largest, and most industrious of Virginia planters. For six days a week he rose early and worked hard on Sundays he irregularly attended Pohick Church (16 times in 1760), entertained company, wrote letters, made purchases and sales, and sometimes went fox hunting. In these years he took snuff and smoked a pipe throughout life he liked Madeira wine and punch. Although wheat and tobacco were his staples, he practiced crop rotation on a three-year or five-year plan. He had his own water-powered flour mill, blacksmith shop, brick and charcoal kilns, carpenters, and masons. His fishery supplied shad, bass, herring, and other catches, salted as food for his slaves. Coopers, weavers, and his own shoemaker turned out barrels, cotton, linen, and woollen goods, and brogans for all needs. In short, his estates, in accordance with his orders to overseers to “buy nothing you can make yourselves,” were largely self-sufficient communities. But he did send large orders to England for farm implements, tools, paint, fine textiles, hardware, and agricultural books and hence was painfully aware of British commercial restrictions.
Washington was an innovative farmer and a responsible landowner. He experimented at breeding cattle, acquired at least one buffalo, with the hope of proving its utility as a meat animal, and kept stallions at stud. He also took pride in a peach and apple orchard.
His care of slaves was exemplary. He carefully clothed and fed them, engaged a doctor for them by the year, generally refused to sell them—“I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species”—and administered correction mildly. They showed so much attachment that few ran away.
He meanwhile played a prominent role in the social life of the Tidewater region. The members of the council and House of Burgesses, a roster of influential Virginians, were all friends. He visited the Byrds of Westover, the Lees of Stratford, the Carters of Shirley and Sabine Hall, and the Lewises of Warner Hall Mount Vernon often was busy with guests in return. He liked house parties and afternoon tea on the Mount Vernon porch overlooking the grand Potomac he was fond of picnics, barbecues, and clambakes and throughout life he enjoyed dancing, frequently going to Alexandria for balls. Cards were a steady diversion, and his accounts record sums lost at them, the largest reaching nearly £10. His diary sometimes states that in bad weather he was “at home all day, over cards.” Billiards was a rival amusement. Not only the theatre, when available, but also concerts, cockfights, circuses, puppet shows, and exhibitions of animals received his patronage.
He insisted on the best clothes—coats, laced waistcoats, hats, coloured silk hose—bought in London. The Virginia of the Randolphs, Corbins, Harrisons, Tylers, Nicholases, and other prominent families had an aristocratic quality, and Washington liked to do things in a large way. It has been computed that in the seven years prior to 1775, Mount Vernon had 2,000 guests, most of whom stayed to dinner if not overnight.
Ten Facts About Martha Washington
From mother to First Lady, Martha Washington had many important roles throughout her life.
1. Martha was born on June 2, 1731, making her 8 months older than George Washington
Martha Dandridge was born on June 2, 1731, at Chestnut Grove plantation in New Kent County, Virginia, which is roughly 35 miles from the colonial capital of Williamsburg. Martha was the first of eight children born to John Dandridge and Frances Jones.
2. Unlike most women in Virginia in the early 1700s, Martha learned to read and write
Unlike the majority of women in Virginia at this time who were not literate, Martha learned both to read and write at an early age. Throughout her entire life, Martha found pleasure and solace in reading. She read the Bible and other devotional literature for religious edification and novels and magazines for entertainment and instruction. Martha was also known as a regular and active letter writer, and a collection of her surviving letters are housed in the collections of the Mount Vernon library.
3. Martha grew to be about 5 feet tall
The average height for European women in early Colonial America was around 5&rsquo2&rdquo. Martha was described as a lovely and attractive woman with a lively personality. She was generally strong-willed, though also charming, sincere, warm, and socially adept. These characteristics allowed her to overcome obstacles and forge her own path in the world.
4. Martha married Daniel Parke Custis on May 15, 1750
In colonial Virginia, most women of Martha&rsquos social class met their potential mates through friends and family, or at church, court day, or a ball held at a neighbor&rsquos house. Tradition holds that Martha met her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, at their local Anglican church.
Daniel Parke Custis began courting Martha Dandridge when he was in his late thirties. He lived on his own plantation, White House, situated four miles downstream from the Dandridge home on the Pamunkey River. Custis&rsquos imperious father had quashed a number of Daniel&rsquos previous efforts to wed. When word of his son&rsquos interest in Martha surfaced, John Custis IV initially opposed the match. He insisted that the Dandridges lacked sufficient wealth and status to marry into his family and threatened to disinherit his son.
At 38, Daniel Parke Custis was nearly twenty years older than his new wife, who was 18. He was also significantly older than the average Virginia man who married for the first time at age 27. Yet by waiting until he found a woman of whom his father approved, Custis guaranteed his own financial future as well as that of his future heirs--and of Martha herself.
Martha&rsquos marriage to Daniel Parke Custis, who died on July 8, 1757, lasted just over seven years.
5. Martha gave birth to four children, all of whom she outlived
Martha&rsquos first child was a son, named Daniel Parke Custis, born on November 19, 1751, followed in April 1753 by a daughter, Frances Parke Custis. Although the first names were traditional family names, the children&rsquos great-grandfather had imposed a strict condition on inheritance: only children bearing the name &ldquoParke&rdquo as part of their given name would receive a portion of the family estate.
Despite their socially and economically privileged lives, neither Daniel nor Frances would reach the age of five. In the colonial era, childhood was the period of greatest vulnerability to death and disease. Only about 60% of children born at this time lived to the age of 20. In 1754 Daniel died, probably of malaria Frances died in 1757.
Martha had two other children with Daniel Parke Custis, who would become the center of her own life: John Parke Custis (&ldquoJacky&rdquo), who was born in 1754, and Martha Parke Custis (&ldquoPatsy&rdquo), born in 1756. Patsy suffered from repeated seizures, which grew worse over time. After a particularly violent episode on June 19, 1773, Patsy died at age seventeen.
On November 5, 1781, just weeks before he turned twenty-seven, John Parke Custis, Martha&rsquos sole remaining child, contracted a virulent illness and died.
6. Martha and George Washington Were Married on January 6, 1759
As a young, attractive, wealthy widow, Martha Dandridge Custis probably enjoyed more freedom to choose her own destiny than at any other point in her life. At the time they were married, she was only twenty-seven years old, owned nearly 300 enslaved people and had more than 17,500 acres of land&mdash worth more than £40,000.
The attraction between George and Martha was mutual, powerful, and immediate. Martha was charming, attractive, and wealthy. George had his own appeal, standing over six feet two inches tall, he was an imposing figure with a formidable reputation as a military leader.
At the end of 1758, Washington resigned his military commission. On January 6, 1759, Martha Dandridge Custis married George Washington at her home, White House, in New Kent County.
7. Martha stayed at George Washington&rsquos winter encampments throughout much of the Revolutionary War
After Washington left Mount Vernon in 1775, he would not return again for over six years. Every year, during the long winter months when the fighting was at a standstill, the General asked Martha to join him at his winter encampment.
Every year she made the arduous journey to his camp, whether it was at Cambridge, Valley Forge, Philadelphia, Morristown, Newburgh, or elsewhere. She stayed with him for months at a time. In fact, during the period from April 1775 until December 1783 Martha was able to be with her husband for almost half the time he was away. The General regarded his wife&rsquos presence as so essential to the cause that he sought reimbursement from Congress for her traveling expenses.
Before she could make the first trip, however, Martha had to undergo her own ordeal. She had to be inoculated for smallpox, one of the most deadly enemies soldiers faced during wartime. After successfully weathering the inoculation, Martha could then travel to the soldiers&rsquo camp without fear of contracting the disease or transmitting it to others.
8. Martha was the Nation&rsquos first First Lady
Just as her husband realized that his actions would set a precedent for future presidents, so Martha, too, was aware that her behavior as first lady would become the template for the wives of future chief executives. One of her most important steps was to initiate a weekly reception, held on Friday evenings, for anyone who would like to attend.
At these gatherings, members of Congress, visiting dignitaries, and men and women from the local community were received at the presidential mansion. After being presented to Mrs. Washington, they enjoyed refreshments, talked with each other, and mingled. Although most guests addressed Martha as &ldquoLady Washington,&rdquo some referred to her as &ldquoour Lady Presidentess.&rdquo
9. Martha freed George Washington&rsquos enslaved people
Under the provisions of his will, George Washington declared that the 123 slaves that he owned outright (separate from the dower slaves that would be distributed among the Custis heirs) were to gain their freedom after his wife&rsquos death. There was a fear that these slaves could revolt and kill Martha in order to gain their freedom. Rumors circulated about a suspicious fire at Mount Vernon that may have been set by slaves.
Fearing for her life, Martha, at the urging of relatives, decided to free her deceased husband&rsquos slaves early. On January 1, 1801, a bit more than a year after George&rsquos death, Washington&rsquos slaves gained their liberty.
10. Martha died on May 22, 1802 and lies in rest next to her husband
Martha&rsquos health, always somewhat precarious, declined precipitously after the passing of George Washington. Just two and a half years after her husband and to the dismay of her extended family, Martha Washington died on May 22, 1802.
Martha&rsquos death brought the Custis heirs even greater riches. Each of Martha&rsquos four grandchildren received substantial amounts of land and money that been held in trust for them for years. Moreover, each received a share of the so-called &ldquodower slaves,&rdquo the descendants of the enslaved people once owned by Martha&rsquos first husband, Daniel Parke Custis.
In 1831, after being moved from Mount Vernon&rsquos old tomb to the new tomb, Martha&rsquos remains were placed into a marble sarcophagus that stands near her husband&rsquos at Mount Vernon to this day.
Martha on the $1 Bill
Did you know that Martha Washington is the first and only real woman to grace the primary portrait of U.S. paper currency?
Learn even more about the remarkable life of Martha Washington. From her life at Mount Vernon to her Revolutionary War and Presidential roles.
Mount Vernon after George Washington expanded the house in the 1750s.
- In the spring of 1758, a number of men attempted to court Martha Custis, including Charles Carter and George Washington.
- George Washington visited Martha Custis twice in March of 1758.
- Since the two shared friends and acquaintances it is probable they met before Martha was widowed, however, there is no record of their first meeting.
- George and Martha Washington married on January 6, 1759, at the bride's home in New Kent.
- The couple, her two children, and several enslaved workers moved to the Washington family home, Mount Vernon, at the end of the first week of April 1759.
- George and Martha Washington never had any children together, but they raised Martha's children and grandchildren together.
- By the time Mrs. Washington's daughter, Patsy, was 11 or 12 she was plagued with seizures. Despite trying everything Patsy's condition worsened.
- On June 19, 1773, Patsy Custis died at the age of 17.
- Martha Washington's only living child, John Parke Custis, married Eleanor Calvert on February 3, 1774, at the bride's family home, Mount Airy Plantation in Maryland.
Few of Martha Washington’s letters survive, so her feelings on slavery often remain elusive. Still, her actions suggest she did not question slavery as George Washington did.
100 Veterans, 100 Years: Military SpousesA military spouse greets her returning sailor in 1964. (Wally McNamee/Corbis/Getty Images)
Since Martha Washington, military spouses have proven themselves to be self-starters, resilient, and a backbone of support to our armed forces. Many have gone above and beyond to support our nation's military and their families.
Mamie Eisenhower followed her husband, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, through 28 moves, to duty stations including the Panama Canal, France, and the Philippines, up through the presidency. Despite frequent moves that could make anyone want to pull their hair out and give up on decorating, she was known for her amiable character and sense of style.
In 1948, Gladys Vandenburg, spouse of then-Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Hoyt Vandenburg, noticed some funerals at Arlington National Cemetery had only a chaplain present. She began inviting her friends to attend funerals of fallen airmen and eventually created a formal organization of current and former military spouses. Today, the mission of the Arlington Ladies is to &ldquoensure that no Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Coast Guardsman is buried alone.&rdquo
Despite Audie Murphy's fame, his wife, Pamela, preferred to stay out of the spotlight. She worked at a VA hospital for 35 years, and, as one veteran put it, &ldquoNobody could cut through VA red tape faster than Mrs. Murphy. &hellip She was our angel.&rdquo
From well-known influencers to those working behind the scenes, military spouses continue to advocate for themselves, their servicemembers, and their country.
George & Martha’s Courtship
Within months of beginning their courtship, both George Washington and Martha Custis began to plan a future together.
As a young, attractive, wealthy widow, Martha Dandridge Custis probably enjoyed more freedom to choose her own destiny than at any other point in her life. She was only twenty-six years old, owned nearly 300 enslaved individuals and had more than 17,500 acres of land&mdash worth more than £40,000. Because her husband had died without a will, she was the executor of his estate, however, upon her death, the estate would automatically transfer to their descendants. Freed from the strictures of coverture, she had many of the same legal rights as men: she could buy and sell property, make contracts, sue and be sued in court.
Yet Martha may not have reveled in this freedom. Effective though she was at managing the estate, Martha still considered financial matters to be primarily a man&rsquos concern. Having had a happy first marriage, she probably craved the companionship and intimacy of the wedded state. Having grown up in a large family, she loved children and hoped to have more.
As a result, grief-stricken though she was, Martha was willing to consider the possibility of remarriage within a relatively short time after Daniel Parke Custis&rsquos death. Most widows under thirty in colonial Virginia did, in fact, remarry. In Martha&rsquos case, however, since financial need was not an issue, it would have to be a love match.
Within the close-knit world of the Virginia elite, Martha&rsquos status as a wealthy widow soon became common knowledge. One of those who undoubtedly heard about her availability was a young military man named George Washington. Born on February 22, 1732, Washington had grown up in a modestly prosperous Virginia family who lived on a plantation near Fredericksburg.
In March 1758, during an interlude in the fighting, Washington traveled for a visit to Williamsburg, a place where the colony&rsquos leading men gathered during meetings of the House of Burgesses. Hearing the news about the Custis widow, he contemplated his own future and turned his mind to his marriage prospects. George and Martha's first meeting is lost to history, but it is possible they met while Martha and Daniel Custis were married as they had many acquaintances in common.
Courting Martha Custis
Traveling the thirty-five miles from Williamsburg to Martha&rsquos home, George paid a visit to Martha Dandridge Custis on March 16, 1758. No doubt in a bid to impress her, he noted in his account records that he had left very generous tips for Martha&rsquos household slaves. After returning for another visit on March 25, Washington returned to his military post.
Within months of these meetings, both parties began to plan a future together. Washington began renovating and improving his home at Mount Vernon. Martha placed an order for wedding finery from London, a shipment that included brilliant purple slippers and a dress that was to be &ldquograve but not Extravagent nor to be mourning,&rdquo 1 perfect for a bride in her situation.
Their attraction was mutual, powerful, and immediate. Martha was charming, accomplished, and, of course, wealthy. George had his own appeal. Over six foot two inches tall (compared with Martha, who was only five feet tall), George was an imposing figure whose reputation as a military leader preceded him. Like his future wife, Washington&rsquos own social status had improved as a result of an unfortunate death. After his half-brother Lawrence and his widow died, Washington would inherit Mount Vernon, a beautiful 2000-acre estate located high above the Potomac River in Northern Virginia.
For her part, Martha must have believed that in George she had found someone she could trust as well as love. Although some widows wrote legally binding premarital contracts that protected the assets they had from their previous marriage, Martha did not. For as long as she lived Washington would have the use of Martha&rsquos &ldquowidow&rsquos third,&rdquo the land, enslaved people, and money which would be handed down to the Custis heirs after Martha&rsquos death. In addition, Washington would become the legal guardian of Martha&rsquos children, responsible for managing and protecting their financial affairs.
At the end of 1758, Washington resigned his military commission. On January 6, 1759, Martha Dandridge Custis married George Washington at her home in New Kent County. For both Martha and for George, a new era had dawned.
1. Martha Custis to Robert Cary and Company, 1758 in &ldquoWorthy Partner&rdquo: The Papers of Martha Washington, ed. Joseph E. Fields (Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1994), 25-26.
This article was created out of the collaborative project of George Washington's Mount Vernon and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, and is made possible through the generous support of Donald and Nancy de Laski.
After being selected as a representative for Virginia at the first continental congress in Philadelphia, George made his way there from Mount Vernon with delegates Patrick Henry and Edmund Pendelton. In a letter, Pendelton recorded his observations of Martha&rsquos behavior:
"She seemed ready to make any sacrifice and was cheerfull though I knew she felt anxious. She talked like a Spartan mother to her son going into battle. &lsquoI hope you will stand firm &ndash I know George will.&rsquo"
I am now set down to write you on a subject which fills me with inexpressible concern - and this concern is greatly aggravated and Increased, when I reflect upon the uneasiness I know it will give you - It has been determined in Congress that the whole Army raised for the defence of the American Cause shall be put under my care, and that it is necessary for me to proceed immediately to Boston to take upon me the command of it. You may believe me my dear Patcy, when I assure you, in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the Family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my Capacity and that I should enjoy more real happiness and felicity in one month with you, at home, than I have the most distant prospect of reaping abroad, if my stay were to be Seven times Seven years.&rdquo
A bold mission
A CH-46 helicopter prepares to pick up a load of supplies at Khe Sanh in South Vietnam, February 22, 1968. (Bettmann/Getty Images)
Oscar-8 was a bowl-shaped area in Laos, only about 11 miles from the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sahn in northern South Vietnam. The area was about 600 yards long and 2 miles wide and surrounded by thick jungle.
The mission was given to a “Hatchet Force,” a company-size element that specialized in large-scale raids and ambushes. It was composed of a few Special Forces operators and several dozen local Nung mercenary troops, totaling about 100 commandos.
Several B-52 Stratofortress bombers would work the target before the SOG commandos landed.
The Hatchet Force’s mission was to sweep the target area after the B-52 bombers had flattened it, do a battle damage assessment, kill any survivors and destroy any equipment, and capture or kill Giap. The plan was to insert at 7 a.m., one hour after the B-52 run, and be out by 3 p.m.
To support them, SOG headquarters put on standby several Air Force, Marine, and even Navy fixed- and rotary-wing squadrons.
All in all, there were three CH-46 Sea Knights helicopters to ferry in the Hatchet Force, four UH-1 Huey gunships for close air support, two A-1E Skyraider aircraft for close air support, four F-4C Phantom fighter jets for close air support, two H-34 choppers for combat search and rescue, and two forward observer aircraft to coordinate tactical air support.
Military Spouse Appreciation Day Quotes
"Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation" -- Kahlil Gibran
"A thing is mighty big when time and distance cannot shrink it." -- Zora Neale Hurston
"How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard." -- A. A. Milne
"Love knows not distance it hath no continent its eyes are for the stars." -- Gilbert Parker
"Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime." -- Adlai Stevenson
"She stood in the storm, and when the wind did not blow her way, she adjusted her sails." -- Elizabeth Edwards
"Sometimes the heart desires very simple things. The heart holds within it all that is most precious, all that we must protect. But it is also braver and bolder, more resilient than we realize. If we wound it, it will heal. And if it breaks, it learns to beat again." -- Jenny in "Call the Midwife"
"You are being tested. And you know what they say, my darling: Being tested only makes you stronger." -- Cora in "Downton Abbey"
"Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can." --Arthur Ashe
"The greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions and not our circumstances." -- Martha Washington
"I believe a strong woman may be stronger than a man, particularly if she happens to have love in her heart. I guess a loving woman is indestructible." -- John Steinbeck
"All human wisdom is summed up in two words -- wait and hope." -- Alexandre Dumas, pere
"Patience is waiting. Not passively waiting. That is laziness. But to keep going when the going is hard and slow -- that is patience." -- Anonymous
"Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength. Loving someone deeply gives you courage." -- Lao Tzu
"I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be 'happy.' I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be honorable, to be compassionate. It is, above all, to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all." -- Leo Rosten
"The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen." -- Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
"Accept failure. Enjoy it, even. Embrace the suck, for the suck is part of the process." -- AJ Jacobs
"A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it." -- George A. Moore
Lee was descended from several colonial and Southern families, including the Parke Custises, Fitzhughs, Dandriges, Randolphs, Rolfes, and Gerards. Through her paternal grandmother, Eleanor Calvert, she descended from Charles Calvert, 5th Baron Baltimore, making her a descendant of Charles II of England and Scotland. Through her mother, Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, she was a descendant of William Fitzhugh. 
Mary Anna Custis Lee was the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington's step-grandson and adopted son and founder of Arlington House, and Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, daughter of William Fitzhugh  and Ann Bolling Randolph Fitzhugh. Her godmother, Mary Randolph, the first person recorded buried at Arlington, wrote an early book on housekeeping and cooking. Lee's birth year is usually given as 1808, but it appears in the Custis family Bible and in records kept by her mother as 1807, and is also referred to in a letter her mother wrote in the autumn of 1807. She was born at Annefield in Clarke County, Virginia when her mother's coach stopped there during a journey.  She was well educated, having learned both Latin and Greek.
She enjoyed discussing politics with her father, and later with her husband. She kept current with the new literature. After her father's death, she edited and published his writings as Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, by his Adopted Son George Washington Parke Custis, with a Memoir of this Author by his Daughter  in 1859.
Mrs Lee was diminutive and vivacious. She had known her third cousin, Robert E. Lee, from childhood her mother and Robert's mother were second cousins, and Lee's father Henry had delivered the eulogy to a crowd of 4,000 at George Washington's 1799 funeral.  Among Mary Anna's other suitors was Sam Houston.
Lee inherited Arlington House from her father after he died in 1857. The estate had long been the couple's home whenever they were in the area during her husband's military career. She was a gracious hostess and enjoyed frequent visitors. She was a painter, like her father, and painted many landscapes, some of which are still on view at the house. She loved roses and grew many varieties of trees and flowers in the gardens there. 
Deeply religious, Lee attended Episcopal services when there was one near the army post. From Arlington, Virginia, the Lees attended Christ Church (Alexandria, Virginia) in Alexandria, which she and Robert had both attended in childhood. 
Lee taught her female slaves to read and write and was an advocate of eventual emancipation. She did not free her slaves, but could have under state law of the time. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, which became increasingly debilitating with advancing age. By 1861, she was using a wheelchair.
With the advent of the American Civil War, Robert and their sons were called to service in Virginia. Mary Custis Lee delayed evacuating Arlington House until May 15, 1861. Early that month, Robert wrote to his wife saying:
War is inevitable, and there is no telling when it will burst around you . You have to move and make arrangements to go to some point of safety which you must select. The Mount Vernon plate and pictures ought to be secured. Keep quiet while you remain, and in your preparations . May God keep and preserve you and have mercy on all our people. 
Lee and her daughters initially moved among the several family plantations. In May 1862, she was caught at her son Rooney's White House Plantation in New Kent County behind the Federal lines, as Union forces moved up the York and the Pamunkey rivers toward Richmond. The Union commander, George B. McClellan, allowed her passage through the lines in order to take up residence in Richmond—the city which was also McClellan's campaign goal.
Lee and her daughters settled at 707 East Franklin Street in Richmond for a time. The family next moved to the plantation estate of the Cocke family at Bremo Bluff, where they sought refuge until after the end of the war in November 1865.  
After the war, the Lees lived in Powhatan County for a short time before moving to Lexington. Robert E. Lee became president of the Washington College, later renamed Washington and Lee University. Mary Anna Custis Lee visited her beloved Arlington House one last time in 1873, a few months before her death. She was unable to leave her horse carriage due to her debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, hardly recognizing the estate except for a few old oaks and some of the trees that she and Robert had planted.  
Mary Anna Custis Lee died at the age of 66, surviving her famous husband by three years. She is buried next to him in the Lee family crypt at Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee University.
Mary and Robert were married at her parents' home, Arlington House, on June 30, 1831. They had three sons and four daughters together: George Washington Custis "Custis", William H. Fitzhugh "Rooney", Robert Edward Jr., Mary, Eleanor Agnes (called Agnes), Anne, and Mildred Lee. None of their daughters married.