Rethinking the story of Orton Williams and Walter G. Peter

by David White, Docent

The history of Tudor Place includes unresolved questions. One such mystery concerns two Peter family cousins—Orton Williams and Walter Gibson Peter—Confederate officers who were convicted by a Union court martial of being spies and hanged. To this day there are questions of whether they were indeed spies or were engaged in some other mission.

Read the full article here.

Tudor Place and the Civil War Home Front

Original research, undertaken in 2013 and expanded in 2019, describes the travails and business operations of Britannia Peter Kennon, Tudor Place’s second owner, when she navigated between the threats of the North against the South, working to save her family’s estate from confiscation and penury during the Civil War. The essay for the first time identifies the Union officers, surgeons, and others who boarded at Tudor Place during the conflict, and describes how a household of owners, boarders and servants, including some previously enslaved, survived and coexisted in wartime.

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Ribbons, Roses and Wine in the Garden: Box Knot Rededicated


Tudor Place Trustee Bruce Whelihan, here flanked by
wife Alice (RIGHT) and Executive Director Leslie Buhler,
was celebrated for helping to secure funding for the
project from The Ruth S. Willoughby Foundation.
Celebration came to these historic gardens this month when Tudor Place Trustees and staff gathered with neighbors and other supporters to “cut the ribbon” on the newly restored Box Knot Garden. This formal layout of heirloom roses in geometric beds defined by boxwood hedges dates to the home’s earliest days. Its renewal and restoration for centuries to come, completed in November 2011, signals the commitment to the preservation of the entirety of historic assets stewarded by Tudor Place Foundation for the public good.
The North Garden donned its best spring colors for the evening reception, which featured wine, canapes, and heartfelt remarks on the historic estate’s past, present, and bright future. Once the ribbon was released, guests trod lightly among the flower beds where Tudor Place founder Martha Custis Peter herself once tended beloved roses. During the Civil War, the garden fell into disrepair and its original layout was lost. It was recovered in the 1926 from a garden design book showing Avenel, in Virginia, where the Knot had been copied, and a restoration was completed in 1933 based on the Avenel drawing.

The sundial that centers the geometric layout came from CrossBasket Castle in Lanarkshire, Scotland, the childhood home of Robert Peter, tobacco merchant and first mayor of Georgetown. His son Thomas bought the land on which Tudor Place sits with his wife, the former Martha Custis, in 1805. They funded the eight-acre purchase with a legacy from George Washington of $8,000 (some $11 million in today’s dollars).
Trustee Dan Dowd came prepared for rain, but none fell.
Instead, a gray twilight lent its glow to the spring blossoms.


Curator of Collections Erin Kuykendall (RIGHT) shared stories with
Collections Committee member Elizabeth Edgeworth.


Director of Gardens & Grounds Suzanne Bouchard, who shepherded the project from vision to completion, discusses its contours with Board Vice President Geoffrey Baker and Trustee Margaret Jones Steuart.


Guests were invited to take home cuttings from the
estate’s historic boxwood.


The Circle Garden, with the aroma of mock
oranges floating in from its perimeter, made a
perfect setting for cocktails.


As a token of appreciation, Mr. Baker presented Mr.
Whelihan a painting of the restored garden, commissioned
for the occasion from Tudor Place Artist-in-Residence Peter Waddell.


Director Leslie Buhler exchanges a word with Trustee
C. Jackson Ritchie, cradling his boxwood seedling.


A new leaf, literal and figurative, for a landscape nearly spanning our country’s history — truly something to celebrate!


Civil War in Washington: Georgetown’s Hottest Summer?

by Director of Education Talia Mosconi

Cool River, Hot City: View of the DC-Georgetown Ferry
(rear left
, loaded with wagons), and Aqueduct Bridge.
1862 s
tereograph by George N. Barnard.
The region saw record temperatures for the just marked 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s first big battle, at Bull Run creek near Manassas. Our sagas and commemorations naturally focus on major battlefields. When we think of civilian travails, we tend to recall ravaged southern cities like like Richmond, Atlanta and Vicksburg. But with the surprise Union debacle at Bull Run, the conflict embroiled the District of Columbia before it reached these other homefronts. The hot summer of 1861 changed forever the city of Washington, the contiguous area north of Florida Avenue then known as “the country” and, of course, the village of Georgetown.
As demoralized Federal soldiers poured back from Bull Run, flooding Washington’s streets and public spaces, their return sparked panic about an impending Confederate onslaught. The Rebs never came, but President Lincoln’s call-up of 75,000 Union troops, all needing lodging, did lead to an “invasion” of sorts, as tent encampments sprang up, the government expanded into ever larger quarters, and a “beltway” of military forts was erected around the city. On residential city blocks and nearby farms, meanwhile, neighbor turned from neighbor, according to where their loyalties lay. 

View of the C&O Canal running past Georgetown,
which retained an independent (sometimes divided) 
government until after the Civil War.


In Georgetown, the reality of war quieted most pro-Southern voices. Residents often wondered which neighbors they could trust. The village and its port had been absorbed into the newly formed District of Columbia in 1790, but retained an independent government until after the war. Georgetown’s mayor and town dignitaries officially pledged fealty to the Union at the Recorder of Deeds or the Department of Justice. But perhaps as many as a quarter of local residents– including the mistress of Tudor Place — registered their loyalties another way, packing their bags and moving south. Others fled to Baltimore or Philadelphia to escape harm’s way. And Georgetown College—now University—was almost literally divided: Half its students returned to the South and the remainder went North, giving rise to the school’s lasting color scheme of blue (for Union) and gray (for the Confederacy). 

Young people visit the Gap store there, now, but
once thronged Forrest Hall to enlist for the Union.
Those who left expected to return in just a few weeks, after hostilities ended. The minister at Christ Episcopal Church (31st and O Streets), a slave owner from North Carolina, headed south, leaving his cat with ten days’ food. Its skeleton was later found by neighbors. Sons of loyalist families clamored to sign up for the Union at Forrest Hall (where the Gap store is, now) for three-month tours, the war’s expected duration. Other young men crossed the river to enlist in the Confederacy.

Some senior federal employees left Georgetown to offer their skills to the newly forming Confederate government. Leaders of long-standing militias left town quietly to join their troops, while other prominent families, despite owning slaves, stayed loyal to the Union.  Still other local families found themselves, like many around the country, divided in their loyalties.  

There was even a small “civil war” within Georgetown itself.   The town’s governance consisted of four wards. One of these “seceded” from the rest, declaring independence with a manifesto consisting of just one word: “Dixie.” Pro-south arsonists repeatedly incited trouble, unsuccessfully attacking the mayor’s office, the Union Hotel, lumber yards, and part of the Rock Creek Bridge that connected Georgetown to the City of Washington. A 9:30 p.m. curfew was imposed, saloons were shut down, and Georgetown’s lone, horse-drawn, fire engine was put on 24-hour alert.  

Re-enactors may have sweltered through the Bull Run commemorations last month, but the “heat” was even more intense 150 years ago, when the Capital City and Georgetown village emerged as hotbed and homefront for a searing national cataclysm.

Join us to learn about the Georgetown homefront on our exciting Civil War House & Walking Tours: Offered monthly through November 2011 on second Saturdays, the program includes guided walks through our mansion and surrounding streets. (Choose one or both.) Learn how Tudor Place reluctantly served as a boarding house for Union officers. Standing on other sites where history happened, hear about hospitals, spies, slaves and freedmen, and heartbreakingly divided families. The next tour, last of the summer, is August 13, so sign up soon!