George Washington Parke Custis, born in 1781 at Mount Airy, Md., was the son of John P. Custis, George Washington's stepson, and the father-in-law of General Robert E. Lee. Custis won fame as a writer and producer of plays. His best known work was Pocahontas, or the Settlers of Virginia. He died at Arlington in 1857.
George Washington Parke Custis, a coal barge built in the mid-1850's, was purchased by the Navy in August 1'861; fitted out with a gas-generating apparatus developed by Thaddeus Lowe; and modified by John A. Dahlgren at the Washington Navy Yard for her service as a balloon boat.
Early in the morning of 10 November 1861, steamer Coeur de Lion towed George Washington Parke Custis out of the Navy Yard and down the Potomac. The next day Lowe, accompanied by General Daniel E. Sickles and others, ascended in his trial balloon from the barge off Mattawomen Creek to observe Confederate forces on the Virginia shore some 3 miles away.
On the 12th Lowe reported: "We had a fine view of the enemy camp fires during the evening and saw the rebels constructing batteries at Freestone Point." This operation and John La Mountain's earlier ascension from Fanny began the widespread use of balloons for reconnaissance work during the Civil War arid foreshadowed the Navy's future use of the air to extend its effective use of sea power.