The Origins Of Arlington Cemetery

It’s 1864. Beautiful Arlington House, the family home of General Robert E. Lee and his family, is in a shambles. The rose gardens have been turned into cemeteries. Soldiers are buried just outside the front door. Brigadier General Irvin McDowell has taken over the home for his headquarters. Yet the home still belongs to the Lee family – but not for long.

 With her husband, Robert E. Lee, serving with the Army of Northern Virginia, Mary Anna Custis Lee, after moving from one of the family’s plantations to the other, has taken up residence in the Confederate capitol of Richmond. It is here that she receives the news that because she did not pay the property taxes on Arlington in person, her family’s home will be sold. On January 11, 1864, Arlington was offered for public sale, and was purchased by a tax commissioner for “government use, for war, military, charitable and educational purposes.”

And thus an historic plantation, with ties to George Washington, was taken – illegally, as it would turn out – from the Lee family, who would never step foot inside the home again. The story of Arlington is a bittersweet metaphor for the Civil War itself.

Arlington House was built by George Washington Parke Custis, a step-grandson of George Washington. Custis, an eminent citizen and planter in Alexandria County, Virginia, commissioned George Hadfield, the architect who had worked on the U.S. Capitol building, to design the home, which was named for the Custis family homestead in Eastern Virginia, but was to be a memorial to the memory of George Washington. By 1804, the impressive Greek Revival mansion was complete, and the 1,100 acre plantation became the primary residence for the Custis family.

Custis died in 1857, leaving only one surviving child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee. Mary Anna, who’d married Robert E. Lee in 1831 at Arlington, was to have the use of Arlington for her lifetime, after which it would pass on to her eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee.

Most of Robert E. and Mary Anna Custis Lee’s married life was spent at Arlington, what wasn’t spent traveling between military assignments during Lee’s tenure in the U.S. Army. Although the two owned other plantations, Arlington was closest to both their hearts. When Mary Anna inherited Arlington, the estate was in poor shape; Lee, as the legal executor of the estate, took a leave of absence from the Army that lasted until 1860. By 1859, Lee had made the plantation profitable again.

“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.” Robert E. Lee, to Mary Anna Custis Lee, 1861

When the possibility of civil war seemed imminent in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln offered U.S. Army Colonel Robert E. Lee, a 35-year veteran, command of the U.S. Army. Lee, who felt he could not go against Virginia if the state chose to secede, declined. In doing so, he sealed the fate of Arlington.

Arlington’s close proximity to Washington D.C. Put the house in a peculiar – and treacherous – position, one that Lee knew all too well. After leaving Arlington to join the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee beseeched his wife, Mary Anna, to leave as well. Mary Anna never considered the move to be permanent; however, she did arrange to send some of the family’s Arlington heirlooms to safety.

Almost as soon as the Lees vacated Arlington, Federal troops moved in, using the home as a headquarters, freeing the few slaves who still remained, and looting the house for any valuables that remained, many of which had already been removed to the U.S. Patent Office, ostensibly for safekeeping.

Arlington Cemetery In 2012

Arlington Cemetery, 2012

Many of those who occupied Arlington felt that the destruction of the property was Lee’s due, as a traitor to the Army he’d faithfully served in for most of his adult life. None, however, was as vengeful as Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs. Meigs, a Georgia native who’d served under Lee in the Army, and who despised Southerners who took up arms against the Union, ordered that the grounds of Arlington be used for a cemetery. Despite the fact that the home still belonged to the Lees, Meigs ordered that graves be placed at the front door of the mansion, in order to prevent the Lees from ever returning to their home. When, Meigs’ own son was killed in the war, Meigs saw to it that he, too, was buried at Arlington.

“It is better to make up our minds to a general loss. They cannot take away the remembrance of the spot, and the memories of those that to us rendered it sacred. That will remain to us as long as life will last, and that we can preserve.” Robert E. Lee, to Mary Anna Custis Lee, regarding Arlington.

By the war’s end, with Arlington seized, it was clear that the Lees would never return to their home. The plantation was now a national military cemetery, the home used for offices. Robert E. Lee never challenged the seizure of the plantation; however, in 1870, after his Lee’s death, George Washington Custis Lee, sued for compensation for the home, which was rightfully his according to his grandfather’s will. A Supreme Court decision in 1882 ruled in favor of Custis Lee, and he was awarded a $150,000 judgment, half of what he’d sought.

Although Arlington was taken from the Lee family, the home today stands as a memorial to Lee, and has been restored as a museum.

Arlington…where my affections and attachments are more strongly placed than any other place in the world. –  Robert E. Lee

By Steven Chabotte of The Historical Archive

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