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Arlington National
 Cemetery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"In Honored Glory, our heroes rest"

 

  

December 26, 1799, Washington, D.C.

As the Nation mourned the death of its first President, a somber mood hung over the halls of Congress.  Slowly the former governor of that President's home state of Virginia, now a member of the House of Representatives, stood to his feet to eulogize his friend.  Little did he know the historic impact of his simple, but powerful eulogy....

"First in war, first in peace, 
first in the hearts of his countrymen."

Slowly the congressman sat back down.  A war hero in his own right, former General Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee would miss his friend...George Washington.

 

George Washington had loved this area...had surveyed the landscape nearby as a 17-year old boy.  For that reason, when assigned by Congress to select an area for our Nation's capitol, he had looked not far from his home at Mount Vernon, and selected the site near Georgetown that would become the District of Columbia.  Overlooking that district on the other side of the Potomac was the lush landscape of an 1,100 acre tract that now would pass to the President's heirs.

George and Martha Washington had no children of their own, but the widowed Martha Dandridge Custis had brought two children to the family when the couple married in 1759.  John Parke and Martha Parke Custis had grown up under the fatherly hand of George Washington.  John named a son in his step father's honor, George Washington Parke Custis.  When John Parke was killed at Yorktown in 1781, George and Martha Washington adopted two of their grandchildren.  It was, therefore, the step-grandson of George Washington who would receive the estate of the Washington/Custis family.  Included in that estate was the 1,100 acres overlooking the Capitol.

In 1802 George Washington Parke Custis began building his estate on the hillside overlooking the Capitol.  Initially he considered naming it "Mount Washington" in honor the step-grandfather who had raised him, then opted to call it Arlington.  George Custis's own father had purchased the tract only three years before his death at Yorktown, and Arlington had been the name of the Custis family ancestral estate in Virginia.  

ARLINGTON HOUSE became the home of George Washington Parke Custis and his wife Mary Lee, and they moved into it shortly after the south wing was completed in 1802.  In all, it would take 16 years to complete the sprawling complex that measured 140 feet from north wing to south wing.  Designed by George Hadfield, an English architect who had assisted in the design of the Capitol itself, the front portico featured eight columns, each 5 feet wide at the base.  It was inside this house that George Custis built a memorial to his grandfather, filling one wing with portraits and personal papers of his grandfather, George Washington.  It was also in this house that Mary Lee gave birth to the couple's only child, a girl they named Mary Anna Randolph Custis.

In 1831 Mary Anna married her childhood sweetheart, a young man from a family that would have made her great-grandfather very proud.  Mary Anna married the son of "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, a young, aspiring soldier named Robert.  Young Lee attended the Military Academy at West Point, graduating second in his class.  He and Mary Anna also began their own family with the birth of a son they named George Washington Custis Lee.

When Mary Anna's parents died in 1857, the 40-year old Robert E. Lee came home from his position as superintendent of the same Academy from which he had graduated.  As title to Arlington House passed to his wife (such title often remained within the blood-ties of the family name and was not viewed as community property), Robert E. Lee took it upon himself to restore areas of the large Greek Revival-style house.  As the couple set about the tasks of raising their own family, the prominent structure overlooking our Nation's capitol became known as the Custis-Lee Mansion.

 

On November 6, 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the 34 United States of America.  One month later, the political leaders in the State of South Carolina met in St. Andrew's Hall in Charleston.  In 22 minutes they discussed, then voted to approve an unusual declaration:

"We, the people of South Carolina, in convention assembled, do declare and ordain....that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other states under the name of the United States of America is hereby disolved."

It was the opening steps in what would soon become a civil war.  One by one, additional southern states followed South Carolina's lead, and conflict became more inescapable.  General Winfield Scott called upon the patriotism, leadership and courage General Robert E. Lee had demonstrated throughout a distinguished military career and offered the resident of the Custis-Lee Mansion command of the Army of the Potomac.  In the early months of 1861, Virginia had maintained a neutral status towards the secession of other southern states, and Lee prefered to keep it that way.  He declined Scott's offer.  By April 17th, however, Virginia could stay neutral no longer, and became the 7th of what would be the 11 Confederate States of America.  Three days later, General Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army, then offered his military services to his home state of Virginia...a Confederate Army.

The following month, the son of Revolutionary War hero Henry "Light-Horse" Lee wrote to his wife at Arlington:  "War is inevitable, and there is no telling when it will burst around you...You have to move (from Arlington) 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.  With that, the descendants of the Father of our Country, moved to another estate in the vast Virginia holdings of the Washington/Custis/Lee family.  With them they took, and secured, the precious George Washington collection so laboriously put together by Mary Anna's father.  

 

Almost as quickly and the Lee family departed the estate they loved and called home, the Union Army moved across the Potomac and began using the rolling hills around Arlington House.  By 1862 the Lee family owed $92.07 in taxes on their former estate.  To settle the tax matter, either General Robert E. Lee, or his wife...the great-granddaughter of George Washington, would have leave their Southern sanctuary to pay the debt in person.  It was an unwinnable situation.  Under the "Act for the Collection of Direct Taxes in the Insurrectionary Districts within the United States", the federal government in Washington, D.C. confiscated the land once part of George Washington's own family.

Under Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, the 1,100-acre plot became a buffer zone on the border between the Capitol City and the "Insurrectionists".  It was the ideal location for a hospital, and two military forts were erected to defend it (Fort Whipple which later became Fort Myer and Fort McPherson).   On January 11, 1865 the federal government offered Arlington House and its land for sale at public auction.  It was purchased by a tax commissioner "for government use, for war, military, charitable and educational purposes."  It was the open door for the man who now commanded the garrison at Arlington House to vent his hatred for Robert E. Lee.

Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs jealousy for Robert E. Lee predated the beginning of the Civil War, and General Lee's defection to the Confederacy only fueled the fire.  By the Spring of 1864 a Nation wearied by three years of Civil War, tragic battles at places like Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Chickamauga and others, waited desperately for an end to war.  General Meigs was determined to insure that Robert E. Lee would never return to Arlington.  On May 13, 1864 Union Private William Christman became the first American to be buried on the grounds at Arlington.  Meigs excavated the once-beautiful rose garden to create a 10-foot-deep stone and masonry vault to inter the remains of 1,800 soldiers killed in 1862 Battle of Bull Run near Manassas, Virginia.  By the time the Civil War ended, more than 16,000 Union soldiers were interred on the grounds of Robert and Mary Anna Lee's estate.  General Meigs vendetta proved a success, Robert E. Lee never returned to claim the now uninhabitable estate for his son, George Washington Custis Lee.  In 1870 Robert E. Lee died and was buried in the chapel of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.  In 1892 General Meigs died in Washington, D.C.  He was buried nearby in what was now a National Cemetery...only 100 yards from Arlington House. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the death of his parents, the eldest son of Robert and Mary Anna Lee brought suit claiming that the estate of his parents had been illegally confiscated.  In December 1882 the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, agreed with George Washington's great, great-grandson.  On March 3, 1883 the U.S. Congress paid $150,000 to purchase the estate.  Fifty years later, in July 1933, Arlington House was transferred from the War Department to the US Department of the Interior.  While the cemetery that surrounds the ornate structure is one of only two such sites operated by the United States Army, Arlington House and the grounds surrounding it are administered by the National Park Service. 

Arlington House itself was subsequently dedicated to the memory of Robert E. Lee, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson dedicated a special memorial to the Confederate dead of the Civil War at Arlington.

Today the rolling hills beneath Arlington House contain the final resting places of more than a quarter-million American men and women.  Veterans of every war including the American Revolution, rest beneath the green grass at Arlington.  Historic figures, legendary generals, Medal of Honor recipients, Supreme Court Justices and two Presidents (William H. Taft and John F. Kennedy) are buried in Arlington.  The mast of the U.S.S. Maine, destroyed by an explosion in Havana Harbor, Cuba now breaks the skyline over Arlington.  And of course, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers of our Nation's wars, has become one of the cemetery's most recognized features.  

During the Civil War General Robert E. Lee was acutely aware of what was happening to his home on the green hills above the Potomac and perhaps provides the most fitting tribute to the place that exemplifies the greatness and the sacrifice of our Nation's finest in a letter to his wife:

"It is better to make up our minds to a general loss (of Arlington).  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."

For More On America's Veterans:

The Tomb of The
Unknown Soldier

Statistics of America's
War Dead

 

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