How Robert E. Lee's Home Became Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery has been the honored resting place for select American military service members and their families since Union soldier William Henry Christman was buried there on May 13, 1864. Since that day 154 years ago, over 400,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, selected spouses and family members have been laid to rest on its majestic grounds.
Arlington encompasses a 624-acre plot of land that sits just west of the Potomac River from the nation’s capital. From the hilltop, you can see the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Pentagon. On that same hilltop rests Arlington House. This Greek revival style mansion is more than 200 years old, and is now officially designated as the Robert E. Lee Memorial.
Wait. How is it that America’s national military cemetery, which was established during the Civil War, has a memorial to the commanding general of the Confederate Army? Because Robert E. Lee used to own the mansion and the lands upon which Arlington was founded.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the mansion and the surrounding 1,100 acres belonged to George Washington Parke Custis. Custis was the only grandson of Martha Washington, related to her through her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. Shortly after G.W.P. Custis’s birth in 1781, his father died of fever at the Battle of Yorktown. George Washington adopted G.W.P. and his sister, bringing them to Mount Vernon where they were raised.
G.W.P. Custis inherited the Arlington land from his father at the age of 21, and, in 1803, he decided to build a mansion there as a shrine to his step-grandfather/adopted father, George Washington, and his grandmother, who had died the previous year.
The mansion was not completed until 1818 due to the scale of the project and a forced interlude caused by the War of 1812. In the meantime, Custis kept himself busy as a writer and active member of area society and government. He married Mary Fitzhugh, whose family had been close with the Washingtons for years.
G.W.P. and Mary had four children, but only Mary Anna survived to adulthood. She married Robert E. Lee at Arlington House on June 30, 1831. Mary Anna and Robert were third cousins, related on the Fitzhugh side of the family. In a way, this sort of, kind of related Robert E. Lee to George Washington. But it was a tenuous connection. Since Washington did not sire any children of his own, his bloodline ended when he died in 1799. Any genealogical connection that anyone claims to America’s first president is only by marriage.
Lee and Mary Anna made Arlington House their home, but his service in the U.S. Army kept them on the move for many years. G.W.P. and Mary remained on the estate for the rest of their lives, and were both buried there, making theirs among the few graves at Arlington Cemetery that predate its founding.
By the time G.W.P. Custis died on in 1857, Arlington was a well-developed property that required a great deal of upkeep. His will granted Mary Anna a life inheritance which allowed her to live on the property for the rest of her days, but she did not have any power to sell or divide it. Upon her death, Arlington would pass to her oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee.
Then came the Civil War. Suddenly, the future of Arlington House was in doubt.
Lee resigned his commission with the U.S. Army on April 20, 1861 when Virginia seceded from the Union. Arlington’s high ground overlooking the capital made it prime military real estate for the Virginia militia, which occupied the estate on May 7.
Mary Anna did not want to leave her beloved home, but she suspected that Union troops would be coming to her doorstep before too long. She buried some valuables in the ground near the house and fled with her family for Fairfax County.
Union soldiers occupied Arlington without resistance later that month. They cut down a lot of the trees, set up a permanent encampment, and made the property their own.
In 1863, Congress enacted a property tax on all lands in “insurrectionary” areas, a tax that had to be paid in person. This was a way to pass the cost of the war off on Confederate sympathizers, but it was also a punitive measure that allowed the Union to seize their property. Many Confederates abandoned their homes when Union soldiers approached, and fearing arrest when returning to occupied territory, many of them elected to forfeit their property.
Mary Anna Lee could not make the journey back to Arlington to pay the tax due to complications brought on by arthritis. She sent a surrogate in her place, but he was rejected and tax collectors refused the payment. On Jan. 11, 1864, the Union bought Arlington House and the grounds for $26,800 (roughly $425,000 today).
Around this time, Union Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs was on the hunt for cemetery space. Cemeteries in Washington, D.C. and nearby Alexandria were filled with war dead, and the government wanted a new national cemetery.
Arlington fit the bill. There was plenty of land, it was above the floodplain and it had a view of the District of Columbia. The fact that it was the home of Robert E. Lee was another plus. Burying Union soldiers in his front yard would send a major political message.
Lee and Mary Anna never entered their home at Arlington again. In April 1874, George Washington Custis Lee sued the federal government to reclaim the Arlington property. The case wound its way through the courts for years, but on Dec. 4, 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the property had been illegally confiscated and should be returned. Lee chose monetary compensation instead of reclamation, and he received $150,000 (close to $4 million today).
Today, Arlington National Cemetery is managed by the United States Army. It is open 365 days a year. Visitors’ information can be found here. Arlington House is managed by the National Park Service. It is closed through the fall of 2019 for a major restoration.