Situated majestically across the Potomac River basin, Arlington National Cemetery is arguably the most hallowed grounds in the United States, holding the graves of two U.S. Presidents, members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices, and thousands of veterans from every American war.
Though among the most heavily-visited sites around the U.S. capital, the grounds—and the majestic mansion overlooking the new national capitol of Washington, D.C.—have a more complex story than generally known.
George Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857) grandson of Martha Washington through her first marriage to Daniel Custis, built the grand home on 5,100 acres between 1802-1818.
Beyond serving as his private residence, however, the mansion also came to serve as a monument to Custis’ ‘virtual’ stepfather, the first President of the United States and national icon, George Washington. Custis cherished the memories of his childhood at Mount Vernon, further south along the Potomac River. He even displayed the estate’s prized personal objects and effects throughout the rooms of his new mansion. It was here Custis raised his four daughters, though only one, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, lived to adulthood.
On June 30, 1831, in the front parlor of the mansion, Mary Custis married a fast-rising junior officer in the United States Army, one whose own ancestors fought alongside General Washington years earlier. On that day, Mary wed Robert E. Lee.
This marriage, and the fateful course decided within the corridors of the mansion, would transform the house, the grounds, and the entire history of the United States of America.
While serving in the Army, Lee was routinely absent, posted throughout the relatively young country. However, Lee took over management and a more regular life there after the death of his father-in-law in 1857. Lee served as executor of Custis’ estate, which in turn required him to take extended leave from the service to oversee Arlington’s affairs. He set about overseeing numerous projects; general repairs to the mansion; cleaning the overall property, and planting crops.
Dramatic and fateful change came, however, in April 1861 with the outbreak of the American Civil War. The Commonwealth of Virginia had decided to leave the Union and join the Confederacy.
One can only imagine how, within the chambers of the grand mansion, Lee spent sleepless nights weighing his lifetime of devotion to his nation—and his abiding connection to his ‘native land of Virginia.’
Nevertheless, after thirty years of service, Lee drafted a letter resigning his U.S. Army commission. Lee offered his services to Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, setting in motion a perilous future for himself and his family.
The war was now upon them. The proximity of the Lee estate overlooking the new capital meant they were vulnerable to the Union Army, bivouacked on the opposite shore. Soon, however, to assuage her husband’s growing concerns for their safety, Mary packed her family and the goods she could carry and evacuated the mansion on May 15, 1861. As feared, the Union Army crossed the Potomac River and captured the estate on May 24, 1861.
Union soldiers set up camps and a line of defense around the property. By 1864, as the Civil War raged on, the cemeteries in and around Washington, D.C. began to fill to capacity and the grounds of the estate were selected as the best for establishment of a new National Cemetery. But there were additional motivations to repurpose the estate.
By this time, Lee had established himself as the pre-eminent Confederate general, having defeated Union forces in several battles throughout Virginia. To Union minds, it was appropriate to confiscate as well as repurpose the property, ensuring Lee would never re-establish private life there.
Arlington National Cemetery was officially dedicated in June, 1864 with its first series of burials.
Mary Lee returned to the mansion only once, after the end of the War, and was deeply distraught to witness the countless grave stones throughout her once-tranquil sanctuary. Although the Lees explored the idea of getting the property back from the government, they never did live there again.
Perhaps more than any other structure in the nation, the mansion and grounds symbolize the painful ambivalence of the war that pitted ‘brother against brother.’ Indeed, within the very walls of the mansion, the fate of the Union was conditioned.
Officially known today as Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, the estate remains the only national memorial dedicated to someone who fought against the government of the United States.
Written by Matthew Holzman