All cemeteries are sacred. Our ancestors worked the land, built our cities and left to us a world of possibilities and a hope for tomorrow. We honor those who came before us each Memorial Day. Arlington National Cemetery is hallowed ground where heroes rest. A special place for those who gave their lives to preserve our liberties and freedom. We owe our gratitude to the men and women who rest in peace in one of our nation’s most scared burial sites.
The history of Arlington National Cemetery begins at a mansion overlooking the Potomac River. The Virginia home of General Robert E. Lee sits on a hillside with Washington D.C. in clear view. Arlington House wasn’t built to honor fallen heroes, but was a home built by an adoring grandson to honor his grandfather. It was meant to be a place to store artifacts, personal papers and portraits belonging to George Washington and be a living tribute and memorial to our country’s first president.
Martha Washington had two children from a previous marriage. When she married George, he raised the children as his own. As a tribute to his adopted father, when Martha’s son, John, settled down and married, he named a son after George. In 1781, George and Martha adopted two of their grandchildren after John was killed at Yorktown. George Washington Parke Custis was the adopted grandson who inherited the 1,100 acre plot of land from the Washington/Custis estate and it was he who constructed the home to honor his grandfather. Arlington House was named after the Custis family’s Virginia home.
Robert E. Lee came to live at Arlington House when he married Custis’s only child, Mary Anna. After her parents died, the title to the property was passed on to Mary Anna. There was no community property back then and Robert E. Lee was never listed as an owner even though the estate was called the Custis-Lee Mansion. Life was good at Arlington House.
A month after Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States, South Carolina withdrew from the Union. Lee was given the opportunity to command the Army of the Potomac. He refused the offer, preferring to remain neutral. But when Virginia seceded, he felt his duty was with the southern states. As tension began to grow between the north and south and the prospect of war became more likely, Lee feared for the safety of his wife and directed Mary Anna to quietly leave Arlington House for her protection. When she left, her father’s Washington collection he had worked so hard to acquire was moved along with everything else to another family estate in Virginia.
Shortly after Virginia seceded from the union, federal troops moved in and built a hospital and several military forts on the land. The estate was confiscated when Mary Anna and Lee failed to pay property taxes totaling $92.07. In order to resolve the matter of unpaid taxes, she or Lee had to pay them in person. Afraid of leaving the safety of the south, neither one showed up, so the tax dispute was never resolved. The land was sold at a public auction to a tax commissioner who designated the land to be used for the military and government needs and charitable and educational purposes.
It was the commander of the garrison at Arlington House, Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs, who recommended the land be set aside as a burial site. Arlington National Cemetery became a military cemetery because Meigs hated Lee. Even though Meigs was from Georgia, he remained loyal to the north when war finally broke out. He had no respect for Lee and felt he had deserted the north. Meigs wanted to punish Lee by making sure if he or his wife ever tried to return to Arlington House after the war, grave sites surrounding their home would make the house unlivable. Mary Anna did return in 1873, but when she saw thousands of grave sites in her front yard and a monument in her rose garden, she left and never returned. Montgomery Meigs is buried alongside his wife, father and son just 100 yards from Arlington House.
Robert E Lee and his wife never tried to reclaim their beloved home over looking the Potomac. They are buried on the grounds of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia where Lee had served as the university’s president.
After the death of his parents, Mary Anna and Robert E. Lee’s oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, and rightful owner to the property sued, claiming the land and Arlington House had been illegally taken and a Supreme Court decision in his favor returned the land and mansion to him in 1882. However, like his mother, after seeing the many graves covering the grounds around the home, Custis Lee accepted an offer from Congress who bought the 1,100 acre estate on March 3, 1883 for $150,000.
The first person buried on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery was, Private William Christman from the 64th Pennsylvania Infantry on May 13, 1864 and Arlington was officially set aside as a military cemetery June 15, 1864. The remains of 1,800 soldiers killed at the battle of Bull Run in 1862 are among the first war dead interred at Arlington National Cemetery in one of the first monuments built to honor fallen soldiers. It was the monument built in Mary Anna’s rose garden. Soldiers from the Revolutionary war to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and every conflict in between are buried at Arlington. Today, more than 300,000 heroes, military and civilian, rest on the hill and surrounding land overlooking the Potomac River and our nation’s capitol. Arlington National Cemetery: hallowed ground where heroes rest.
Arlington House, arlington cemetery.net
Arlington Cemetery History, visitingdc.com
Home of Heroes, homeofheroes.com