Arlington House

Arlington House
Arlington Cemetery
 

On a Virginia hillside rising above the Potomac River and overlooking Washington, D.C., stands
Arlington House. The 19th-century mansion seems out of place amid the more than 250,000
military grave sites that stretch out around it. Yet, when construction began in 1802, the estate
was not intended to be a national cemetery.


The mansion, which was intended as a living memorial to George Washington, was owned and
constructed by the first president's adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, son of
John Parke Custis who himself was a child of Martha Washington by her first marriage and a
ward of George Washington. Arlington won out as a name over Mount Washington, which is what
George Washington Parke Custis first intended calling the 1,100-acre tract of land that he had
inherited at the death of his father when he was 3.


Arlington won out because it was the name of the Custis family ancestral estate in the Virginia
tidewater area. Custis hired George Hadfield, an English architect who came to Washington in
1785 to help construct the U.S. Capitol, to design his estate. The Greek revival structure which
Hadfield designed took Custis 16 years to complete.


George Washington Parke Custis and his wife, Mary Lee Fitzhugh (whom he had married in
1804), lived in Arlington House for the rest of their lives and were buried together on the property
after their deaths in 1857 and 1853, respectively. They are buried in their original graves in
Section 13, at map grid N-30. On June 30, 1831, Custis' only child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis,
married her childhood friend and distant cousin, Robert E. Lee. Lee was the son of former three term
Virginia Governor Henry ("Light Horse Harry") Lee and was himself a graduate of West
Point.


Between 1841 and 1857, Lee was away from Arlington House for several extended periods. In
1846 he served in the Mexican war under Gen. Winfield Scott, and in 1852 he was appointed
superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, his alma mater. After his father-in-law
died in 1857, Lee returned to Arlington to join his family and to serve as executor of the estate.
Under the terms of her father's will, Mary Anna Custis Lee was given the right to inhabit and
control the house for the rest of her life. Custis' will also stipulated that upon Mary Anna's death,
full title would pass to her eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee. Contrary to popular belief,
Robert E. Lee never owned the Arlington estate. Lee did serve as custodian of the property,
which had fallen into disrepair by the time he returned to execute his father-in-law's will. By 1859,
Lee had returned the property and its holdings to profitability and good order.


Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Anna, lived at Arlington House until 1861, when Virginia ratified
an alliance with the Confederacy and seceded from the Union. Lee, who had been named a
major general for the Virginia military forces in April 1861, feared for his wife's safety and
anticipated the loss of their family inheritance. In May 1861, Lee wrote to Mary Anna saying:
"War is inevitable, and there is not 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."


Following the ratification of secession by Virginia, federal troops crossed the Potomac and, under
Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell, took up positions around Arlington. Following the occupation, military
installations were erected at several locations around the 1,100-acre estate, including Fort
Whipple (now Fort Myer) and Fort McPherson.


Lee deeply regretted the loss of his home at Arlington. During the early stages of the war,
foreseeing the probable loss of his home and belongings, Lee wrote to his wife about 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."


The property was confiscated by the federal government when property taxes levied against
Arlington estate were not paid in person by Mrs. Lee. The property was offered for public sale
Jan. 11, 1864, and was purchased by a tax commissioner for "government use, for war, military,
charitable and educational purposes."


Arlington National Cemetery was established by Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, who
commanded the garrison at Arlington House, appropriated the grounds June 15, 1864, for use as
a military cemetery. His intention was to render the house uninhabitable should the Lee family
ever attempt to return. A stone and masonry burial vault in the rose garden, 20 feet wide and 10
feet deep, and containing the remains of 1,800 Bull Run casualties, was among the first
monuments to Union dead erected under Meigs' orders. Meigs himself was later buried within
100 yards of Arlington House with his wife, father and son; the final statement to his original
order.


Neither Robert E. Lee, nor his wife, as title holder, ever attempted to publicly recover control of
Arlington House. They were buried at Washington University (later renamed Washington and Lee
University) where Lee had served as president. The couple never returned to the home George
Washington Parke Custis had built and treasured. After Gen. Lee's death in 1870, George
Washington Custis Lee brought an action for ejectment in the Circuit Court of Alexandria (today
Arlington) County, Va. Custis Lee, as eldest son of Gen. and Mrs. Lee, claimed that the land had
been illegally confiscated and that, according to his grandfather's will, he was the legal owner. In
December 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, returned the property to Custis Lee,
stating that it had been confiscated without due process.


On March 3, 1883, the Congress purchased the property from Lee for $150,000. It became a
military reservation.


Arlington Mansion and 200 acres of ground immediately surrounding it were designated officially
as a military cemetery June 15, 1864, by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.


More than 300,000 people are buried at Arlington Cemetery. Veterans from all the nation's wars
are buried in the cemetery, from the American Revolution through the Iraq and Afghanistan. Pre-
Civil War dead were reinterred after 1900.


IN THE BEAUTIFUL Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on a hillside overlooking the historic
Potomac River is a Shrine that has become the Mecca for not only all Americans who visit
Washington but many prominent dignitaries and persons from foreign lands. It is the Tomb of
America's Unknown Soldiers, symbolizing those of America who gave their lives in World War I,
World War II and Korea, in defense of the Nation's integrity, honor and tranquility.

 
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