Most Americans have heard of Arlington National Cemetery, but not many people know how it came to be. According to Robert M. Poole, Arlington’s origins are rooted in a bitter struggle between the Lee family and the US government and even have connections to George Washington.
Fun fact: George Washington was Martha Washington’s second husband.
Martha had a grandson named George Washington Parke Custis, who began building an estate at Arlington in 1802. When Custis died in 1857, he passed Arlington on to his only surviving child, Mary, who went on to marry General Robert E. Lee. As the Civil War approached, Robert E. Lee left Arlington and took a position with the Confederate Army, a move that branded him a traitor akin to Benedict Arnold in the eyes of his now former colleagues in the Union Army. Among the angriest of his former colleagues and friends was Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs, who was appointed Quartermaster General during the Civil War. In this position, Meigs was essentially tasked with making sure the Union Army had enough equipment, supplies, and transportation.
Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee
Mary Lee remained at her home in Arlington until mid-May 1861, and weeks later on May 23, Virginia voted in a landslide to secede from the United States. Within 24 hours of the vote, Union troops poured into Virginia and took Arlington without firing a shot. In June 1862, Congress passed a law that made all property in “insurrectionary districts” (obviously this included Arlington) subject to additional taxation, which Mary Lee was unable to pay in person due to illness. The government then seized Arlington and put it up for auction, at which the sole bid came from the government.
In 1863, Arlington became the new home to 1,500 newly freed slaves, who built homes, churches, schools, and farms on the property. Arlington was starting to look nothing like the pleasant hilltop estate it was prior to the war. The following year elsewhere in Virginia, General Lee and General Ulysses S. Grant traded blows in the Forty Days’ Campaign, which accounted for 82,000 casualties in just over a month. The casualties overwhelmed the area’s cemeteries and Meigs – in charge of not just providing provisions for the Union Army but also burying the dead – looked to Arlington as a new burial ground.
Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs
By June 1864, Meigs had been ordering burials at Arlington and sought to make the former Lee estate the official National Military Cemetery. Meigs seemed to really want to mess up Arlington for the Lee family, burying Union soldiers in Mary’s favorite relaxations spots and as close to the mansion as he possibly could.
Following the end of the war in 1865, the Lee family sought to reclaim Arlington and return it to its original state, but they were unsuccessful. Mary petitioned Congress in 1870 after Robert’s death and was defeated in the Senate by a count of 54 to 4, as Arlington had come to be known as a hallowed burial ground for America’s most patriotic and brave soldiers.
Union soldiers on the front steps and lawn of the mansion at Arlington
When Mary Lee died in 1873, her family’s estate still belonged to the government. Her son, George Washington Custis Lee (or just “Custis”) took over the legal battle to reclaim Arlington. He really wanted it, or at least money for it, since it was his only inheritance. Using a team of skilled lawyers and capitalizing on a new movement for reconciliation between the North and South, Custis’s case went up to the Supreme Court, which found that Arlington had been seized from the family without due process of law.
The Lee family once again owned Arlington, as well as all the buildings and bodies that now resided there. Rather than wait for the government to clean up all their property and bodies, Custis chose to sell the estate to the government for the fair market price of $150,000.
Arlington remains the property of the US government to this day. In 1892, the man responsible for its place as the most prestigious national military cemetery – Montgomery C. Meigs – was buried in the heart of the estate near his family. Today, Arlington is the resting place of around 400,000 American soldiers and, in some cases, their spouses and children. It is home to the famous Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and is undoubtedly the most prestigious and hallowed cemetery in the United States.