One of the most pristine and hallowed areas of American real estate is nestled in northern Virginia, among her lush rolling hills. It is here, within 612 lovingly cared for acres more than 250,000 Americans, mostly veterans, rest in peaceful tranquility. Enjoying the beauty of the area makes it difficult to realize, “twas not always thus”. America’s most consecrated burial ground, Arlington National Cemetery, was established during a time of personal hatred, death and destruction, commonly referred to as the Civil War.
Arlington’s story begins in 1778 when John Parke Custis purchased 1,100 acres of land along the Potomac River in Virginia. Custis was the son of Martha Custis Washington, wife of General George Washington. In 1781, John died during the siege of Yorktown. After his death, Washington adopted John’s two children, Eleanor Custis and George Washington Parke Custis. Over the years, a deep love grew in the heart of George Custis for his adoptive father.
When he became of age, the Custis estate passed to George and here he built a mansion to honor the first president. Thought to be modeled after the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, Custis’s columned home accentuate the Virginia hills as if it had been there forever. At its feet was the young nation’s half-finished capital. The home was later named “Arlington House” due to the fact the property was originally a grant from the Earl of Arlington.
Custis later married and fathered one child, a daughter named Mary. When she grew up, Mary fell in love with a West Point graduate, a dashing young man by the name of Robert E. Lee. Lee came to love Arlington House and the surrounding acreage every bit as much as Mary did, referring to it as “our dear home, where my attachments are more strongly placed than at any other place in the world.” With a commanding view of the tranquil vistas, life for Robert and Mary at Arlington House started out peacefully, but it did not remain so. A soon-coming event known as the Civil War would rearrange their lives forever.
Lee was originally offered the position of commander of the Union army, which was assembled to deal with the southern states now seeking secession. He declined the appointment, due to the fact he was a native Virginian and would not turn his back on her. After that, Northern newspapers, including the New York Daily Tribune, went after him with their pen and ink guns blazing. In their tirades, the writers described him as traveling “in the footsteps of Benedict Arnold” for having the audacity to resign his colonel’s commission in the Union Army and instead side with the Southern confederates.
Newspaper personnel were not the only individuals who expressed outrage at Lee’s decision. The most outspoken was Brig. General Montgomery C. Meigs, who had graduated with Lee from West Point and served with him in the engineer corps. Meigs now considered Lee to be an insurgent and stated, “No man who ever took the oath to support the Constitution as an officer of our army or navy . . . should escape without loss of all his goods and civil rights and expatriation.” He sought to have both Lee and General Joseph E. Johnston, along with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, “be put formally out of the way if possible by sentence of death [and] executed if caught.” When the fight for Arlington later ensued, Meigs became one of Lee’s most relentless foes.
One afternoon in the spring of 1861, Union Army officer (and undercover Confederate spy) Lt. Orton Williams suddenly rushed into Arlington House and announced to Mary Lee, “You must pack up all you value immediately and send it off in the morning.” Williams was Mary’s cousin and harbored a romantic interest in her daughter, Agnes. He was also the private secretary to Union Army General in Chief Winfield Scott. His sudden appearance likely resulted from plans he undoubtedly overheard. (Williams, along with co-conspirator Lt. Walter Gibson Peter, were later caught and hanged on June 9, 1863.)
After Williams’ announcement, Mary began overseeing the frantic packing of cherished family mementos by a number of the slaves. Family silver, papers belonging to George Washington and G.W.P. Custis, along with Robert E. Lee’s files were packed away to be transferred to Richmond for safekeeping.
Lee had recently assumed command of the Virginian forces and left to begin mobilizing them as the country approached the opening days of the bloodiest war in its history. Fearful for his wife’s safety, Lee wrote to her and said, “I am very anxious about you. You have to move and make arrangements to go to some point of safety. War is inevitable & there is no telling when it will burst around you.”
Mary wrote to her daughter, “I would have greatly preferred remaining at home & having my children around me, but as it would greatly increase your father’s anxiety I shall go.” In this letter, Mary made a jarringly accurate prediction: “I fear that this will be the scene of conflict and my beautiful home endeared by a thousand associations may become a field of carnage.”
Prior to her departure, Mary lingered for several days; enjoying her favorite place in the arbor south of the mansion. “I never saw the country more beautiful, perfectly radiant,” she wrote to her husband. “The yellow jasmine in full bloom and perfuming the air; but a death like stillness prevails everywhere.” On April 22, 1861, Mary enjoyed one last visit in the garden before she traveled the long winding driveway of the estate as she left Arlington House, her home for 30 years.
Virginia seceded from the Union on May 23, 1861. At 2 a.m. the following day, approximately 14,000 Union troops crossed the Potomac into Virginia on foot and horseback. James Parks, a slave of the Lee family, described their approach as looking “like bees a-coming.” The unguarded estate was quickly laid claim to by Union forces and by daybreak, the entire premises was teaming with blue-clad troops as Arlington House was transformed into a military headquarters.
In June 1862, a law was passed by Congress which empowered local commissioners to assess value and collect taxes on the real estate located in “insurrectionary districts.” The law sought to accomplish two purposes – raise funds for the war effort and punish Lee and other turncoats. The law also required taxes to be paid in person, or the commissioners were empowered to confiscate and sell the land. At this time, Mary Lee was confined to a wheelchair and relied on her husband’s cousin, Philip R. Fendall, to deliver the tax payment of $92.07. Because Mary did not deliver the funds herself, the federal government officially laid claim to Arlington
Though Lee’s feared attack on Arlington never materialized, the war still impacted the acreage in numerous ways. Union troops denuded the lush forests on the estate and absconded with various artifacts belonging to the Lee family. Also, General Meig proposed a Freedmen’s Village be established for newly freed slaves “on the lands recently abandoned by rebel leaders.”
January 11, 1864 was the day scheduled for the auction of Arlington House. The temperature that day was so cold, blocks of ice formed in the Potomac River, stalling the boats. As a result, only one bid was made on the property, that of the federal government. The bid was in the amount of $26,800 for property which had earlier been assessed at $34,100. The certificate of sale stated Arlington’s new owner would now use the property “for war, military, charitable and educational purposes.”
Spring of 1864 saw Generals Grant and Lee begin a Forty Days’ Campaign which stretched from Virginia’s Wilderness to Petersburg. During that timeframe, 82,000 casualties occurred with nowhere to bury them. As General Meigs sought a new graveyard for the growing number of remains, his eyes fell on Arlington. In an effort to ensure Arlington House would forever be uninhabitable as a home for the Lees, General Meigs proposed using the grounds as a burial place for the teeming numbers of war dead. On May 13, 1864, 21-year-old Private William Christman, a soldier from the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, became the area’s first resident of the Lower Cemetery, located across the lane from the graveyard of freedmen and slaves.
On June 15, 1864, Meigs sought to take things further. “I recommend that . . . the land surrounding the Arlington Mansion, now understood to be the property of the United States, be appropriated as a National Military Cemetery, to be properly enclosed, laid out and carefully preserved for that purpose.” He also suggested the bodies of Christman and other soldiers buried in the Lower Cemetery be exhumed and moved to an area closer to the hilltop home. Edwin M. Stanton, then Secretary of War, endorsed General Meigs’ recommendation the same day. Shortly thereafter, the Washington Morning Chronicle published the statement, “This and the [Freemen’s Village] . . . are righteous uses of the estate of the rebel General Lee.”
That same day, General Meigs toured the new cemetery. As he did, he became incensed when he saw the locations chosen for the graves and fumed, “It was my intention to have begun the interments nearer the mansion, but opposition on the part of officers stationed at Arlington, some of whom . . . did not like to have the dead buried near them, caused the interments to be begun in the Lower Cemetery.” Meigs immediately relieved these officers of their duties at the mansion and brought in a military chaplain with a loyal lieutenant to make sure his directions were carried out correctly. He ordered the graves be placed as close to the house as possible. Capt. Albert H. Packard of the 31st Maine Infantry was the first to take up residence in Mary Lee’s beloved jasmine and honeysuckle garden. By the close of 1864, approximately 40 other officers had joined him.
Meigs now began to scour neighboring battlefields for the bodies of unknown soldiers. Eventually, he accumulated 2,111. He now ordered a huge pit be dug at the end of Mary’s beloved garden and here he buried the remains, then placed a sarcophagus on top to honor them. By placing the bodies of prominent Union officers throughout the garden, in addition to unnamed patriots, Meigs sought to make it politically difficult to remove these heroes in the future. Though the vast majority of bodies interred were those of Union soldiers and officers, 500 Confederate soldiers found their place among them.
On October 3, 1864, Meigs’ animosity toward Robert E. Lee reached a greater depth when his “noble precious son,” 22-year-old Lt. John Rodgers Meigs, was shot and killed in the Shenandoah Valley during a scouting mission for General Philip Sheridan. Rather than bury his son at Arlington, Meigs had him laid to rest in Georgetown.
When Meigs learned of Lee’s surrender to Grant on April 9, 1865, he exploded: “The rebels are all murderers of my son and the sons of hundreds of thousands. Justice seems not satisfied [if] they escape judicial trial & execution… by the government which they have betrayed [&] attacked & whose people loyal & disloyal they have slaughtered.” Meigs held out hope that if Lee and other Confederates managed to escape punishment through the use of pardons or paroles, Congress would at least banish them from American soil.
After the guns of Appomattox fell silent, Mary Lee had a farewell visit to Arlington in June 1873. As she rode for three hours in a carriage accompanied by a friend, she viewed a landscape which had been totally transformed. She later wrote, “My visit produced one good effect. The change is so entire that I have not the yearning to go back there and shall be more content to resign all my right in it.” Five months later, at age 65, she died in Lexington.
Though Mary died, her hopes for Arlington remained alive in the heart of her eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee. On April 6, 1874, George went before Congress. He stated that the property had been taken unlawfully due to the fact his mother’s good-faith attempt to pay the “insurrectionary tax” of $92.07 through intercessory means due to her wheelchair confinement was as valid as if she had done so in person.
Lee’s petition lingered in the Senate Judiciary Committee for months, raising concern for Meigs that it would “interfere with the United States’ tenure of this National Cemetery – a result to be avoided by all just means.” A few weeks later, Meigs’ concerns were put to rest (temporarily) as the petition died in committee. While breathing his sigh of relief, Meigs failed to take into consideration the tenacity in the Southern blood which flowed through George Lee’s veins.
Newly inaugurated President Rutherford B. Hayes, a Union general, had no sooner begun to unpack his bags in the White House, when Lee took his campaign for Arlington to a new level – in court. As he asserted his ownership of Arlington, Lee beseeched the Circuit Court of Alexandria, Virginia to evict all trespassers who now occupied the grounds of Arlington due to the auction of 1864. US Attorney General Charles Devens requested the case be moved to federal court.
In July 1877, the case went before Judge Robert W. Hughes of the US Circuit Court for the Eastern Division of Virginia. A jury trial was later ordered by Judge Hughes, with Attorney Francis L. Smith acting as lead counsel for Lee. The legality of the 1864 tax sale was argued and the court found in favor of Lee on January 30, 1879. Requiring the “insurrectionary tax” to be paid in person served to deprive Lee of his property without due process of law.
Following the ruling, the government appealed to the Supreme Court. The court’s 5 to 4 majority ruling again went in favor of the Lee family. Associated Justice Samuel Freeman Miller, appointed by President Abraham Lincoln, stated the 1864 tax sale was unconstitutional and as a result, invalid. The Court’s decision basically charged the US government with trespassing on the Lees’ private property and required it be returned to the family in the same condition it had been at the time of confiscation.
The question now to be answered was, “What is to be done with the 20,000 bodies buried within this acreage?” The Lee family would have been within their rights to insist the bodies be exhumed and taken elsewhere. The court offered the government two choices – disinter the graves and vacate the property; or buy the land from George Lee, providing he was willing to sell. Lee chose to make life easy on everyone concerned. In 1883, he accepted $150,000 ($2,549,272.73 – 2012) from the government in payment for the land. The Secretary of War who accepted the title to the property was Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the late president. Arlington National Cemetery was now officially established and has since become America’s most hallowed ground.