Arlington National Cemetery Beginnings

Arlington National Cemetery

Part One

Chapter 1: The Beginnings

Photos & Material by Dan Brodt

(All photos are copyrighted unless otherwise noted. Permission must be had to use any photo that is not documented)

(Page design and editing by Bob Baldwin)

Mary Custis Lee, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington and adopted son of George Washington, stood in the portico of Arlington House.

Lee Mansion-Arlington House Front Lawn

It was the spring of 1861 and the green hills of Arlington House sloped down to the banks of the Potomac River. A slight early morning mist rose above the Potomac shrouding the early beginnings of Pierre L'Enfant's grand vision for the Nation's Capital.

Mary Custis Lee's View to Washington

A surreal effect is painted in Mary Custis Lee’s mind as she envisions what stands before her. The columned house floating among the grassy Virginia hills seemed to have been there forever.

Colonel Robert E. Lee was returning to Arlington House from meetings and interviews in the new capital. The journey across the Long Bridge on this beautiful spring morning was not one of joy for him. He had just refused a major Army promotion. Lee had faithfully served his Country for thirty-two years.

The ensuing conflict between the North and South had been stirring for some time. Colonel Lee was wrestling with a decision to remain loyal to the Union or faithful to his family and his fellow Virginian’s. Ever since the mid 1600’s, the Lee families had influenced and shaped the course of events in Virginia. Col. Lee considered himself a Virginian first and foremost. His loyalty to the Union came second.

As both Mary Custis Lee and her husband viewed their surroundings, their visions, hopes, and dreams were about to be forever changed  when Virginia decided to join the Confederacy in May 1861.

Upon this announcement, Col. Lee went on to Richmond to help the Confederacy in its infancy. Mary tried her best to cope with the transformations that would be coming to Arlington House, it's inhabitants and the surrounding property.

Mary Custis Lee’s cousin, Lt. Orton Williams, was a private secretary to General-in-Chief Winfield Scott of the Union Army. He made it known to Mary “she best get packin’ and head to her husband, Robert E. Lee, in Richmond."[1]

Upon hearing this, Robert E. Lee expressed his distress and emphasized the fact that Mary Custis Lee pack as soon as possible and flee to Richmond.  Now a Confederate General, Lee had been labeled a traitor to the likes of Benedict Arnold.

Within hours of the announcement of Virginia's cessation, the Union troops crossed the Potomac and took control of Arlington House.

James Parks, a Lee family slave, watched the crossing and noted, "it looked like bees a-comin'."[2]

James Parks

The ensuing looting by Union troops, the establishment of a "Freedman's Village" of former mansion slaves, and the passing of Congressional Laws provided the government with the basis of appropriating all the surrounding lands and declaring them as a National Cemetery.

[1] Mary Custis Lee, “Manuscript Statement, ”Sept.1866, in Murray Nelligan, Arlington House; The Story of the Lee Mansion Historical Monument (Burke,VA: Chatelaine Press,2005), 393 .

[2] ibid


By this time and events soldiers had already been buried on the grounds.

The first soldier to be laid to rest was Private William Christman of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry. He was buried in the Lower Cemetery. This designation, however indigent, described both its physical and social status. This Lower Cemetery was just across the lane from a graveyard for slaves and freedmen.

First Soldier to be interred, May 13, 1864

Pvt. Christman did not die from combat but from an unknown disease. There were no flying flags, no bugles playing and no family or Chaplain to see him off.

 The mansion, and its property, was the perfect platform for the defense of Washington. Who would ever imagine that Arlington House would become the prize in a legal and bureaucratic battle that would continue long after the guns fell silent at Appomattox in 1865?

The undefeated estate changed hands without a whimper. When the Custis-Lee family arose that next morning, the estate was teeming in blue uniforms.

The federal government was still wrestling with the Lee family for control of the property in 1882. By this year, the Arlington House and its vast green rolling hills had morphed into Arlington National Cemetery. The nation’s most hallowed ground.

Lee had a great many tormentors within the Union and its Army. His greatest tormentor was Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster General of the Union Army.

Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs

Meigs decided to have Pvt. Christman and other recently buried soldiers  unearthed from the Lower Cemetery and reburied closer to Lee's hilltop house.

To further aggravate the hatred between the Union and General Lee, Meigs had the tombstones of prominent Union officers encircle Mrs. Lee's gardens. Meigs also excavated a huge pit at the end of Mary Custis Lee's garden and filled it with the remains of 2,111 nameless soldiers.

Meigs raised a sarcophagus in their honor for all to see. Another affront to the Lee family.

Nameless Soldiers

The Lee's would spend the post Civil War years trying to retake possession of their estate. The road to repossession of  Arlington House would go beyond Robert E. Lee's death in 1870 at 63 years old. Mrs. Lee fought the good fight with Congress to retain possession of her property. She died failing to retain  the possession of Arlington Hall.

Mary Custis Lee

Her eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, called Custis, now retained the task of retrieving the Arlington House legacy.

George Washington Custis Lee

President Rutherford B. Hayes became President in 1877. The animosity between the North and the South had softened. The hurt subsided. The traitorism of the Confederacy changed into a longing to amend the distaste of the word and its implications.

Custis Lee ensue.d a long legal battle with Congress and the Union government.

 The Courts ruled that the government had deprived Custis Lee of his property without due process.

The case was entertained by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Supreme Court ruled in Custis Lee's favor.[3]

[3] United States v. Lee, 106, US 196 (1882)

The Lee's had retaken Arlington House! But the conflict did not end here. The Courts ruled that technically the federal government was trespassing on private property. The government did vacate and abandon the property but proposed to Custis Lee to sell the property to the government.

Custis Lee had no use for Arlington House after the Union Army trashed it. He also had no desire to retain all the surrounding land and incur the cost of providing for the freed inhabitants now living there.

So for the sum of $150,000 dollars, Custis Lee sold it to the government.

The detractors of General Lee and his family became further infuriated at the sale versus confiscation for treason. Brigadier General Meigs, inflamed at this decision by the Courts, was further humiliated by the fact that none other than the son of Abraham Lincoln, Robert Todd Lincoln, the Secretary of War, returned the land's title back to the Lee's.

Robert Todd Lincoln

The legacy of Arlington National Cemetery is one of a long vast struggle for the Lee family. A loss for them but a gain for all future Americans as it became the hallowed ground among the Field of Stones.

Does the Field of Stones speak back to the people? The answer will follow. The rituals of loss are continued and refined by times passing.

[1] Mary Custis Lee, “Manuscript Statement, ”Sept.1866, in Murray Nelligan, Arlington House; The Story of the Lee Mansion Historical Monument (Burke,VA: Chatelaine Press,2005), 393 .

[2] ibid

[3] United States v. Lee, 106, US 196 (1882) 

Click here to go to Part 1, Chapter 2: Bivouac of the Dead

Your email will not be published. Name and Email fields are required