Arlington National Cemetery Part One

Arlington National Cemetery

Fields of Stone

A Narrative of War, Loss, Growth, and Remembrance

Photos and Material by Dan P. 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)


It is my endeavor to familiarize the reader with the history of the evolution of what we now know as the Arlington National Cemetery - America's National Cemetery and America's most hallowed ground.

This is a story based on factual, historical evidence and the stories told from the people that lived the event. I tried to follow the flow of this narrative according to historical facts in a chronological order of events.

But as historical events can dictate, these events can overlap at some point and so they do here. This does not lessen the impact of the profound ways we came to treat our fallen and how it is reflected in our nation's soul.

Arlington National Cemetery didn't just happen. It grew from infancy to adulthood.  It went from Robert E. Lee's home, a prize of war in a conflict between the North and South, to evolve into a national shrine belonging to all Americans.

"Show me the manner in which a nation or community cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender sympathies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals"

William Gladstone - British Statesman

Dan P. Brodt


Arlington National Cemetery

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)

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 ensued 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) 



Arlington National Cemetery

 Chapter 2: Bivouac the Dead

Photos & Material by Dan Brodt

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


 Arlington began internments shortly before becoming the Nation's National Cemetery. The aftermath of the war left the processing of the bodies at a stalemate. If this backlog of human disposal didn't create a public health hazard, the public relations aftermath would surely rise to the level of complete legislative embarrassment.

 Arlington's transition from a plantation to a cemetery was not seamless in any way, shape, or form. Events of the war, the passage of time, and the utter logistical mismanagement of this transition allowed Arlington's first burial to be recognized as a crime of indifference not an honor.

 Private William Christman, of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, was just 21 years old when he was buried on May 13, 1864. The "Forty Days" campaign between Lee and Grant was at its pinnacle. As mentioned in the previous chapter, "The Beginnings", Private Christman was buried in the least selective area of the cemetery, a pauper's burial at the least. The view of the estate was far more important to the Union than the graves of the first burials.

 James Parks, a slave at the Lee mansion and witness to Lee's departure to Richmond in 1861, was still part of the Arlington landscape when the first burials took place. Parks was in charge of digging the cemeteries first graves and he had much trouble keeping up with the continuing stack of coffins piling up on the property. The Lower Cemetery was for the lower status of individuals to be interred, the true definition of a potter's field.


Unknown Soldier

Enlisted military personnel had no right to occupy the lofty green acres nearest the mansion. This right was reserved for Union officers only at this time. One's social status reflected the placement of the soldier's remains. Rebel soldiers were buried alongside their enemies.

Even freedmen would occupy the same grounds. Those selected Colored Troops would be buried a few rows away from the first military burials. These colored troops were fighting for their freedom, yet were buried by race.

The indignation did not stop for these men despite the promises of the Union army recruiters. The politics of race was a hidden asset of the Union army.

 Officers received far better choice of burial sites. Brigadier General Meigs instructed his subordinates to surround the Lee mansion with the headstones of Union officers.


Another slight to the Lee's, especially Mary Custis Lee. Captain Albert H. Packard of the 31st Maine Infantry was buried on May 17, 1864. Captain Packard became part of Mrs. Lee's garden adornment. By the middle of June, other Union officers graced the borders of Mrs. Lee's famous garden, a place where she could retreat from the toils of maintaining the estate and dealing with the onslaught of Union logistical oversight. Such was Meigs way of ensuring that Mrs. Lee's garden would become the resting place of more than flowers.

Memorial Amphitheater


 The geographical and topographical location of Arlington House made it close to hospitals but far enough away to lessen the impact that the Country was still at war. It should also be mentioned that the members of the Custis family, the family slaves and occupants of "Freedman's Village" also were buried there.

Freedman's Village


 Meigs craftiness in his master plan for Arlington House began way before the property became the nation's national cemetery. Meigs always insured that credit was given to President Lincoln so as to deflect attention away from himself.

 Meigs invited President Lincoln to join him in a tour of the cemetery. Meigs staged an event where the carriage ride with Lincoln would encounter a massive amount of dead soldiers awaiting the trip to be buried at Arlington across the river. And so goes the legend of the beginnings of Arlington National Cemetery.[1]

 Research on this event sheds some discord on the accuracy of the legend. The reader may get the impression that the first burials came from the Lee estate and en mass. Not so!


1 J. Howard Avil, "United States National Military Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia:, 1903


 Internment's, in fact, over a period of days burials were not caravans of coffins in an assembly line of burials. Far from that myth. Meigs, after-the-fact practices were well known and accepted. Meigs and his boss, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton who had an equally disdain for Lee, decided to separate the soldiers from the Lower Cemetery of contraband and slaves and move and rebury them closer to the hilltop mansion. An order issued by Stanton gave Meigs the control of a new parcel of land expressly suited to a military cemetery. This Stanton-Meigs conspiracy was applauded and endorsed by all loyalist newspapers. The Washington Morning Chronicle reported: "the grounds are undulating, handsomely adorned, and in every respect admirably fitted for the sacred purpose to which they had been dedicated. The people of the entire nation will one day, not very far distant, heartedly thank the initiators of this movement."[2] Little did Meigs realize that his orders for the internments of soldiers closer to the mansion had gone unobeyed. The engineer and architect he assigned to Arlington, Edward Clark, had ignored Meigs' orders to cloister the burials around the Lee mansion. In fact the Lower Cemetery was still being used for new burials. This infuriated Meigs to no end!

 Meigs blamed General Rene E. DeRussy the onsite administrator at Arlington. Meigs decided to remove, albeit throw out, DeRussy and his staff and replace them with chaplains. This was again again a backhanded conspiracy to quell public criticism of the mishandling of the burials by Arlington's officers. So Meigs flanked the opposition and criticism by moving chaplains and a puppet of Meigs, one Captain James M. Moore.  Captain Moore moved his entire family into the mansion. The chaplains were then tasked with the daily administration of the burials. Now Meigs had his original wish fulfilled. This would fill Mrs. Lee's garden with bodies not blooms.

 Then came a tragedy in the last autumn of the war that made the thousands of casualties arriving daily an afterthought. The son of BG Meigs, Lt. John Rodgers Meigs, 22, was killed.

Lt. John R. Meigs

The accounts of Lt. John R. Meigs death were never really determined. Whatever the reason Lt. Meigs body was returned to Washington with solemn honors. President Lincoln, Edwin Stanton and other assorted dignitaries gathered for the funeral. Meigs son was buried in the family cemetery in Georgetown. This final clash of the war lessened in its intensity and subsided in its rancor.

 Arriving, Lee slowly made his way back to Richmond where his wife and daughters were living. Coincidentally on the day, April 15, 1865, Lincoln died and Union troops occupied Richmond. It had been almost four years to the day that Lee bid farewell to the Union. He lost everything: Arlington House, his job, his investments, stripped of his right to vote and the ultimate humility, a prisoner of war on parole. The Confederacy was on the run. Jefferson Davis was captured and imprisoned. Both Lee and Davis had been indicted by a federal grand jury for treason.[3]

 Meigs, Lee's most adamant adversary, wished to make Lee the pinnacle of his wrath.

Tomb of Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs


Not only did Meigs blame Lee and the Confederacy for his son's death but also Meigs fumed as word of Appomattox arrived.

Lt. John R. Meigs Tomb


Justice had escaped Meigs and many in Congress. The prospect of a national reunion set forth by President Lincoln, malice toward none and charity for all, provided fodder for all of Meigs and his co-conspirators continued hatred for all things Southern.

 General Grant, tenacious in battle but most gracious in victory, felt that if given a chance the Confederacy would yield and become useful citizens. Grant urged all his subordinates to put the war behind them, go home and rebuild a broken country. This attitude by Grant calmed most of the raw anti-Union sentiment in the South thus possibly saving Lee from the charges of treason. Lee's request for a presidential pardon and the return of his citizenship was postponed for months. Some speculated that the delay was intentional, other a bureaucratic oversight. Lee's oath of allegiance dated October 2, 1865 disappeared into the State Department's files for over a century. A researcher discovered the duly notarized document and fixed with Lee's almost indistinguishable signature, in a dusty box in the National Archives in 1970. It took Congress an additional five years to restore Lee's citizenship by President Gerald R. Ford in 1975 at a ceremony at Arlington House.[4]

 Lee had given up any realization of ever retaining Arlington House. The Lee family looked elsewhere to live. Finally Lee agreed to become the President of a tiny college, Washington College, set deep in the Shenandoah Valley far from Richmond and Washington. Lexington, Virginia was just the place suited to the Lee's retreat from the disdain of the Union. The old estate of Arlington House could not be erased from Lee's memory. Lee family members, still near Arlington, reported the failing scenes at Arlington House. Lee's eldest daughter, Mary Lee, ventured from Georgetown across the Potomac river and scarcely recognized any feature of the house or property. The fight to retain Arlington House and its property did not lessen by the retirement to Lexington.

Arlington House

 Meigs continued to outmaneuver Lee for the high ground at Arlington. He arranged the cemeteries reinforcements, where the army of the dead would continue to grow a further distance and prohibit any recovery of Lee's property.

General Phillip Sheridan


Meigs would disinter bodies laid to rest from other cemeteries and replant them on Arlington property. Meigs dispatched Captain James Moore into the Virginia countryside to locate tens of thousands of Union soldiers from Southern battlefields and bury them at Arlington. Bodies of Union soldiers were buried in places all over Virginia, most without any marker of who lay below. It was a gruesome event even for the Union military tasked with the job.

 The unspeakable losses of the Civil War left the loved ones, family, and friends, of Union  soldiers longing for closure on where their loyal soldier was buried. Meigs took it upon himself to answer those questions. Meigs accounted for a third  of the 341,620 estimated Union war deaths and placed them at Arlington. The accounting of the losses was not what Meigs wanted to hear. So Meigs mobilized his peacetime army and dispatched them to the far corners of the Southern battlefields. Clerks, letterers, painters and lumber for proper headboards all headed out to revamp and convert temporary graveyards and make them into permanent national cemeteries. There became seventy four in existence when the program ended in 1870.[5]

 The campaign to recover the dead, by this time, had consumed more time than the war itself.[6] Decades after the war, government clerks were still trying to assess the Unions human cost by collecting hospital records, muster rolls, causality lists, and other official documents in a Washington office.[7]

 In September of 1866, Meigs dug a huge pit and dumped Union bodies and named it the first memorial to unknown soldiers.

Again Meigs slapped the face of Mary Custis Lee by placing the tomb of the unknown by her garden.

Civil War Unknowns Memorial


A reporter from the Washington "National Intelligencer" described the mass burial as a gloomy receptacle of bones of such soldiers as perished on the field and either were not buried at all or were so covered up as to have their bones mingle indiscriminately together.[8] The reporter estimated the remains being dumped into the pit at nearly two thousand. Meigs put the number at 2,111. Meigs was proud of his accomplishment despite the indignity of the burials effects. The disgrace he wished to place on the Lee family and all of the Confederacy, he did so on his own troops. He rose a stone sarcophagus to cover the bodies. The solemn gray memorial was surmounted by 4 Rodman guns and piles of round shot.

 Thus began the long tradition at Arlington of honoring the unknown soldiers. This tradition was refined with each new war. Meigs narcissism continued by putting his stamp and name on prominent public structures all over Arlington and the Nation's Capital. Meigs' ego paralleled his blind rage for the Lees and all things Southern. One of Meigs least popular designs, to one of the Union's least effective generals, General George B. McClellan became one of the most popular attractions at Arlington.

McClellan Arch

The McClellan Arch was  Victorian in style with flourishes of gold leaf and verses of patriotic rhetoric carved into the gate. Clustered into the columns by the entrance arch is Meigs' own surname.


Robert E. Lee never returned to Arlington, although he may have caught a piercing glimpse from the railway station in Alexandria.


"On Fames Eternal Camping Ground Their Silent Tents are Spread and Glory Guards with Solemn Round the Bivouac of the Dead" Theodore O'Hara

[2] "A Great National Cemetery", The Washington Morning Chronicle, June 17, 1864

[3] Freeman, IV: 202-03

[4] Cynthia Gorney, The Washington Post, August 6, 1975

[5] "History and Development of the National Cemetery Administration", Department of Veteran Affairs, National Cemetery Administration, February 4, 2006, 3

[6] Drew Gilpin Faust, "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War" ( New York: Alfred A. Knopf,2008),236

[7] Robert M. Poole, "On Hallowed Ground" (New York, Bloomsbury Books, 2009),78

[8] "The National Intelligencer" in Bigler, Honored Glory, 30


Arlington National Cemetery

Chapter 3: Resentment and Ownership

Photos & Material by Dan Brodt

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


  The resentment towards Robert E. Lee and the Lee family heightened after the war ended. Lee tried to avoid reopening the wounds left by the occupation, confiscation and humiliation of the Union's way of obtaining the Lee mansion and property.

  Congress, and those loyal to the Union, wanted to exclude the traitors from any position of power. The consensus of the Union opposition was based on the supposition that a separate political party should be created for the South. The whites, slave holders and poor trash alike, are indoctrinated with the belief that rebellion is not a crime but a virtue in the individual, if the State, which is an aggregate of individuals, gives its sanctions to it. "How long in the ordinary course of things, can a government exist, when half its territory is controlled by men who believe it is their duty to take up arms against it whenever they see a chance of overthrowing it?"[1]

  Lee had to make a trip to Washington and he knew his presence would rekindle his reflection as a traitor and monster to anyone there. This also kept him from visiting Arlington House. Lee still  had hopes that Arlington House would be returned to his family. Lee's eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee,

George Washington Custis Lee


was designated as the heir to Arlington House in his grandfather's will. As late as of July 1870, Lee met with his Alexandria lawyer, Francis L. Smith, to discuss any possibility of redeeming the estate. The question of Arlington's ownership remained still unresolved. Even upon Lee's death on October 12, 1870, the status of Lee's citizenship was in flux.

  Resentment for the Confederacy by Union soldiers who faced Lee on the field barred those Confederate mourners from the nation's first official Decoration Day at Arlington on May 30, 1868. Decoration Day was considered to be a Union loyalist event. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was read and speeches from Union Generals were made from the portico of Arlington House. All rhetoric endorsed the confiscation of the Lee property. This consensus of opinions validated confiscation and brought hoards of people and children marching around Mrs. Lee's garden

Graves around Mary Custis Lee's Garden


and adorning Meig's Tomb of the Unknown Civil War Dead with garlands, banners, and blooms.

Civil War Unknowns Memorial

All the graves at Arlington were decorated except those of the several hundred Confederate soldiers also interred there. This ceremony of remembrance, known as Memorial Day and declared a national holiday in 1888, came to be observed all years since.

  The cemeteries in the North that held Confederate soldiers remained neglected for them. Great ceremonies were lavished on the Union dead. 

(Photo Courtesy of Glen Nagel@Glen Nagel Photography)

Church of The Confederacy - St Paul's Episcopal Church


(Photo Courtesy of Glen Nagel@Glen Nagel Photography)

St Paul's Episcopal Church at 815 E. Grace Street in Richmond, Virginia on July 23, 2019. General Robert E. Lee and family, as well as Confederate President Jefferson Davis attended services at this church.


In 1871, the Ladies Hollywood Memorial Association of Richmond received permission to bring Virginia's dead home from Gettysburg. Those bodies added three thousand more graves to the Richmond cemetery.

Monument to Confederate dead, Hollywood Cemetery

  In 1872, the same ladies collected the remains of eighty nine Confederate dead from Arlington for reburial in Richmond. In addition more than a hundred Confederate soldiers from North Carolina were exhumed and removed from Arlington to North Carolina in 1883.

  The journey for those southern patriots was a sweet sound to Southerners. The route to Raleigh was heralded by military bands and church bells. These soldiers were accorded final honors in the capital and laid to rest in the Confederate section of Oakwood Cemetery.

Oakwood Cemetery, Raleigh, North Carolina


 Adjustments continued at Arlington transforming it into a shrine for national heroes rather than a burial cemetery driven by haste. Veterans lobbied to have the federal regulations loosened to allow all veterans of the Civil War, along with their dependents, to be interred at all national cemeteries. Of course the nemesis of Arlington, General Meigs, opposed any such relaxing of the regulations for battle only or battle related burials. The War Department sided with Meigs but the general in chief of the Army, General William T. Sherman, stated that all soldiers of the Civil War, retired or active, should be allowed burial at any national cemetery. Meigs was defeated. Congress finally relented under pressure from the Grand Army of the Republic and voted in March 1873 to allow burial privileges at Arlington and other national cemeteries to all honorably discharged Civil War veterans.

Confederate Monument

Only Two Confederate Generals were buried at Arlington National Cemetery:

Brigadier General Marcus Wright



Lieutenant General Joseph Wheeler


  Arlington was still in chaos decades following the war.  Confederate remains were combined and confused with other bones during the transfer. Federal dead arrived from other cemeteries. Union families, wishing their loved ones be buried closer to home, rushed about to remove and rebury those loved ones elsewhere.

  Those U.S. Colored Troops buried in the Lower Cemetery among poor white warriors and former slaves were advocated by living comrades to be moved to higher ground to a more prominent location near Arlington House. Again Meigs fought this and advocated that once buried in place those should be allowed to rest in peace. The War Department agreed and left the U.S Colored Troops in the Lower Cemetery.

  With the death of her husband in 1870, Mary Custis Lee

           Mary Custis Lee   


obsessed at the loss of Arlington House. Robert E. Lee's death only incensed Mrs. Lee to petition Congress to form a joint committee to examine the federal claims to Arlington. She wanted the number of graves  there. Mrs. Lee wanted to know exactly what was left of her property. A resolution was introduced and passed by Congress and provoked a flood of protest in the Republican dominated Senate.

  Referring back to the late Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton's express intention to bury those dead in their exact place in perpetuity, some in the Senate still wished to put the Lee property well beyond Mrs. Lee's grasp. Disturbing the dead to make room for a traitor's widow became the main subject. Mrs. Lee's resolution, introduced by Kentucky Democratic Senator Thomas Clay McCreery, was withdrawn and then rejected. But what really happened was that the rejection of the resolution only elevated Arlington's status from a potter's field created in wartime desperation to becoming something grand. Arlington became hallowed ground in the nation's eyes, a solemn symbol of sacrifice and honor. Congress and the Union military was not going to relinquish that ground without a fight. Meigs initial covert preemptive plans to occupy Arlington were working.

  The old Lee plantation, once recognized as an emerald gem among the hills above Washington, became unrecognizable. The displacement of sections of the property left the estate fragmented. The four hundred acre "Freedman's Village", along with the sprawling government farms, military forts guarding the north and west, resulted in the old forest completely disappearing. There were actually six Civil War forts at Arlington. Troop numbers greatly diminished. Fort Whipple remained with a strong contingent of soldiers.

Fort Whipple


Ft. Whipple was then renamed Ft. Myer. Still part of the Arlington lands today, it covers two hundred and sixty acres of the original property.

  The cemetery grew by leaps and bounds. Sixteen thousand graves were numbered by 1870. The emerald green hills had new residents... weeds. The mansion house leaked, the burial mounds sank and weather and decaying coffins presented a picture of a roller coaster of level and sunken terrain. Wooden headboards rotted and withered away. The Grand Army of the Republic voiced its great displeasure in the unkempt, messy appearance of the grounds. The Quartermaster's Department responded by refilling the indented graves, cutting the weeds and overgrown grass, tidying up the paths between the tombs, and did a "band-aid" patch of the old mansion.

  The old wooden grave markers began to be replaced in the mid 1870's by marble ones. Here again Meigs re-enters the fray by submitting that the elevated expense of replacing the old wooden headboards with the new white marble ones, at a cost of one million dollars a decade, would bankrupt the cemeteries budget. His solution was to replace the tomb's tablets with those made of galvanized iron. This would save both cost and maintenance of the old tablets for decades. Some iron markers were dispatched to a few national cemeteries. The outcry was immediate. Unsightly, difficult to read, and rusting were the cries of people. They won very little praise from anyone but Meigs. He lobbied for the iron markers over white marble for many years. Finally in 1873, pressure prompted Congress to appropriate money to begin a nationwide headstone replacement program.

  Secretary of War William W. Belknap

William W. Belknap


fashioned a new tombstone from granite or white marble cut and shaped to a specific dimension. Sturdy, able to withstand frost, wind, and weather, few modifications have been made to the original design. By late 1873 the new headstone program was underway. The first new headstones started in the Spring of 1874. This, again, reinforced Meigs's plan to weaken the claims by Mrs. Lee, that the property should be returned to her. The Union servicemen had lived and died in a noble cause which earned them a place of honor in the nation's cemeteries.[2]

  Mrs. Lees hopes to regain Arlington were redirected to her eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee,  upon her death. George Washington Custis Lee was now the family leader and he felt that obligation and that of some possible self interest. Arlington House was his only inheritance. Now Arlington House's disrepair and claim of federal ownership weighed upon his mind. Custis Lee or just Custis, as he was known, remained as coolheaded as his father whose footsteps he retraced. Custis Lee graduated first in his class at West Point, entered the engineering corps as his father had, resigned his commission when the Civil War broke out and followed his father to Richmond in 1861. He then joined the Confederacy. He was a dutiful son in his father's absence. Custis Lee maintained all the business obligations of the Lee family. When the war ended he followed his mother and father to Lexington, Virginia. He became a professor of civil and military engineering at Washington and Lee College. The college added Robert E. Lee's name to the college in October 1870. Custis Lee remained there for twenty seven years.

  Custis then resumed the fight to retain Arlington. Custis tried a more low keyed approach to the suggestion that Arlington be cleared of all instances of the Union infringement and returned to the Lee family. He appealed for an admission that the property was unlawfully taken and requested a just compensation in lieu of the return of the property. If approved, Custis would convey the title of Arlington House to the U.S. in exchange for an unnamed sum of money.

  The same family lawyer, Francis L. Smith, that fought for the return of the property to Mrs. Lee, counseled Custis on the how to get a settlement. There were far too many legislative and legal precedents for Congress to debate the issue at length. To avoid litigation which might incur all the present burials to be removed and relocated to some unknown national cemetery, Meigs still pressing his hatred for all things Lee, had the Senate Bill 661 die quietly in the bowels of Congress. Custis returned back to Lexington dejected and defeated.

The War Department was taking many appeals from Confederate veterans and began to ease its restrictions on any Confederate participation in the Decoration Day festivities at Arlington National Cemetery. New headstones were also approved for the remaining several hundred rebels remaining at the national cemetery. It was also visible that the decade of Reconstruction was about to collapse. This serious impediment to North-South reconciliation was vanishing. But the Union's presence in the South and its enforcement of non-violence, voting rights and discrimination was a war of words not of actions. The African Americans were still subject to white southern and union supremacy.

  The South used its Congressional clout to sway the election of 1876 inserting Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio,

President Rutherford B. Hayes


 a Union General who promised to unify the North and South and appoint a Southerner to his cabinet. This gave Hayes the momentum needed to win the election. Hayes won the election by one electoral vote influenced by the peace gestures towards the South. It was not known at the time that Hayes privately sympathized with General Robert E. Lee and his family. The loss of Arlington House and its property distressed President Hayes immensely.

  Hayes was sworn  in as president in March 1877. During the first few days of his presidency, Custis Lee took the opportunity to revive his campaign for Arlington. Custis's strategy to retake Arlington took a new, more confrontational path. Custis now wanted ownership of Arlington not compensation. He solicited the Alexandria courts, which were more sympathetic to the Lee's claims, to evict all trespassers as a result of the Union's tax auction of 1864. The case was removed to the U.S. Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in July 1877.

  A huge legal battle ensued. The Union attorneys used previous court rulings as the basis for denying the Lee's suit. The suit went to a jury trial in January 1879. The jury found in Lee's favor on the basis that Lee was denied "due process". It was appealed to the Supreme Court which ruled for Lee again. The violation by the Courts of the Lee family's personal rights and the legality of the sale in 1864 to the Lee's, returned Arlington to the Lee's. The federal government was now trespassing at Arlington. This would be a grave problem for the federal government. Gone would be Ft. Whipple, Freedman's Village and the disinterment of almost twenty thousand graves. But Custis Lee told the federal government he was still interested in selling the property. Congress lunged at this offer and quickly authorized a payment to Custis Lee of one hundred fifty thousand dollars. The papers placing federal claim to Arlington were now beyond dispute. The one would accept this title to Arlington House and its property was but none other than Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Civil War President Abraham Lincoln. So the hated  lineage between General Robert E. Lee and President Abraham Lincoln was broken. There might be hope now for some kind of national healing.

  Now that Arlington's ownership was solid in the hands of the federal government, the federal government moved to lock its hold on the Lee estate. Ft. Myer was once again a military fort. It became the nation's premier cavalry facility. Major General Philip H. Sheridan took command.

General Phillip Sheridan


He was a renowned Union cavalryman of the Civil War and recognized by both Union and Confederates as a worthy commander. Sheridan, now the new commander of the Army, enlarged the stables and added 1500 horses at Ft. Myer. Thus the tradition of funerals, parades, and lofty ceremonies began at the nation's capital.

  The areas around the Lee mansion became repositories for the elite Union generals such as George Crook,

General George Crook


Philip Kearney,

General Philip Kearny


Abner Doubleday

Abner Doubleday


and William Rosecrans.

General William S. Rosecrans


More land was needed for the new graves. The encroachment of the Freedman's Village in the bottom land of the Arlington property stood in the way. The War Department that had protected the inhabitants of Freedman's Village now decided it was time for them to go. Eviction orders were issued in December 1887 and all inhabitants given ninety days to vacate the property. The Washington Post took up the cry of the village residents. The Post selectively reported the infractions the eviction orders resulted in. The  New York Herald took up the cry of the beleaguered Afro-Americans. This was becoming a new controversy over property rights at Arlington. Secretary of War, William C. Endicott, did what all seasoned bureaucrats do, stall for more time. Many gestures were made by the federal government to satisfy the disgruntled freedmen. Payments were made to those who had homes and structures on the property. Even poor James Parks,


who was the first digger of graves at Arlington, was given a paltry sum for his home.

   Most freedmen left Arlington by the 1890's. By the new century of 1900 all that remained of their presence were the worn out headstones of their friends and relatives in the contraband cemetery far from the margins of Arlington.

  With the freedmen gone, Arlington's burial property expanded by over four hundred acres by 1900. This was twice the estimated size General Meigs had envisioned in his sketch of 1864. Meigs puffed his chest with pride as the transition from pauper's ground to a field of honor ensued. He further ingratiated himself by adding decorative improvements, greatly adorned gates, widened roads and gave his old comrades lavish ceremonies of a grand military style. Ft. Myer was becoming a prime duty station for Union soldiers. Meigs added bowling alleys, billiard tables, and enlarged the contingency of troops posted there. Meigs even commandeered a prime piece of the estate for his family and relatives. He even named a road after himself to be posted years later. His wife, Louisa,

Louisa Meigs


was the first to be buried there on the hilltop in 1879. Meigs turncoat concern for disturbing graves previously did not hesitate him from breaking his own rules for his son or relatives interred in the exclusive family plot in Georgetown. By the 1880's, the Meigs's clan far outnumbered any Lees remaining on the estate.[3]

  The death, from an assassin's bullet, of President James A. Garfield in 1881, and his successor Vice President Chester A. Arthur left Meigs with no sympathy in the new administration. Meigs was ordered to retire to make room for President Arthur's choice for Quartermaster General. But Meigs didn't lose his place among the Washington elite. Highly placed friends on Capitol Hill named him to design and oversee construction of the new Pension Building. In his narcissistic personality, Meigs began to leave his mark on all things touched by his mind. He incorporated busts of himself inside and outside many buildings and structures in Washington.

  Meigs age was beginning to slow him down. He took frequent trips to Arlington to insure his family and relative's graves were adorned properly. His own sarcophagus was a shrine to his abilities, Quartermaster,  General, Soldier, Engineer, Scientist, Patriot. All was in readiness for Meigs passing in 1892. Meigs made his final journey to Arlington in the grand pomp and circumstance he was used to both before his death and now upon his passing. Bands played, honor guards stepped in time in their best dress and all floating on clouds of praise as the parade crossed the Potomac river to Arlington. They passed Mrs. Lee's garden almost in disgust at her fallen blooms and stopped at the now named Meigs Drive. And almost in a comical instance, James Parks just cleared plot for Meigs, rifles barked their last salute, taps sounded and the blue soldiers lowered Meigs into the ground. Here  the burial instructions were precise: "workers were directed to seal his tomb with hydraulic cement and leave him to await Resurrection.[4]


General Montgomery Meigs


  With Meigs's death, the old order shifted.[5] Edmund Morris, British-American writer of U.S. Presidents, said it best, "it would take a new war to heal scars from the old one."[6] And so it would in Part II, " A New War, Visions, and Progress"

[1] Douglas Southall Freeman, "R.E. Lee: A Biography"  (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons,1936), IV: 256-57.

[2] "History of Government Furnished Headstones and Markers", U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, April 12, 2008.

[3]  Brig. General Montgomery C. Meigs to William W. Belknap, August 5, 1871, National Archives and Records Admin. RG 92, Office of the Quartermaster General.

[4] The New York Times, January 3, 1892, The Washington Post, January 4&5, 1892; Miller, 261-90; Pryor, 314-15

[5] On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery, Robert. M. Poole, Bloomsbury, 2009

[6] The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (New York: Modern Library 2001), 654


Part Two Coming Soon!

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