Arlington National Cemetery Resentment and Ownership

Arlington National Cemetery

Part One

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)

(Page design and editing by Bob Baldwin)

  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@Glenn Nagel Photography)

Church of The Confederacy - St Paul's Episcopal Church


(Photo Courtesy of Glen Nagel@Glenn 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


Next: Part Two, Chapter 1: New Wars, Visions, and Progress

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