Washington, D.C. is rich with historical moments and places of remembrance. When you visit, you are constantly reminded of the struggles that men and women have overcome in every corner, down every street, and even from the hillsides around. Memorials of those who have sacrificed coat this city with a thick layer of historical tragedy and triumph.
Sitting high above the Potomac River, with a fantastic view of Washington D.C. and its famed National Mall, is the Arlington House. This 19th century mansion is surrounded by more than 350,000 military graves that are part of the Arlington Cemetery. When the home was constructed in 1802, it was not the plan to create a national resting place for the country’s soldiers. It was, however, built as a memorial to George Washington by his adopted son George Washington Parke Custis. George Washington Parke Custis was three years old when he inherited the 1,100-acre property. When ready to build something on it, he wanted to call it Mount Washington. The name Arlington was decided on as it was a name from the Custis family estate.
The house took over 16 years to complete and was built by George Hadfield, an English architect who came to Washington in 1785 to help construct the U.S. Capitol. Construction was completed in 1816. It was 140 feet in length. The most recognizable of the home’s features are the eight columns of the exterior portico, each 5 feet in diameter at the base. Custis and his wife lived out their lives in this home and were buried on the property. It was left to Custis’ daughter, Mary Anna Custis Lee. Robert E. Lee, Mary Anna’s husband, was named executor and custodian of the property, but never owned it.
Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Anna, lived at Arlington House until 1861, when Virginia ratified an alliance with the Confederacy and seceded from the Union. Lee, who had been named a major-general for the Virginia military forces in April 1861, feared for his wife’s safety and anticipated the loss of their family inheritance. In May 1861, Lee wrote to Mary Anna saying:
“War is inevitable, and there is no telling when it will burst around you . . . You have to move and make arrangements to go to some point of safety which you must select. The Mount Vernon plate and pictures ought to be secured. Keep quiet while you remain, and in your preparations . . . May God keep and preserve you and have mercy on all our people.”
Following the ratification of secession by Virginia, federal troops crossed the Potomac and, under Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell, took up positions around Arlington. Following the occupation, military installations were erected at several locations around the 1,100-acre estate, including Fort Whipple (now Fort Myer) and Fort McPherson (now Section 11).
Lee deeply regretted the loss of his home at Arlington. During the early stages of the war, foreseeing the probable loss of his home and belongings, Lee wrote to his wife about Arlington:
“It is better to make up our minds to a general loss. They cannot take away the remembrance of the spot, and the memories of those that to us rendered it sacred. That will remain to us as long as life will last, and that we can preserve.”
Lee continued to feel responsible for the estate and earnestly hoped that the slaves who were left behind would be educated and freed, according to the provisions of George Washington Parke Custis’ will.
The property was confiscated by the federal government when property taxes levied against Arlington estate were not paid in person by Mrs. Lee. The property was offered for public sale Jan. 11, 1864, and was purchased by a tax commissioner for “government use, for war, military, charitable and educational purposes.”
Arlington National Cemetery was established by Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, who commanded the garrison at Arlington House. He appropriated the grounds on June 15, 1864, for use as a military cemetery. His intention was to render the house uninhabitable should the Lee family ever attempt to return. A stone and masonry burial vault in the rose garden, 20 feet wide and 10 feet deep, and containing the remains of 1,800 Bull Run casualties, was among the first monuments to Union dead erected under Meigs’ orders. Meigs himself was later buried within 100 yards of Arlington House with his wife, father and son: the final statement to his original order. – Arlington Cemetery Website