The Mansion and the Cemetery
The plantation that would eventually become Arlington National Cemetery was originally the inheritance of George Washington Parke Custis who, in 1802, commissioned architect George Hadfield to design a great house for him on the hillside site. Curtis knew it would be seen from many vantage points across the Potomac River in Washington, and it would serve as an appropriate place to store the mementos from his adopted grandfather, George Washington. It was completed in 1817, and for the next 50 years it served as a working farm.
When Custis died, his only surviving child, the talented and vivacious Mary Anna Randolph Custis, inherited the house and in 1831, married her second cousin, a promising young Army officer, Robert E. Lee, who had graduated at the head of his class at West Point. The couple, who was married in the mansion, lived there for the next 30 years and six of their seven children were born there. Lee served the Army faithfully, and when John Brown seized the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., it was Lee who led the assault on the arsenal and arrested Brown.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Lee was offered the post of commanding the Union Army, but chose instead to stay with his home state of Virginia, which was seceding from the Union. While he was opposed to slavery and believed the Union would ultimately be preserved, he went to his study in the mansion in April of 1861, and wrote a letter resigning from the U.S. Army, casting his fate with the Confederate cause.
The Lee family left, and the mansion was soon occupied by the Union Army, who made it a headquarters. When the army began to search for appropriate burial grounds for the Union dead, the Union General Meigs recommended the Custis Lee farm. He was only too happy to despoil the place and make it into a cemetery, because Meigs was Southerner who remained faithful to the Union, and hated the fact that Lee had joined the Confederate cause.
While it is now a privilege to be buried at Arlington, it was not so during the Civil War. Instead, it was a series of muddy fields with the graves of soldiers who were unknown, or whose families were too poor to bring the bodies of their relatives back home to be buried.
During the war, the farm still belonged to the Lee family until a property tax of $92.07 came due. Mary Lee sent the money in with a messenger, but it was refused, since the law said the owner had to appear in person. At that time Mary, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, was confined to a wheelchair and couldn’t appear, so the family lost the mansion to the U.S. government, who bought it at a tax sale in 1864, for $26,000, and officially changed the name to Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1882, the Lee family contested the purchase, brought the argument all the way to the Supreme Court, and won back possession of the property. Then, the fear was that the government would have to dig up the dead and re-bury them somewhere else. The argument was settled when Mary and Robert E. Lee’s son agreed to sell the property to back to the government for $150,000 and it was kept as a cemetery.
After the war, Robert E. Lee went on to become president of what is now Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. While he remained a great hero in the South, he supported President Johnson’s efforts of reconstruction and reconciliation. But he never again set foot on his family’s legacy property after he left on April 22, 1861.