Arlington National Cemetery:  The Early Years

By:  Marv Rodney
First published in The ENDEAVOR News Magazine


Union soldier at Arlington HouseIn last quarter’s issue, I provided information on the history regarding the Alexandria National Cemetery.  In this issue, I have detailed the “early” history of Arlington National Cemetery.  Considering the history, the immense amount of information, and the key events that need to be considered when presenting the story of Arlington National Cemetery, I will break down this report into several discreet increments.  For this edition, I’ve described the very early years and creation of the Cemetery.  The next edition will provide an overview of the entire history.  Following that, articles on specific entities within the cemetery such as the Memorial Amphitheater and adjacent Tomb of the Unknowns will be reported.  I  hope you enjoy reading these articles as much as I enjoy collecting the information for inclusion in the quarterly ENDEAVOR News Magazine.

Nestled in the lush rolling hills of northern Virginia, the Arlington National Cemetery covers 624 acres and serves as the final resting place for approximately 320,000 American veterans and their families, including two presidents, numerous sports heroes, dozens of famous generals and a handful of astronauts, scientists and entertainers.  The land now owned, and operated by the U.S. Army was once home to the scourge of the Union, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Custis Lee.  It became U.S. property only after the federal government seized it when Lee’s wife failed to appear in person to pay $92.07 in taxes.  But to understand the complete story of the creation of the Arlington National Cemetery, we need to begin in 1778.

While the Revolutionary War was underway and General George Washington was leading American forces against the British, John Parke Custis, son of Martha Washington by her first marriage, bought 1,000 acres of land on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.  Three years later in 1781, during the siege of Yorktown, Custis died while serving as an aide to Washington.  Washington then adopted two of Custis’ children, Eleanor and George Washington Parke Custis.  The boy grew attached to his adoptive father, and when the Custis estate was passed to him, he built a mansion to honor and commemorate the first president considering Mount Washington an appropriate name.   Persuaded by his family, he settled on Arlington House for two reasons.  First it recalled the family's original property on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  Second, the name paid homage to the Earl of Arlington who procured the family's original land grant.

Sketch by Martha Custis Williams, a Lee cousin, who moved to Arlington during the 1850's.The well regarded architect of the Capitol, George Hadfield was commissioned to design the mansion.  Construction of the two wings occurred between 1802 and 1804.  The large central section and massive 140’ portico took another 13 years.  The most striking feature of the house are the 8 front columns each measuring 5 feet in diameter.

George Washington Parke Custis and his wife had one child, Mary who married a promising West Point graduate named Robert E. Lee in 1831.  The land now occupied by Arlington Cemetery might have passed peacefully to the children of Mary Custis and Robert E. Lee, and might have remained a privately held estate with commanding vistas of Washington, but the Civil War changed that.

Lee, who distinguished himself as a battle commander in the Mexican War, became Commandant of West Point, and served with distinction in the US Army for 32 years, turned down an offer made by President Lincoln to command the new Army of the Potomac.   Lee was opposed to secession but responded,

“With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword against…....”

The Lees left Arlington House for good on April 22, 1861, and Union forces quickly moved in, turning the house into a headquarters.  Fort Whipple, later renamed Fort Myer, soon was built on the surrounding land.  The government officially took over the property in 1862 after Mary Lee attempted to pay federal tax on the land through intermediaries.  They would not accept the payment demanding that the land owner appear in person.  Naturally, this was an attempt to either capture Mary Lee, holding her imprisonment over the head of her husband, or an attempt to steal the family estate in order to humiliate General Lee.

Gen. George Washington Custis Lee, son of Robert and Mary Lee On June 15, 1864, Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton designated Arlington House and 200 surrounding acres a military cemetery under the control of the Union Army’s quartermaster general, Major General Montgomery Cunningham Meigs, a Southern native who had remained loyal to the Union.  Meigs reportedly despised Lee for his service to the Confederate cause.   Meigs, under intense public pressure, and burdened by the need to locate suitable space to bury large numbers of military dead, ordered immediate burials at Arlington House, personally pointing out the slight terrace bordering the mansion’s garden and said, “Bury them there.”   Private William Christman of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry was the first of many buried that day at what would become Arlington National Cemetery.

Meigs allowed his rabid prejudice toward Lee to overtake the basic AmerGeneral Robert E. Leeican right to be protected against baseless search and seizure.  Meigs counted on a massive public outcry if the bodies buried in the gardens of Arlington House were ever disinterred after the war.  He surmised that burying the dead so near the house was a guarantee that no member of the Lee family would ever want to live in the house again.

As the conflict continued, Union dead were gathered from the brutal battlefields of Bull Run, Bristol Station, Chantilly and elsewhere and placed in the new national cemetery, along with some Confederate dead.  The bulk of the 500 southern soldiers now buried at Arlington, gathered around a monument erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution, died in the Washington area after the war ended.

After the war, The Lee family exercised its claim to the land, ultimately winning a battle in the Supreme Court which issued a decision charging the federal government with trespassing on private property.  Would the dead have to be dug up and transferred to a new site?   The possibility was there, but General Lee’s son diffused the crisis in 1883 by accepting a payment of $150,000 from the government guaranteeing that Arlington Cemetery, as we know it today, would remain.

The information contained above was extracted, in part, from a pamphlet distributed by the Arlington National Cemetery Visitors Center and a book entitled, “A Guided Tour Through History.”  You may obtain additional information on this subject by visiting


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