On a rolling hillside, overlooking the Potomac River and in the distance the great Mall of Monuments, the U.S. Capitol, and even the White House lie more than 1100 acres of some of the most hallowed and consecrated grounds in these United States, Arlington National Cemetery. But the home of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier remains of war veterans as far back as the Revolutionary War and some of the most desired and few remaining veteran burial plots in our nation also contain at least one controversy...the Arlington House, a memorial to Robert E. Lee, Commanding General of the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War. The National Park Service maintains Arlington House, in honor of Lee for his work in supporting the Armistice agreement at Appomattox, and his ongoing later public support for peace and reunification of the Union.
Arlington House reopens this month for public tours and visits, after seven years of planning and a $12.5-million restoration, sitting atop a hill in the near center of Arlington National Cemetery, its massive 5-foot wide columns visible from many points in the Federal District across the Potomac nearby. This latest restoration focused on recovering the stories of many of those who lived there, not only the Custis and Lee families and their descendants, but also the many enslaved who built, maintained, served, and even a few who became a part of the Lee family.
Formerly known as the Custis-Lee Mansion, Arlington House was once a working plantation and built by George Washington Custis, the step-grandson of General George Washington and his wife, Martha Custis.
Custis constructed Arlington intended as a monument to George Washington, to house his papers and artifacts. The only Custis daughter to survive into adulthood was Mary Anna Randolph Custis. A distant cousin, Lieutenant Robert E. Lee, and frequent visitor to Arlington married Mary Custis there in 1831, two years after his West Point Graduation.
George Washington Custis lived a long life for those times, to age 76, and upon his death in 1857, Custis would leave Arlington to his daughter Martha and along with the manor house and plantation, several hundred enslaved. This would make Rober E. Lee a slave-owner for the first time, just four years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.
In April 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union, and Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army. Lee reported for duty to the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, which he would later lead. On May 14, Mary Custis, now running the plantation on her own, learned from a cousin in Washington working for Union General Winfield Scott that Arlington would soon be seized due to its strategic location and the easy reach by long gun cannon from Arlington House to the U.S. Capitol. Union troops seized Arlington without firing a shot on May 24, 1861. General Lee would never return to Arlington, Mrs. Lee returned once.
In 1874, nearly a decade after the Confederate surrender, Lee’s oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, filed suit in Virginia against the U.S. government for the illegal seizure of Arlington, by then a National Cemetery. The court battle would continue until 1882, nearly twice as long as the Civil War, with the U.S. Supreme Court deciding in favor of the Lee family’s claim and awarding Custis Lee the sum of $150,000 in compensation ($4,166,250 in 2020 currency) for the roughly 1,100 acres now maintained by the U.S. Department of the Army. The National Park Service manages Arlington House and 28-surrounding acres.
The scars of our U.S. Civil War may never fully heal, as so many feel the ongoing need to pick and pull at the scabs. Towards the end of that war, Lee would argue with the Confederate Congress and President to free and arm the enslaved to join Confederate forces in fighting back superior and overwhelming Union forces. This correspondence is well documented. Lee did not win that argument, any more than he won the war...but when you tell the story, honestly and completely, you may never cease to be amazed at what you will find in turning each old page.
One aspect of war that has not changed since Lee’s day, is that the soldier on the battlefield does not decide what the war is about, what causes are right versus wrong, or how those choices may be later viewed by historians. I am hopeful that those overseeing planned museum exhibits and updates to Georgia’s Stone Mountain Park are paying attention to the happenings at Arlington House.
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