The Extraordinary History of the Arlington National Cemetery 3

Arlington National Cemetary

“It’s so beautiful; I could stay here forever.”

– John F. Kennedy, U.S. President (Admiring the view from Arlington House)

The Arlington National Cemetery, six hundred and twelve acres of beautiful, manicured hill country, is the final earthly resting place of more than two hundred thousand of our nation’s military personnel and their families.

This peaceful burial ground has been federal property since 1883, but it has an extraordinary and rich history that goes back even further.

The Original Owner

George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted son of our first president, inherited an eleven hundred acre tract of land on the Potomac.

When George Washington died, Custis inherited a large amount of historically important memorabilia which he wanted to make available to the public.  To house these precious artifacts, he began construction n 1802 on the Arlington House.

In addition to being a “museum” of sorts, the Arlington House was the home of Washington Custis, his wife, Mary Lee Custis, and his daughter, Mary Anna Custis.

New Inhabitants

In 1831, Mary Anna Custis married an young West Point graduate who was a lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. Robert E. Lee, destined to play an important role in history, was already recognized as a promising and dedicated soldier.

During the thirty years that the Lees lived at Arlington, Robert E. Lee’s military duties frequently took him on long trips to distant parts of the country. Even so, Lee did spend a large part of his time at Arlington, and he loved the beautiful home overlooking Washington, D.C.

Sadly, the peace and security at Arlington did not last long. In 1861, the Confederacy was formed and the War Between the States erupted.

President Lincoln, recognizing Robert E. Lee’s ability, offered him the position of top general.  After hours of thought and prayer, Lee, a staunch opponent of slavery, decided that his loyalties were due to his state.

The difficult decision made, Lee quickly tendered his resignation from the U.S. Army and enlisted in the newly-formed Confederate Army.


Soon after the war broke out, Union troops seized the charming residence that held such a strategic position over the nation’s capital. For a time, the Arlington manor became a armed camp, complete with two temporary forts.

In 1862, the U.S. tax commissioners charged Mrs. Lee, the legal owner of Arlington, $92.07 in property taxes. When the money was sent through a relative, the commissioners, clearly wishing to confiscate the land, demanded that the owner pay in person.

Confined to a wheelchair in Confederate territory, Mrs. Lee was obviously unable to comply, so the commissioners sold the property to the federal government at auction for $26,800.

Arlington National Cemetery

On June 15, 1864, General Meigs and Secretary of War Stanton, both archenemies of Lee, declared the two hundred acres surrounding Arlington House a national graveyard.

While there was a pressing need for more cemeteries around Washington, choosing that particular part of Arlington, rather than any of the other nine hundred acres was clearly an undisguised attack against Lee.  The two founders of Arlington Cemetery wanted to make it impossible for Robert E. Lee to return to his beloved house.

Government Property?

After the war ended, Lee spent the rest of his life as president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. Although he badly wanted to live again at Arlington, he wisely realized that any attempts to regain his property would only make reconciliation between the North and the South more difficult.

After the death of Lee and his wife, however, their oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, declared that the property was his through inheritance from his grandfather, George Washington Parke Custis.

After a five year legal battle, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor. The U. S. government was now trespassing on private property!

Realizing the enormous difficulty of moving the thousands of bodies already deposited at Arlington, Custis Lee accepted $150,000 of payment from the government.

Finally, in 1883, the Arlington National Cemetery became legitimate federal property.

Reunion and Reconciliation

Although the Arlington Cemetery originally was started to retaliate against a Confederate general, it did eventually help reconcile the two sides.

In 1900, Congress gave permission to create a Confederate section in Arlington. All Confederate graves scattered around the wide grounds were moved to that new area.

Six years later, the Secretary of War, William Taft, granted the United Daughters of the Confederacy permission to erect a Southern memorial in the Confederate section of the cemetery.

At the base of this statue are carved these words for the book of Isaiah, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” The slow process of healing had begun.

Arlington Today

Arlington Cemetery is now a stirring reminder of the cost of freedom and a beautiful tribute to the millions of brave military members who gave their lives for the United States.

The thousands of visitors who view this beautiful cemetery each year are struck by the peacefulness and encouraged to greatness by the examples set by those who rest in this serene place until Christ’s second return.

3 thoughts on “The Extraordinary History of the Arlington National Cemetery

  1. Reply Jason V Mar 8,2010 10:44 AM

    It is on our “possible” list while we are visiting DC in May.

  2. Reply Jeff Mar 9,2010 8:23 AM

    Finally! An article worth reading. Well done – although it would have been better if you stated exactly HOW and WHY the land was finally transfered to federal ownership in 1883. Given the importance of that fact – I take back my compliment. Poorly done, but better than the past.

  3. Reply Nate Desmond Mar 9,2010 9:27 AM

    @ Jeff

    I do my best to write articles that are useful to manly men, but, like the people in The Fable of the Man, the Boy, and the Donkey, I cannot please everyone.

    As to your specific critique (how and why the land was transferred), I did actually explain that in the article: “Realizing the enormous difficulty of moving the thousands of bodies already deposited at Arlington, Custis Lee accepted $150,000 of payment from the government.” It’s in the section “Government Property?”

    Sorry if my articles have not been the type you were hoping for. If you have ideas for topics you would like me to write on please let me know. I am always glad to get topic suggestions.

    – Nate

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