This month marks the sesquicentennial of the Arlington National Cemetery (ANC), as it was established June 15, 1864. Previously our colleague Christine wrote about the Civil War Sesquicentennial for this blog in 2011. You may wonder why I mention this other anniversary. Many may not be aware that during the antebellum period, this burial place was once the site for a plantation known as “Arlington House“ or “Custis-Lee Mansion,” as it was once the home of Confederate General Robert Edward Lee and his wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis.
An article titled “Arlington National Cemetery: 8 Surprising Facts” by Christopher Klein does indeed provide some fascinating facts, which led me to other facts. In the article, Klein states that “Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs formally proposed Arlington as the location of a new military cemetery. On May 13, 1864, 21-year-old Private William Christman of Pennsylvania, who had died of peritonitis, became the first military man buried at Arlington.” The additional findings for this statement are twofold:
1) Those of us who work on Capitol Hill have certainly heard of the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), “the builder and steward of America’s Capitol, serving Congress and the Supreme Court, creating a home for American democracy.” What many may not know is that although “Thomas U. Walter is credited as the architect of the Capitol Dome, his world-renowned design could not have been accomplished without Montgomery C. Meigs,” as he was the Engineer of the Capitol. If you’ll recall, Meigs was the formal proponent for the new military cemetery.
2) Some of us may not think twice when we see the name Arlington perhaps because we associate it with the county in northern Virginia where Arlington National Cemetery is located. We should, however, know that Arlington House (aka Arlington Estate) was located in the then-county of Alexandria, which was renamed Arlington County in 1920 “to avoid confusion between Alexandria County and the City of Alexandria and to honor Robert E. Lee, the name of the County was changed to Arlington. That name was obviously derived from the Arlington Estate.” We should also know that all of present-day Arlington County–which was the Virginian tract of land ceded for the creation of the 10 mile square to create Washington, D.C. (by the states of Maryland and Virginia) as part of the Residence Act of 1790–was taken back in the retrocession of 1846. (Yes, that is why the map of Washington, D.C. looks like it was once a perfect square.)
But what’s a good excursion through antebellum history–”that pretty world, [where] Gallantry took its last bow“–without highlighting some nuances about southern traditions. I recall one mid-summer evening, I had been invited to have supper on the veranda of a kind southern gentleman. During the mealtime conversation he spoke of his home, as well as his parents’ and other ancestors’ homes. Within that exchange, he spoke of the southern practice of giving names to their homes–a charming interlude of a wistful reminiscence of a time now gone with the wind. This practice of naming homes–which supposedly dates back to the 17th century–is relevant to Arlington Estate, as the designation of its name was certainly in line with the naming conventions of the gentry in colonial Virginia. In an another article by the U.S. National Park Service, you may find the excerpt concerning Governor Berkeley and the Creation of the Virginia Aristocracy particularly interesting.
Now, another highlight in Klein’s article is that a “Supreme Court ruling in 1882 could have resulted in the exhumation of 17,000 graves.” I found this fascinating, as this is well after the Civil War and even the Reconstruction Era. A recently published book by Anthony J. Gaughan titled The Last Battle of the Civil War: United States versus Lee, 1861-1883 pays homage to this final vestige of the Civil War known as the Arlington Case. To be clear, the “Lee” of this case was George Washington Custis Lee, the eldest son of Robert E. Lee. The argument is centered around the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and subsequently sovereign immunity. The decision of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia was affirmed by the Supreme Court, which stated that the “circuit court was competent to decide the issues in this case before parties that were before it. In the principles on which these issues were decided no error has been found, and its judgment is Affirmed.” (Page 106 U.S. 223). The language contained in the Supreme Court opinion. is quite powerful, and I would encourage you to read it.
The court found, as stated in the Save Historic Arlington House website, “that the U.S. Government had confiscated Arlington from the Lees without due process or just compensation, thus returning ownership of the house and sprawling plantation to the Lee family–along with thousands of wartime graves. The oldest surviving of Lee’s children, George Washington Custis Lee, then sold the property to the government for $150,000, granting legal title to mansion and 1,100 acres of surrounding land.”
As I looked to find the provenance of the quote by Robert E. Lee, which I used here as an epigraph, I took a fact-checking detour that resulted in a real gem. For that, I would like to thank Jennifer Allan Goldman, a curator, manuscripts, and institutional archivist, at The Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens. It was she who responded promptly to my inquiry and provided us with this primary source–a photo of the letter Robert E. Lee wrote to his cousin Martha Custis Williams from West Point on 15 March 1854.
For researchers interested in The Custis-Lee Family, the Library of Congress Manuscript Division has prepared A Register of Its Papers in the Library of Congress. I found it difficult to select images for this blog post because the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC) had so many beautiful images of Arlington National Cemetery. So, I would encourage you to browse the collection. It really is quite amazing!
If you find yourself in the area on Friday, June 13, you may want to attend this commemorative program: Arlington at 150 Observance Program: A Tribute to Arlington’s Past, Present and Future.
*Full quote: “I shall therefore have the great pleasure of being at Arlington Saturday evg [sic] next at all events, & passing there I hope one more Sunday, where I have passed many many happy & improving ones, & where my affections & attachments are more strongly placed than at any other place in the World–Love to our dear father & Aunt Anna–Truly yours R E Lee.” (p. 43)