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Arlington National Cemetery, and the fight over Robert E. Lee's home

 

The east front of Arlington House, Robert E. Lee's beloved home, with Union soldiers on the lawn, is seen on June 28, 1864. The estate became a cemetery because Union Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs detested Lee and wanted to make sure the Lees never returned to their home. National Archives and Records Administration)
 

Linda Wheeler
Special To The Washington Post.
Union Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs detested Robert E. Lee, who had once been his friend and mentor, even his idol. Once Lee defected to the Confederate side, Meigs turned against him with a vengeance.

Because of that dynamic, today we have Arlington National Cemetery.

As quartermaster general and close adviser to Lincoln, Meigs was often consulted on matters of logistics. When the need arose for a new military cemetery, he recommended Arlington House — which was owned by Lee's wife, Mary. The military was already occupying the estate, and it was conveniently close to Washington. It also offered the opportunity to make sure the Lees would never want to return to their home.

As the tombstones began to fill the long sloping hill in front of the house, Meigs announced that he was "grimly satisfied." But then he inflicted one more wound: He ordered that bodies be buried in Mary Lee's much-prized rose garden, right next to the mansion. When that didn't happen fast enough, he personally drew the lines for several graves and directed the excavations.

George Washington Parke Custis built Arlington House atop the highest point of land on his 1,100-acre estate, across the river from the capital. Custis, a wealthy man and George Washington's adopted grandson, who had inherited several plantations and hundreds of slaves, intended his home to be conspicuous. He achieved his goal: a 140-foot-wide house with eight 23-foot-tall columns on the portico that was then, and remains, visible from across the Potomac River in Washington.

Custis carved an English-style park out of the 200-acre parcel of woods that faced Washington. Bridle and walking trails wound through the cultivated meadows and grassy lawns, anchored by groves of oaks and chestnuts. Stone benches gave visitors a place to rest and admire the view.

It was in the Arlington House parlor that Custis's daughter, Mary Anna, wed Lt. Robert E. Lee in 1831. Although the couple moved often with each new posting, Arlington House was always home to them. Six of their seven children were born there.

When her parents died, Mary Lee inherited the estate in 1857. Robert Lee took time off from the Army to make repairs and improvements to the house and grounds.

Arlington House was a happy place for the large family, which entertained as many as a dozen visitors a day. That ended unexpectedly when Lee decided to resign his commission in the U.S. Army in 1861 and join the Confederate military.

From Richmond, Lee wrote his wife telling her that she and the family had to pack up and leave quickly, that they were not safe. "War is inevitable, and there is no telling when it will burst around you," he wrote. "You have to move and make arrangements to go to some point of safety which you must select. . . . Keep quiet while you remain."

Mary Lee could not imagine leaving the family home where she had lived most of her life. She kept telling her children that she would not leave — right up until a friend of her daughter's raced into the house from the capital and said Union troops were getting ready to seize the place.

She lingered a few more days, walking in her rose garden and admiring the view. She told her husband in a letter, "The yellow jasmine is in full bloom and perfuming the air, but a death like stillness prevails everywhere."

Finally she handed the house keys to her personal slave, Selina Grey, and left. She and the slaves presumed that the Lee family would return soon because everyone thought it would be a short war.

On May 24, about 14,000 soldiers crossed the river and seized the house and property, quickly taking over the mansion for offices and the open land for camp sites.

The following year, Congress passed legislation that allowed for new taxes on real estate in "insurrectionary districts." The taxes had to be paid in person.

Mary Lee, now living in Richmond, got a bill for $92.07. She sent her cousin to pay the bill, but the commissioners would not accept the money from him. Arlington House was declared to be in default, and the property was put up for auction. The federal government was the only bidder, buying it for $34,100.

Just before her death, Mary Lee paid one last visit to her beloved home, but she barely recognized the place except for a few trees that she and her husband had planted. She was unable to leave the carriage because of her arthritis. She didn't stay long.

At her death, the property was supposed to pass to her eldest son, Custis Lee. In 1874, he sued the federal government to regain the estate on the grounds that Arlington House had been confiscated without due process. In 1883, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor and Congress retuned it to him. Lee sold it back to the government for $150,000.

In the three years between the Lees' departure and the decision to turn the estate into a cemetery, much had changed. Tens of thousands of soldiers and horses had tramped through the English-style park, turning it to mush and mud. The house had been mostly stripped of anything of value. The public was allowed to wander around the house.

A Union soldier wrote to his wife about Arlington House: "I will sum it up by saying desolation and ruin. There seems to be plenty of men, guns, cannon, horses, wagons and mules and tents in sight, which is all that can be seen. The fences are gone and the country around here is all slumped over and trod down."

When Meigs got the approval on June 15, 1864, to establish a cemetery at the Lee estate, he began mapping out the locations for burials. By the end of June, 2,600 bodies had been put in the ground. One year later, the war was over and the number of graves had grown to more than 5,000.

Since then the cemetery has tripled in size; there are now more than 400,000 graves.

Much of the history of Arlington House before and after the war would have been lost except for several former slaves who could still recall the old days decades later. Among them was Jim Parks, who had worked as a field hand. Parks, raised on the plantation, was 18 when the war started.

Parks, who lived until 1929, never left the plantation. First he helped build forts, and when the cemetery opened, he became a grave digger. He retired in 1925, the same year that Congress responded to strong public interest in the historic house and passed legislation for its restoration.

The following year, he showed a local reporter where "coffins had been piled in long rows like cordwood" as the war progressed. He even prepared the grave for Meigs, the man who had ordered the conversion of the estate to a military cemetery.

Parks took researchers on a tour of the grounds surrounding the mansion, pointing out exact locations for forgotten "wells, springs, slave quarters, slave cemetery, dance pavilion, old roads, ice houses and kitchens," according to the National Park Service.

When Parks died, he was buried in the cemetery where he had worked for more than 60 years. He was given full military honors.

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