It is very difficult to watch a ceremony such as Senator Kennedy’s funeral this weekend, with the magnificent Lee Mansion in the background, and not stop and realize how it came to be. Many do not realize that it was because the new Federal Government took over the Confederate General’s home after the War, and purposely buried men up to the door, with the stated intent that General Lee would never be able to return there. That it has become a national icon comes at the risk and dismay of the many descendants of Confederate soldiers who were no longer welcome.
When it began, Arlington House was to be a living memorial to the nation’s first president, George Washington. Built by his adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, and his slaves, between 1802 and 1818, the name “Arlington” was selected because it was the name of the Custis family’s estate in the Tidewater section of Virginia. When Mary Anna Randolph Custis (the only Custis child to survive infancy) married her distant cousin and childhood friend, a young Army officer named Robert E. Lee in 1831, it became his home, where the Lee family would live for 30 years, its other name being the “Custis-Lee Mansion”.
Although Lee was periodically absent from Arlington during the periods of the Mexican War, and while he served as superintendent of his alma mater, West Point, in 1857 he returned to Arlington to rejoin the family and to serve as executor of his father-in-law’s estate.
In fact, Robert E. Lee never owned Arlington, but he did serve as its custodian and renovator. The house had passed to Mary Anna Custis Lee, who received a life estate in the mansion, the Will also stipulating that upon her death, it would pass to her eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee. It had fallen into disrepair during the years, but by 1859 Lee had returned both its profitability and the various holdings which it encompassed to a high level.
It was home for the Lees, and six of their children were born there. The sadness that would forever engulf Arlington began in April of 1861 when Lee learned that his beloved Virginia had signed the Ordinance of Secession. His allegiances were divided. He opposed slavery in principle, but was aware that his father and uncles had been instrumental in forming the Union and felt a degree of loyalty to them and to it. It was within the halls of Arlington that on April 20, 1861 Lee reached the decision to resign his commission in the U. S. Army and join the fledgling Confederate States of America.
It was soon obvious that Arlington House was no place to be, the “home” of the Lees no longer could be deemed safe — it was too close to the assumed fortifications that the Union would be placing in order to take over the country. Lee was cognizant of the various dangers that would be forthcoming. In May of 1861 he wrote to Mary Anna, “War is inevitable, and there is no telling when it will burst around you… you have to move and make arrangements to go to some point of safety which you must select. The Mount Vernon plate and pictures ought to be secured. Keep quiet while you remain, and in your preparations…May God keep and preserve you and have mercy on all our people.”
Mrs. Lee left Arlington, taking with her as many of the possessions as she could, and sent others off for safekeeping. The keys to the place were left with a trusted housekeeper. After the house was taken by the Union forces, other items were moved to the old Patent Office for protection. By that time, the spoils of war mentality had taken over, and some of the actual Mount Vernon heirlooms had already been taken and scattered around the country.
Lee would never return to his home again.
The law during the period of the war required that if property had been taken by the government, the landowner must appear in person and pay any taxes applicable, or lose the land. Obviously Mrs. Lee could not appear, or risk imprisonment. For the nonpayment of the sum of $92.07, the land was confiscated and on January 11, 1864, a public sale was held, wherein a tax commissioner purchased it for “government use, for war, military, charitable and educational purposes.”
A few months later, Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs who held command of the military troops, appropriated the grounds on June 15, 1864 for use as a military cemetery, as Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, had directed. In one of the most vindictive and callous acts possible, he intended to make it so that the house would be uninhabitable, in case the Lee family ever tried to return; the rows of graves extend almost to the doors of the house. One of his first acts was to construct a stone and masonry burial vault in the former Rose Garden, some 20 feet wide and 10 feet deep, which contained the bodies of 1,800 casualties of the Battle of Bull Run (Manassas). This was one of the first monuments to Union dead built under Meigs’ orders. In later years, Meigs and his wife, father and son were also buried there, the final codicil to his original intent.
Although Lee never came back to Arlington, neither he nor his wife as the original title holder, ever tried to publicly recover the old mansion. Reading the handwriting on the wall, Lee wrote to Mary Anna, “It is better to make up our minds to a general loss. They cannot take away the remembrance of the spot, and the memories of those that to us rendered it sacred. That will remain to us as long as life will last, and that we can preserve.”
Both Lee and his wife were buried at what is now Washington and Lee University, where he had been the president. It had been Lee’s hope that upon his death, the slaves would finally be freed, in accordance with his father-in-law’s Will, and eventually they were.
After Lee’s death in 1870, George Washington Custis Lee went to court and brought a civil “action for ejectment” in the Circuit Court of Alexandria County (now Arlington). As the eldest son of the Lees, he made the claim that the land had been illegally confiscated and that under the terms and conditions of his grandfather’s Will, he was the legal owner. In December of 1882, in a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court agreed that it had been taken without due process, and returned the property to Custis Lee.
Due to the cemetery which encompassed it, the house was now uninhabitable, as Meigs and Stanton had intended, and the next year Congress purchased the property from Lee for the paltry sum of $150,000.00.
With its 350,000 graves of the dead from all of America’s wars now reposing on its vast acreage, perhaps their presence itself is the ultimate tribute to Robert E. Lee, who gave his heart and soul for his country, as well as his beloved home.
In 1933 title was transferred to the National Park service, assuring its perpetual care and maintenance, and in 1955 the stately old mansion was designated as a memorial to Robert E. Lee.
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It is probably too much to hope that those who watched the burial of Senator Kennedy today realized that the beautiful old house and its surrounding acreage were “bought with a price,” that of ultimate humiliation to Confederate General Robert E. Lee.