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This Day in History: Arlington National Cemetery

On this day in 1861, the U.S. Army occupies General Robert E. Lee’s property at Arlington. The move would ultimately lead to the creation of Arlington National Cemetery.


The cemetery might never have existed but for Martha Washington’s son. In 1778, John “Jacky” Parke Custis bought a tract of land near Mount Vernon. Unfortunately, Jacky passed away in 1781. The land was inherited by his infant son, George “Wash” Washington Parke Custis.


When Wash was old enough, he built a mansion on the land as a tribute to his step-grandfather. He named it Arlington House, after a Custis family homestead, but also filled it with his “Washington Treasures.” At Wash’s passing, his only surviving daughter, Mary, inherited the estate.

By then, Mary was married to Robert E. Lee. Their children had been raised at Arlington House. The land was in Mary’s bones, and it would not be easy for her to leave when the Civil War began.


When the first shots of that war were fired in April 1861, Mary packed hurriedly. If Virginia seceded, Union forces would take Arlington. The property was too close to D.C. and would be a constant threat otherwise. Moreover, Robert would stand with his state over the Union. “If Virginia stands by the old Union,” he said, “so will I. But if she secedes . . . then I will follow my native State with my sword, and, if need be, with my life.”


Mary stayed at Arlington as long as she could, but finally left in mid-May. She was just in time. On May 23, Virginia seceded. By 2 a.m. on May 24, columns of Union forces were heading towards Arlington. The estate was taken without opposition.


Some northerners were determined that the Lees would never get their property back.


In June 1862, a law was passed creating a tax on land in “insurrectionary districts.” The amount due on the Lee estate was $92.07. Mary was then ill and in Richmond. She sent a cousin to pay the tax, but officials refused payment. Mary had to show up in person.


With the tax unpaid, the property was sold at auction to the federal government.


Brig. Gen. Montgomery Meigs was then Quartermaster General of the Army. He was livid with Lee, who he viewed as a traitor. Simultaneously, he was looking for a place to bury war casualties. He settled on Arlington—and not just any corner of Arlington. He wanted burials close to the mansion, making it difficult to live in. By the close of the war, thousands of soldiers had been buried at Arlington.


After the war, the Lees tried to get their land back, but to no avail. In the meantime, radical changes were being made as new memorials were built. Mary outlived Robert and saw the property mere months before she passed in 1873.


“My visit produced one good effect,” she wrote. “The change is so entire that I have not the yearning to go back . . . .”


After her passing, her eldest son continued his parents’ quest, but he upped the ante by filing a lawsuit.


In 1879, a jury found that the Lees had been deprived of their property without due process. The “evil” of such a policy, Judge Robert W. Hughes wrote, “would be liable to fall not only upon disloyal but upon the most loyal citizens. A severe illness lasting only ninety or a hundred days would subject the owner of land to the irreclaimable loss of its possession.”


The Supreme Court affirmed in 1882. The Lees had their land back. Arlington Cemetery was now trespassing on private land.


In the end, the younger Lee sold Arlington to the government for $150,000, which amounts to about $4.2 million today. In a weird twist of fate, the federal officer who formally accepted title to Arlington was none other than Abraham Lincoln’s son, then the Secretary of War.

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