Virginia 2015: Arlington House

Day 3: Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Have you ever thought about how Arlington National Cemetery, that hallowed ground overlooking Washington, D.C. from the other side of the river, came to be?

Arlington House, the home on the site, was built by George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington’s adopted grandson, beginning in 1802. It was designed by George Hadfield, who had also designed the U.S. Capitol, and it was built in stages in the Greek Revival architectural style. The north wing (1802) and south wing (1804) were built first. Family members at the time would have had to cross outside in order to reach the other half of the house. The center section of the home wasn’t filled in until 1818. The estate was 1,100 acres, with many slaves.

A view of Arlington House in the distance at Arlington National Cemetery.

A view of Arlington House in the distance at Arlington National Cemetery.

Arlington was passed down through the Custis family, and became the home of Robert E. Lee between 1857 and 1861, when he departed to serve in the Civil War – Lee had married into the Custis family. Interestingly, Lee didn’t own it himself; his father-in-law left it to the Lee’s eldest son George Washington Custis Lee when he died in 1857, with stipulations that Lee’s wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee, be permitted to reside there for the remainder of her life.

Before Robert E. Lee took control of Arlington as executor of the estate, the property was not-profitable. His father-in-law had been more committed to leisure pursuits like painting – he was actually a quite accomplished amateur artist – than running a plantation. Lee was able to turn it around without selling off any of the slaves living on the estate; he believed that the sale of slaves would not be in keeping with the wishes of his father-in-law, who stipulated that the slaves there be emancipated within five years of his death. Lee executed that portion of the will, and even taught the slaves to read and write, in violation of the law, because he believed that it would better prepare them for freedom.

By all accounts, Robert E. Lee was a more disciplined master than his father-in-law had been, and the slaves resented it. Several of them attempted (unsuccessfully) to run away. Accounts differ on the severity of the punishment when they were recaptured.

After Lee departed for the war and his family for safer ground further south, the estate was used by Union General Irvin McDowell as his headquarters as he oversaw the troops protecting Washington. The grounds were used as a training ground and encampments for Union soldiers. In 1863, a Freedman’s Village was established there, in order to provide a place where emancipated and escaped slaves could establish themselves.

The North wanted to do more than just use the property. They wanted to punish Lee for his sin of taking up arms against them. So, Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs proposed burying the fallen on the edges of Mrs. Lee’s rose garden – 22 graves in all. They wanted to make sure that Arlington was not a comfortable place to return.  In fact, Lee never did return to Arlington after the war. He was offered an appointment at what is now Washington and Lee University, and he is buried there. In 1874, George Washington Custis Lee sued the federal government for improper seizure of the home, and the Supreme Court agreed; he was awarded Arlington, and then sold it back to the government for $150,000.

Graves around the edge of Mary Lee's rose garden.

Graves around the edge of Mary Lee’s rose garden.

Arlington House was restored beginning in 1925, although in direct violation of the legislation that was passed, it was restored to the earlier time period of George Washington Custis, completely ignoring the contributions or legacy of Robert E. Lee. It wasn’t until 1955 that it was designated as a permanent memorial to Robert E. Lee, and the interpretation changed to the time when Lee lived in the house.

Visitation to Arlington House – the Robert E. Lee Memorial in 2011 was about 576,816; visitors can take a self-guided tour of the first floor of the house. The second floor of the house is currently closed, having suffered earthquake damage in 2011. The Park Service anticipates that the house will be closed for several months in 2016 while the damage is repaired.

I enjoyed our visit, although there were quite a few people roaming around. The home had guides in several of the rooms who pointed out interesting artifacts and answered questions. There were several paintings by Robert E. Lee’s father-in-law and his daughter (Robert E. Lee’s wife). There were several things original to the Lee family, including Robert E. Lee’s red upholstered settee and chairs.

Robert E. and Mary Lee's furniture in the parlor at Arlington House

Robert E. and Mary Lee’s furniture in the parlor at Arlington House


Lee's office, where he wrote the letter resigning his commission in the U.S. Army.

Lee’s office, where he wrote the letter resigning his commission in the U.S. Army.


The cradle were Lee was born - although not in this house.

The cradle where Lee was born – although not in this house.

We toured the garden to see the graves of the Union dead and the Tomb of the Unknown Civil War Soldier (that’s different than the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier).  I checked out the slave quarters, and an interesting display about Selina Gray, one of the slaves who served the Lee family. She helped to safeguard the various George Washington artifacts that had been passed down in the family, by complaining to the Union General stationed at Arlington when soldiers were stealing the valuables.

The Tomb of the Unknown Civil War Soldier - the remains of 2.111 Civil War unknown soldiers are buried here.

The Tomb of the Unknown Civil War Soldier – the remains of 2.111 Civil War unknown soldiers are buried here.

However, it is less known that Selina Gray and several of her children were instrumental in guiding the restoration process of Arlington House, due to her knowledge of the home and furnishings. They assisted with matching paint colors and obtaining period furniture, as well as determining where items should be placed in the home. Despite all this, the Park Service did not have a photograph of Selina Gray until a few years ago, when they were finally able to put a face to this important name in history.

The front of the house was covered in scaffolding during our visit, which didn’t make for great photos, but we were treated to a beautiful clear day so we could easily see the Washington Monument and the Capitol building. No wonder Lee loved it here; it is truly a spectacular view of Washington, D.C.

A view of the Washington Monument and the Capitol from Arlington House

A view of the Washington Monument and the Capitol from Arlington House

While we were at the cemetery, we also saw the tomb of Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son, the only one of his children to live long into adulthood. And no visit would be complete without a visit to John F. Kennedy’s grave. It is poignant in its simplicity – with the eternal flame and the four simple markers – JFK, Jackie, and the two children who died before him.

John F. Kennedy's grave - with the Eternal Flame.

John F. Kennedy’s grave – with the Eternal Flame.

I would have enjoyed wandering around more, but we needed to get to our next destination! George Washington’s Mount Vernon!

Have you been to Arlington National Cemetery? What was your favorite place there? 

4 thoughts on “Virginia 2015: Arlington House

  1. After over a decade in DC and seeing it overlook the Memorial Bridge, I still haven’t been to the Arlington House. It’s definitely on my agenda for this spring. Can’t wait to see what you thought about Mount Vernon.

    • It was a neat place! You will definitely have to go – but pay attention to when they are closing it. Hopefully after the closure, you will be able to tour the second floor again; that would have been cool to see. Mount Vernon is posted now too – I loved it!

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