Nestled in the lush rolling hills of northern Virginia, the cemetery covers 612 acres and serves as the final resting place for 250,000 American veterans and their families, including two presidents, numerous sports heroes, dozens of famous generals and a handful of astronauts, scientists and entertainers.
But during the Civil War, Arlington was a far more humble place, with rows of unknown dead in ramshackle graves on a dirty field.
“You would not have wanted to have a loved one buried here,” says Thomas L. Sherlock, the cemetery’s historian. “It had none of the esteem or the prestige it has today. . . . We were burying two types of folks — soldiers who were unknown or soldiers whose families didn’t have the money to return them to Pennsylvania or to North Carolina or to Ohio.”
The land now owned and operated by the U.S. Army once belonged to . . . Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Arlington, in fact, became U.S. property only after the federal government seized it when Lee’s wife failed to appear in person to pay $92.07 in taxes.
But that’s getting ahead of the story, which begins back in 1778.
The Revolutionary War was underway. General George Washington led American forces in a battle for freedom against the British. John Parke Custis, son of Martha Washington by her first marriage, bought 1,000 acres of land on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.
Three years later, during the siege of Yorktown in 1781, Custis died while serving as an aide to Washington. Washington then adopted two of Custis’ children, Eleanor and George Washington Parke Custis, bringing them to live with him at Mount Vernon.
The boy grew attached to his adoptive father, and when the Custis estate was passed on to him, he decided to build a mansion to honor and commemmorate the first president. Later, the mansion was renamed “Arlington House” after the Custis family’s original property on the banks of the Potomac, given as grant from the Earl of Arlington.
George Washington Parke Custis and his wife had one child, Mary. In 1831, she married a promising West Point graduate named Robert E. Lee.
The land now occupied by Arlington Cemetery might have passed peacefully to the children of Mary Custis and Robert E. Lee and might have remained a privately held estate with commanding vistas of the Washington skyline.
But the Civil War changed all that.
Lee turned down an offer to command a new Union army being formed to fight the seceding southern states, refusing to abandon his native Virginia. The Lees left Arlington House for good on April 22, 1861, and Union forces quickly moved in, turning the house into a headquarters. Fort Myer soon was built on the land.
The government officially took over the property in 1862 after Mary Lee attempted to pay federal tax on the land through intermediaries but not in person.
On June 15, 1864, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton designated Arlington House and 200 surrounding acres a military cemetery under control of the Army’s quartermaster general. Shortly before that decree, the first soldier — Private William Christman of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry — was interred at Arlington.
Soon afterward, burials began at Arlington of soldiers who died in Washington and Alexandria hospitals during the war. As the conflict continued, Union dead were gathered from the . . . battlefields of Bull Run, Bristol Station, Chantilly and elsewhere and placed in the new national cemetery, along with some Confederate dead.
But the bulk of the 500 southern soldiers now buried at Arlington — many gathered around a momument erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution — died in the Washington area after the war ended.
The Lee family would once more exercise its claim to the land, ultimately winning a battle in the Supreme Court, which issued a decision essentially charging the federal government with trespassing on private property.
Would the dead have to be dug up and transferred to a new site? The possibility was there, but General Lee’s son diffused the crisis in 1883 by accepting a payment of $150,000 from the government, and Arlington Cemetery as we know it now was established.