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Starting in 1864, Arlington National Cemetery was transformed into a military cemetery. (Bruce Dale)

How Arlington National Cemetery Came to Be

The fight over Robert E. Lee's beloved home—seized by the U.S. government during the Civil War—went on for decades

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One afternoon in May 1861, a young Union Army officer went rushing into the mansion that commanded the hills across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. "You must pack up all you value immediately and send it off in the morning," Lt. Orton Williams told Mary Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee, who was away mobilizing Virginia's military forces as the country hurtled toward the bloodiest war in its history.

Mary Lee dreaded the thought of abandoning Arlington, the 1,100-acre estate she had inherited from her father, George Washington Parke Custis, upon his death in 1857. Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington, had been adopted by George Washington when Custis' father died in 1781. Beginning in 1802, as the new nation's capital took form across the river, Custis started building Arlington, his showplace mansion. Probably modeled after the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, the columned house floated among the Virginia hills as if it had been there forever, peering down upon the half-finished capital at its feet. When Custis died, Arlington passed to Mary Lee, his only surviving child, who had grown up, married and raised seven children and buried her parents there. In correspondence, her husband referred to the place as "our dear home," the spot "where my attachments are more strongly placed than at any other place in the world." If possible, his wife felt an even stronger attachment to the property.

On April 12, 1861, Confederate troops had fired on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, prompting a number of states from the Deep South to join in rebellion. President Abraham Lincoln, newly installed in the White House, called up 75,000 troops to defend the capital. As the spring unfolded, the forces drifted into Washington, set up camp in the unfinished Capitol building, patrolled the city's thoroughfares and scrutinized the Virginia hills for signs of trouble. Although officially uncommitted to the Confederacy, Virginia was expected to join the revolt. When that happened, Union troops would have to take control of Arlington, where the heights offered a perfect platform for artillery—key to the defense or subjugation of the capital. Once the war began, Arlington was easily won. But then it became the prize in a legal and bureaucratic battle that would continue long after the guns fell silent at Appomattox in 1865. The federal government was still wrestling the Lee family for control of the property in 1882, by which time it had been transformed into Arlington National Cemetery, the nation's most hallowed ground.

Orton Williams was not only Mary Lee's cousin and a suitor of her daughter Agnes but also private secretary to General in Chief Winfield Scott of the Union Army.

Working in Scott's office, he had no doubt heard about the Union Army's plans for seizing Arlington, which accounts for his sudden appearance there. That May night, Mrs. Lee supervised some frantic packing by a few of the family's 196 slaves, who boxed the family silver for transfer to Richmond, crated George Washington's and G.W.P. Custis' papers and secured General Lee's files. After organizing her escape, Mary Lee tried to get some sleep, only to be awakened just after dawn by Williams: the Army's advance upon Arlington had been delayed, he said, though it was inevitable. She lingered for several days, sitting for hours in her favorite roost, an arbor south of the mansion. "I never saw the country more beautiful, perfectly radiant," she wrote to her husband. "The yellow jasmine in full bloom and perfuming the air; but a death like stillness prevails everywhere."

The general, stranded at a desk in Richmond, feared for his wife's safety. "I am very anxious about you," he had written her on April 26. "You have to move, & make arrangements to go to some point of safety....War is inevitable & there is no telling when it will burst around you."

By this time, he almost certainly knew that Arlington would be lost. A newly commissioned brigadier general in the Confederate Army, he had made no provision to hold it by force, choosing instead to concentrate his troops some 20 miles southwest, near a railroad junction at Manassas, Virginia. Meanwhile, Northern newspapers such as the New York Daily Tribune trained their big guns on him—labeling him a traitor for resigning his colonel's commission in the Union Army to go south "in the footsteps of Benedict Arnold!"

The rhetoric grew only more heated with the weather. Former Army comrades who had admired Lee turned against him. None was more outspoken than Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, a fellow West Point graduate who had served amicably under Lee in the engineer corps but now considered him an insurgent. "No man who ever took the oath to support the Constitution as an officer of our army or navy...should escape without loss of all his goods & civil rights & expatriation," Meigs wrote to his father. He urged that Lee as well as Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, who also had resigned from the federal Army to join the enemy, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis "should be put formally out of the way if possible by sentence of death [and] executed if caught."

When Johnston resigned, Meigs had taken his job as quartermaster general, which required him to equip, feed and transport a rapidly growing Union Army—a task for which Meigs proved supremely suited. Vain, energetic, vindictive and exceptionally capable, he would back up his belligerent talk in the months and years ahead. His own mother conceded that the youthful Meigs had been "high tempered, unyielding, tyrannical...and very persevering in pursuit of anything he wants." Fighting for control of Arlington, he would become one of Lee's most implacable foes.

By mid-May, even Mary Lee had to concede that she could not avoid the impending conflict. "I would have greatly preferred remaining at home & having my children around me," she wrote to one of her daughters, "but as it would greatly increase your Father's anxiety I shall go." She made an eerily accurate prediction: "I fear that this will be the scene of conflict & my beautiful home endeared by a thousand associations may become a field of carnage."

She took a final turn in the garden, entrusted the keys to Selina Gray, a slave, and followed her husband's path down the estate's long, winding driveway. Like many others on both sides, she believed that the war would pass quickly.

On May 23, 1861, the voters of Virginia approved an ordinance of secession by a ratio of more than six to one. Within hours, columns of Union forces streamed through Washington and made for the Potomac. At precisely 2 a.m. on May 24, some 14,000 troops began crossing the river into Virginia. They advanced in the moonlight on steamers, on foot and on horseback, in swarms so thick that James Parks, a Lee family slave watching from Arlington, thought they looked "like bees a-coming."

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