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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

The undefended estate changed hands without a whimper. When the sun rose that morning, the place was teeming with men in blue. They established a tidy village of tents, stoked fires for breakfast and scuttled over the mansion's broad portico with telegrams from the War Office. The surrounding hills were soon lumpy with breastworks, and massive oaks were felled to clear a line of fire for artillery. "All that the best military skill could suggest to strengthen the position has been done," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper reported, "and the whole line of defenses on Arlington Heights may be said to be completed and capable of being held against any attacking force."

The attack never materialized, but the war's impact was seen, felt and heard at Arlington in a thousand ways. Union forces denuded the estate's forest and absconded with souvenirs from the mansion. They built cabins and set up a cavalry remount station by the river. The Army also took charge of the newly freed slaves who flocked into Washington after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. When the government was unable to accommodate the former slaves in the capital, where thousands fell sick and died, one of Meigs' officers proposed that they be settled at Arlington, "on the lands recently abandoned by rebel leaders." A sprawling Freedmen's Village of 1,500 sprang to life on the estate, complete with new frame houses, schools, churches and farmlands on which former slaves grew food for the Union's war effort. "One sees more than poetic justice in the fact that its rich lands, so long the domain of the great general of the rebellion, now afford labor and support to hundreds of enfranchised slaves," a visiting journalist would report in the Washington Independent in January 1867.

As the war had heated up in June 1862, Congress passed a law that empowered commissioners to assess and collect taxes on real estate in "insurrectionary districts." The statute was meant not only to raise revenue for the war, but also to punish turncoats like Lee. If the taxes were not paid in person, commissioners were authorized to sell the land.

Authorities levied a tax of $92.07 on the Lees' estate that year. Mary Lee, stuck in Richmond because of the fighting and her deteriorating health, dispatched her cousin Philip R. Fendall to pay the bill. But when Fendall presented himself before the commissioners in Alexandria, they said they would accept money only from Mary Lee herself. Declaring the property in default, they put it up for sale.

The auction took place on January 11, 1864, a day so cold that blocks of ice stopped boat traffic on the Potomac. The sole bid came from the federal government, which offered $26,800, well under the estate's assessed value of $34,100. According to the certificate of sale, Arlington's new owner intended to reserve the property "for Government use, for war, military, charitable and educational purposes."

Appropriating the homestead was perfectly in keeping with the views of Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Gen. William T. Sherman and Montgomery Meigs, all of whom believed in waging total war to bring the rebellion to a speedy conclusion. "Make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it," Sherman wrote.

The war, of course, dragged on far longer than anyone expected. By the spring of 1864, Washington's temporary hospitals were overflowing with sick and dying soldiers, who began to fill local cemeteries just as General Lee and the Union commander, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, began their blistering Forty Days' Campaign, exchanging blows from Virginia's Wilderness to Petersburg. The fighting produced some 82,000 casualties in just over a month. Meigs cast about for a new graveyard to accommodate the rising tide of bodies. His eye fell upon Arlington.

The first soldier laid to rest there was Pvt. William Christman, 21, of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, who was buried in a plot on Arlington's northeast corner on May 13, 1864. A farmer newly recruited into the Army, Christman never knew a day of combat. Like others who would join him at Arlington, he was felled by disease; he died of peritonitis in Washington's Lincoln General Hospital on May 11. His body was committed to the earth with no flags flying, no bugles playing and no family or chaplain to see him off. A simple pine headboard, painted white with black lettering, identified his grave, like the markers for Pvt. William H. McKinney and other soldiers too poor to be embalmed and sent home for burial. The indigent dead soon filled the Lower Cemetery—a name that described both its physical and social status—across the lane from a graveyard for slaves and freedmen.

The next month, Meigs moved to make official what was already a matter of practice: "I recommend that...the land surrounding the Arlington Mansion, now understood to be the property of the United States, be appropriated as a National Military Cemetery, to be properly enclosed, laid out and carefully preserved for that purpose," he wrote Stanton on June 15, 1864. Meigs proposed devoting 200 acres to the new graveyard. He also suggested that Christman and others recently interred in the Lower Cemetery should be unearthed and reburied closer to Lee's hilltop home. "The grounds about the Mansion are admirably adapted to such a use," he wrote.

Stanton endorsed the quartermaster's recommendation the same day.

Loyalist newspapers applauded the birth of Arlington National Cemetery, one of 13 new graveyards created specifically for those dying in the Civil War. "This and the [Freedmen's Village]...are righteous uses of the estate of the Rebel General Lee," read the Washington Morning Chronicle.

Touring the new national cemetery on the day that Stanton signed his order, Meigs was incensed to see where the graves were being dug. "It was my intention to have begun the interments nearer the mansion," he fumed, "but opposition on the part of officers stationed at Arlington, some of whom...did not like to have the dead buried near them, caused the interments to be begun" in the Lower Cemetery, where Christman and others were buried.

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