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SERVING OUR VETERANS: Arlington National Cemetery (pt. 1)

By Staff | Apr 24, 2020

As Americans, we will soon be observing Memorial Day. Over my next three columns, I would like to share with you some of the history of Arlington National Cemetery. Hopefully, by understanding some of the history connected with this honored place, it will give us a better appreciation of the true meaning of our Memorial Day weekend.

The majority of the history I am sharing is taken from the New York Times bestseller, “Where Valor Rests,” an essay by Rick Atkinson that was published in 2007. As Mr. Atkinson states, “No landmark more solemnly embodies the historical arc of the United States than this shrine to the fallen, where every hallowed acre narrates the growth of our republic and the affirmation of its ideals through sacrifice. Arlington is the history.” Encompassing 624 acres, Arlington is located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Here over 400,000 of our nation’s heroes are resting in peace in this hallowed ground.

One hundred fifty-six years ago, nothing in William Henry Christman’s life suggested that in death he would become a singular figure in American history. A 21-year-old laborer from Lehigh County, Pa., Christman enlisted in the U.S. Army on March 25, 1864. Three weeks later, he was hospitalized for measles. He grew sicker and sicker and passed away on May 11, 1864. With the Civil War in its fourth year, Christman’s body was among all too many bodies overwhelming the nation’s capital. Hospitals, often converted churches, public halls, or private mansions had run out of burial space. More than 5,000 graves filled the Soldiers’ Home Cemetery alone. In desperate need of a quick solution, Army quartermasters on May 13, 1864, took William Christman’s remains to a new burial ground on the confiscated estate of Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee. The place was called Arlington.

The Arlington saga begins with death. In 1750, 18-year-old Martha Dandridge married a wealthy Virginian named Daniel Parke Custis, who abruptly died seven years later. In 1759, Martha remarried a tall, ambitious soldier-planter named George Washington. Martha’s son from her first marriage, John Parke Custis, grew up at Mount Vernon. In 1781, he joined his stepfather, General Washington, as an aide at Yorktown, in time to see Lord Cornwallis surrender his trapped British Army. This effectively ended the American Revolutionary War. Sadly, the young man also contracted “camp fever,” probably typhoid. General Washington arrived at his sickbed, as he later wrote, “in time to see poor Custis breathe his last.” He was 26 years old.

George Washington adopted John Custis’ infant son, George Washington Parke Custis, known as “Wash.” Wash remained at Mount Vernon for more than 20 years, until after the deaths of the former president, in 1799, and Martha, in 1802. Within months of his grandmother’s passing, Wash Custis began to build a memorial to his celebrated kinsmen. He chose a 1,100-acre tract that he had inherited after his biological father’s death. It was a beautiful tract with a blend of wooded slopes and river bottoms. He initially planned to call the place Mount Washington, but instead chose Arlington to honor an earlier family estate on Virginia’s eastern shore. On this estate, he built over a 16-year-period, a Greek revival mansion, much with slave labor. Arlington housed not only the Custis family, but an enormous amount of Washington memorabilia and heirlooms. Custis found himself perpetually in debt. He was a poor manager. Though he considered himself a modern planter, his true passions ran to painting, usually of huge historical canvasses depicting Washington in heroic poses. Many visitors came to Arlington to simply see and admire the beautiful panorama from Arlington’s center hall.

One visitor came with different intentions. Lt. Robert E. Lee, a West Point trained engineer, had known the Custis family since boyhood. Wash Custis’ only surviving child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, had attracted numerous suitors. But, it was Lt. Lee who won her hand. On June 30, 1836, they were married beneath an archway in the Arlington parlor. Although Lee was often away on Army assignments, he later wrote that in Arlington “my affections and attachments are more strongly placed that at any other place in the world.”

Mary ran the house, which she would inherit upon her father’s death in 1857. To Robert fell the task of reviving an estate on the verge of ruin. Lee adopted several measures to turn a profit, including renting some of his 200 slaves to neighboring planters, and consigning others to field work near Richmond.

It was while on furlough at Arlington, Col. Lee first stepped to the center of the national stage. On Oct. 17, 1859, Lee was dispatched to the river town of Harpers Ferry to put down a band of abolitionist insurgents led by John Brown. On April 18, 1861, with the approval of Abraham Lincoln, Lee was offered command of the Federal Army to confront southern insurrection at Fort Sumter. Agonizing over this offer, on April 20, he resigned from the Army. Soon he was on a train to Richmond and eventual command of the Confederate armies. On May 15, Mary packed up 12 wagons of household goods and settled in Richmond.

I will continue the Arlington story in my next column.

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