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SERVING OUR VETERANS: Arlington National Cemetery (pt. 2 of 3)

By Staff | May 8, 2020

In my last column, I left off with the history of Arlington at the time Mary Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee, left their Arlington estate and moved to Richmond, Va., at the beginning of the Civil War. I will pick up the story at this point. Again, thanks to Rick Atkinson for his book, “Where Valor Rests,” as much of the historical information I am sharing with you came from this book.

Within a month after Mary Lee and her family left Arlington on May 15, 1861, three New York regiments were camped on the Arlington estate, felling trees, dismantling rail fences for fire wood, and pillaging the home. Under a federal “Act for the Collection of Taxes in the Insurrectionary Districts,” an assessment of $92.07 was levied against the Arlington plantation. Mary Lee dispatched a cousin to pay the sum only to learn that tax commissioners insisted on property owners appearing personally to settle their debts. On Jan. 11, 1864, the 1,100-acre tract of the Arlington estate was publically auctioned and sold to the only bidder, the U.S. government, for precisely the assessed value of $26,810.

Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs was a Georgian who not only remained loyal to the Union, but also loathed both the Confederacy and those serving in it. As quartermaster general of the U.S. Army, Meigs found himself grappling with the urgent issue of dead soldiers in Washington. Meigs petitioned Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, for permission to convert the Custis-Lee estate into a military cemetery. Without waiting for Stanton’s formal authorization, which would be issued on June 15, Meigs ordered the interments to begin. Thus on May 13, 1864, William Christman was the first soldier laid to rest near the northern perimeter of the estate. Soon as many as 40 burials took place each day.

In an August visit to Arlington, Meigs was furious to find soldiers living in and around the mansion, were reluctant to bury the dead too close to the mansion. They had located the cemetery a half-mile away, near the old field slave quarters. Meigs ordered 26 bodies brought immediately from Washington, where he personally supervised their burial along the perimeter of Mary Lee’s rose garden, to more firmly secure the grounds by rendering it undesirable as a future residence. Soon the acreage around the house sprouted thousands of wooden grave markers. Among those interred was Meig’s son, Lt. John Rogers Meigs who was killed at age 23 by Confederate cavalrymen in October 1864. His loathing for the Confederacy, now flamed by his personal grief, Gen. Meigs made Arlington even less appealing as a homestead by positioning a mass grave in the rose garden with bones of 2,111 anonymous soldiers, most of them killed at the two Bull Run battles.

Defeated and disenfranchised, Robert E. Lee never saw Arlington again and made no effort to reassert his family’s ownership of the estate before his death in 1870. But Mary was reluctant to surrender her birthplace without at least a last look. A few months before her death in 1873, she drove to the rear of the house. After seeing what had been done to her home, she refused to step from her carriage.

It fell to her oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, to challenge the government’s confiscation. Young Lee filed a lawsuit asserting ownership. In December 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled five to four that Arlington had indeed been seized without due process. The U.S. government was therefore trespassing and would be forced to vacate the property and to exhume more than 17,000 graves. For several months the government and the Lee family haggled. In March 1883, Congress appropriated $150,000 to buy the property outright. On May 14, the deed was recorded in a local courthouse to forever transfer Arlington to the possession of the people of the United States.

To be concluded in my next column.

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