The Battle for Arlington National Cemetery


Arlington National Cemetery is known as one of the largest and most beautiful military cemeteries in the country. William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy are both buried there, as well as RFK, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Medgar Evers, remains of the astronauts who died in the Challenger disaster, and a long list of other notable Americans.

But long before Arlington's famous Tomb of the Unknown Soldier had a round-the-clock military guard, the estate was home to a much different kind of soldier: Union troops.

The land on which the cemetery sits originally belonged to Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, whom George Washington actually adopted in 1781. When Custis died, the estate went to his daughter, Mary Anna, who was married to Robert E. Lee.

The 1,100-acre estate was valuable ground in the Civil War, providing great visibility and a good place to store artillery. General Lee was well aware of the risks involved in occupying the land, but could spare no troops to protect his own estate. On April 26, 1861, he wrote his wife a letter recommending that she abandon the grounds as soon as possible. Mary postponed for a few weeks, but finally left her home in mid-May, saying, “I fear that this will be the scene of conflict and my beautiful home . . . may become a field of carnage.”

She was right. By May 24, the property had been transformed into a village of tents housing the Union Army. They were still there when Congress passed a law that declared property owners must pay their taxes in person or forfeit the property. Mary Lee was confined to a wheelchair and was unable to travel to pay the bill, so she tried to send her cousin in her stead. Tax commissioners rejected him, refusing to accept money from anyone but Lee.

As a result, the estate was put up for auction in January 1864 and was purchased by the United States government for $26,800. The first burial, a 21-year-old Union soldier named William Christman, took place four months later. Many more Union burials followed, including 40 officers’ graves in 1864 alone. The political affiliation of the dead was no accident—the plan was to make the estate as unappealing to the Lees as possible, discouraging them from trying to come back to claim the grounds as their own. In 1866, the remains of more than 2,111 unidentified Civil War soldiers were buried in a vault in the Lees’ rose garden.

The fight didn't end when the war did. Nearly 20 years later, the Supreme Court finally ruled that the government had illegally seized the Lees’ property. Rather than force the U.S. to remove the remains of the more than 17,000 men who had been buried there, Robert and Mary’s son sold it to the government for $150,000 in 1883.

Despite the rocky history between the Lee family and the U.S. government, the Custis-Lee Mansion, today called Arlington House, is now a memorial to Robert E. Lee that tourists can visit year-round.