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As the final resting place of presidents, band leaders, war heroes, astronauts, inventors, civil rights activists, Pulitzer Prize winners, boxers, Supreme Court justices, and sports stars, Arlington National Cemetery stands as a memorial to the melting pot of the United States. With connections to some of our nation’s most influential people and major events, their history is as interesting as their people.
Arlington sits on 624 acres overlooking the Potomac River just across from Washington, DC. Although now surrounded by the country’s capital, Arlington was once an idyllic property with a neoclassical mansion, Arlington House. The mansion, which still stands over the site today, was built by George Washington (yes, The Washington) grandson and marks the beginning of cemetery history.
Before she married George, Martha was married to Daniel Parke Custis. After he died and she married the “father” of our country, George adopted her two surviving children. The eldest, John Parke Custis (JPC), died in 1781 while serving in the Revolutionary Army. He left four children, the youngest of whom, George Washington Parke Custis (GWPC), was born shortly before his father’s death.
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GWPC and a sister lived with the Washington. When he came of age in 1802, GWPC inherited fortunes and possessions from his late father (JPC), including land in Arlington. Hoping to build a house that could also serve as a memorial to his grandfather George Washington, GWPC hired an architect and built a Greek-style mansion that some believed was “modeled after the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens” be.
The house was built in parts, with the north wing completed in 1802 and the south wing completed in 1804. These two stood as separate buildings until the central section connected them in 1818. During GWPC’s lifetime, part of the mansion was reserved as storage for George Washington memorabilia, including portraits, papers, and even the tent Washington used during his tenure in Yorktown.
GWPC and his family lived and died on the property where many of them were buried.
In 1831, Mary, GWPC’s only surviving child, married Robert E. Lee (yes, The Lee). The Lees lived with the Custis on the property, where they raised their seven children. After the death of her father, Mary inherited Arlington. Robert E. Lee loved the property and once described it as “the place where my attachments are stronger than any other place in the world.”
Before the Civil War, Lee had visited West Point (finished second in his class) and served in the United States in the Mexican War (1846-1848). A respected and popular officer, Lee struggled with his decision to abandon his 36-year-old commission to take command of the Virginia Confederate Forces. When he did so in April 1861, the decision was viewed by many of his former friends, including Brig. Gen., as a betrayal of the Union. General Montgomery C. Meigs.
With Arlington on a hill overlooking the capital being vital to the defense or defeat of DC, Union leaders sought to control it. After the breakaway of Virginia in May 1861, the Union troops crossed en masse in Virginia and soon took command of the property. The site was quickly converted into a Union Camp.
By 1862, Congress had passed a law imposing a tax on “insurgent” property. Mary was unable to pay the tax bill in person and her assistant’s attempt to pay the debt was rejected. As a result, Uncle Sam confiscated Arlington, and when it was auctioned off, the federal government bought the property for $ 26,800 (about $ 607,000 today, well below market value).
Not only were union leaders doing good business, they felt that by taking the estates of prominent rebels, in the words of General William T. Sherman, “they would make them so sick from the war that generations would die before they would turn to them again for it. ”
In 1863, after thousands of former slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation gathered in DC, a Freedman’s Village was established on the property, “complete with new wooden houses, schools, churches, and farmland to house former slaves for food for the war effort Growing Union “. . ”
One journalist described it:
More than poetic justice is seen in the fact that his rich lands, which were so long the domain of the great general of the Rebellion, now offer work and support to hundreds of acquitted slaves.
As the Union’s losses began to rise in the spring of 1864, General Meigs proposed that some of the dead be buried in Arlington. The first, on May 13, 1864, was Pvt. William Christman, a poor soldier whose family could not afford the cost of a funeral. Soon many other soldiers in need were buried on the Arlington grounds near the already established cemetery for slaves and freedmen. When General Meigs saw the effectiveness of this system, he urged Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton:
I recommend that. . . the land that surrounds Arlington Mansion. . . appropriated, properly fenced, laid out and carefully maintained as a national military cemetery for this purpose.
To serve the dual purpose of paying homage to the dead and “making Arlington uninhabitable for the Lees”, Meigs had prominent Union officers buried near Mrs. Lee’s garden. He also laid a mass grave of over 2,000 unidentified soldiers with a raised sarcophagus near the house.
After the war, the Lees tried unsuccessfully to retake Arlington. Maria wrote to a friend that the graves were “planted right up to the door, regardless of morality”. After Robert E. Lee’s death in 1870, Mary petitioned Congress for the return of her family home, but the proposal was firmly denied.
Shortly thereafter, other monuments and structures were erected in honor of the dead, including numerous ornate gravestones from the Gilded Age and the large, red McClellan Gate at the entrance to the site.
The family wasn’t finished, however, and in January 1879, after a six-day trial, a jury ruled that the requirement that Mary Lee pay the 1862 tax in person was unconstitutional. On the appeal, the Supreme Court agreed, so the property was back in the hands of the Lee family.
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Instead of dismantling graves and moving monuments, however, the federal government and Mary Lee’s son, George Washington Custis Lee, agreed to sell them. On March 31, 1883, Uncle Sam bought Arlington from the Lee family for $ 150,000 (about $ 3,638,000 today).
Today Arlington is home to the remains of over 400,000 souls. In addition to its famous sea of gloomy, beautiful white headstones, Arlington is also home to numerous monuments, including the Tomb of the Unknowns, the Rough Riders Monument, the Pentagon Group’s funeral marker and two memorials to the tragedies of the Space Shuttle Shuttle challenger and Columbia.
One of the most famous burial sites in the National Cemetery is that of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy with his eternal flame. Two of his children and Jackie Kennedy are also buried there.
William Howard Taft is the only other US President buried on the site, and he, along with three other Chief Justice and eight Associate Justice, represents the Arlington Supreme Court.
Of course, there are many war heroes and famous generals buried in Arlington, including George C. Marshall (father of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II) and Omar N. Bradley.
Famous explorers buried in Arlington are Admiral Richard Byrd (the first person to fly over both poles) and Rear Admiral Robert Peary (another polar explorer). John Wesley Powell (famous for Lake Powell) is also buried in Arlington, as are several astronauts, including Lt. Col. Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Capt. Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr. (the third man to be on the moon).
Other famous Americans buried in the National Cemetery are Abner Doubleday (who, contrary to legend, actually had nothing to do with baseball), big band leader Maj. Glenn Miller (who went missing on December 15, 1944, so really just got there a tombstone), boxer Joe Louis, inventor George Westinghouse and civil rights activist Medgar Evers.