A to Z – Arlington National Cemetery

A2Z-BADGE_[2016]April 2016 A to Z blog challenge. I’m participating by writing blogs about history.

A is for Arlington National Cemetery.


Everyone is familiar with Arlington National Cemetery, but the story behind it is pretty strange.



220px-GeoWPCustisThe property was originally owned by George Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis (photo), who built the Arlington House on the property in 1802. George Custis spent a sizable portion of his inheritance to build the palatial home. He married Mary Lee Fitzhugh and had only one child who survived to adulthood –  a daughter named Mary Anna Custis.






Mary_Custis_Lee_and_Robert_E._Lee_Jr_1845In 1831, Mary Anna married none other than Robert E. Lee. Here is a photo of Mary Anna and her son Robert E. Lee Jr., who looks like a little girl if you ask me. The couple moved into the Arlington House with her family.

In 1857, George Custis died, leaving the house to Mary Anna’s son, George Washington Lee. Robert E. Lee was the executor of George Custis’s will, and took a three-year leave of absence from the army to make needed repairs to the property. Strangely, the will also dictated that all slaves should be freed within five years of George Custis’s death. Robert E Lee did so, setting the slaves free in December of 1862.


For thirty years, the Lees made their home at Arlington, and here’s where the story takes a sour turn.

As everyone knows, the American Civil War began in 1861. Robert E. Lee resigned his position in the army and joined the Confederate forces. He went away to serve the Confederacy and Mary Anna moved in with family on May 14, confident that federal forces would soon take over her beloved home. She was correct. They occupied Arlington on May 24.

In 1863, the government passed a law that property taxes needed to be paid in person. I doubt Lee could walk into a federal office and not be arrested, besides, he was a little busy at the time. The government seize the property for non-payment of taxes. By the end of the war, the government decided to turn the property into a federal cemetery, assuring that Lee would never return to it.

He didn’t. He died in 1870 without ever returning to Arlington. Mary Anna only returned to the home once before her death in 1873, but she refused to enter the house, too upset at its condition. Their son eventually sued the federal government for his property, and after going all the way to the Supreme Court, he won compensation in the amount of $150,000, about $3.5 million in today’s money.

In 1955, the government finally recognized Robert E. Lee, designating Arlington House as a permanent memorial.

Arlington_House_pre-1861 (all photos are from Wikipedia)


9 responses to “A to Z – Arlington National Cemetery

  1. Thanks for the enlightenment! I wonder how many other properties the feds acquired with that law. I wonder if anyone actually appeared in person to pay their taxes and were arrested.

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