Arlington House, Robert E. Lee & Family, Arlington Cemetery, etc.
On a Virginia hillside rising above the Potomac River and overlooking Washington, D.C., stands Arlington House. The 19th-century mansion seems out of place amid the more than 250,000 military grave sites that stretch out around it. Yet, when construction began in 1802, the estate was not intended to be a national cemetery.
Arlington House “Custis-Lee Mansion”
The mansion, which was intended as a living memorial to George Washington, was owned and constructed by the first president’s adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, son of John Parke Custis who himself was a child of Martha Washington by her first marriage and a ward of George Washington. Arlington won out as a name over Mount Washington, which is what George Washington Parke Custis first intended calling the 1,100-acre tract of land that he had inherited at the death of his father when he was 3.
Between 1841 and 1857, Lee was away from Arlington House for several extended periods. In 1846 he served in the Mexican war under Gen. Winfield Scott, and in 1852 he was appointed superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, his alma mater. After his father-in-law died in 1857, Lee returned to Arlington to join his family and to serve as executor of the estate.
Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Anna, lived at Arlington House until 1861, when Virginia ratified an alliance with the Confederacy and seceded from the Union. Lee, who had been named a major general for the Virginia military forces in April 1861, feared for his wife’s safety and anticipated the loss of their family inheritance. In May 1861, Lee wrote to Mary Anna saying:
“War is inevitable, and there is not telling when it will burst around you . . . You have to move and make arrangements to go to some point of safety which you must select. The Mount Vernon plate and pictures ought to be secured. Keep quiet while you remain, and in your preparations . . . May God keep and preserve you and have mercy on all our people.”
Following the ratification of secession by Virginia, federal troops crossed the Potomac and, under Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell, took up positions around Arlington. Following the occupation, military installations were erected at several locations around the 1,100-acre estate, including Fort Whipple (now Fort Myer) and Fort McPherson (now Section 11).
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