Arlington, Virginia


After the death of George Washington the Mt. Vernon family was gradually broken up, one after another going elsewhere for a home. George Washington Parke Custis, Washington’s adopted son, and grandson of Martha Washington, decided to build a home on a hill over-looking the Potomac, opposite Washington City. There were eleven hundred acres in the estate of which Arlington, the mansion he built in 1802, was the central feature.

It has been said that the stately house is an adaptation of the Doric temple at Paestum, near Naples. The roof of the great portico rests on eight massive columns. The rooms within are of a size in keeping with the magnificent portal.

Perhaps the plan was too ambitious for the Custis fortune. At any rate the rooms on the south side of the hall were not completed. But it was a famous house, nevertheless. Guests were many. They delighted to look from the portico across the Potomac to Washington, where they could see the government buildings slowly taking shape.

One of the favored guests was Robert E. Lee. His frequent visits led to his marriage, in 1831, to Mr. Custis’ daughter. At this time Lee was a lieutenant in the United States Army. Mrs. Lee remained at Arlington, waiting for the husband whose military duties enabled him to spend only brief seasons with her and the growing family there.

During the years before the war visitors to the Capital City thronged to Arlington. Some of them were interested in the many Washington relics in the house. Chief among these was the bed on which Washington died. Others came to the picnic grounds at Arlington Spring, which Mr. Custis had opened for the pleasure of the people, building for the use of all comers a great dining-hall, a dancing pavilion, and a kitchen.

One of these visitors told his impressions of Arlington :

” In front of the mansion, sloping toward the Potomac, is a fine park of two hundred acres, dotted with groves of oak and chestnut and clumps of evergreens; and behind it is a dark old forest, with patriarchal trees bearing many centennial honors, and covering six hundred acres of hill and dale. Through a portion of this is a sinuous avenue leading up to the mansion.”

At the time of the secession of Virginia, Robert E. Lee was a colonel. Duty seemed clear to him. It was not easy for him to take up arms against the United States Government, but he considered himself first of all a citizen of his native State. To respond to the call of the Confederacy meant ruin. His beautiful home, he feared, would be destroyed. But he did not hesitate. A desire to retain possession of his slaves had nothing to do with his decision. His own slaves had already been freed, and provision had been made in the will of Mrs. Lee’s father that all his slaves should be freed in 1862.

When, in 1865, General Lee was urged to prolong the conflict by guerilla warfare, he said : ” No, that would not do. It must be remembered that we are Christian people. We have fought the fight as long and as well as we know how. We have been defeated. For us as a Christian people there is but one course to pursue. We must accept the situation. These men must go home and plant a crop, and we must proceed to build up our country on a new basis.”

But he could not return to Arlington. The government had taken possession of the estate for a National Cemetery. For a time he lived in obscurity on a little farm. Then he became President of Washington College, later Washington and Lee University. With his family he lived on the campus at Lexington, Virginia, and there he died, October 12, 1870.

In the meantime the National Cemetery at Arlington was becoming a pilgrimage point for patriotic Americans. The slopes of the beautiful lawn were covered with graves. The stately white mansion, with its eight great pillars and its walls of stucco seemed a fitting background for the ranks of little white tombstones.

For years the title to the property was in dispute. In 1864 the United States bought it for $26,800, when it was sold at auction for delinquent taxes. In 1882 the Supreme Court decided that G. W. C. Lee, son of General Lee, was entitled to the property, and the following year the government paid him $150,000 for eleven hundred acres, including the mansion.