The history of Arlington National Cemetery

arlington national cemetery

There she stands — the American Acropolis on Arlington Heights — with its giant columns standing guard over 200,000 or more warriors.

The morning breeze, around the house, conveys the scent of fresh-mown grass and wet stone over the rolling hills. Somewhere in the distance the sound of the rattle of horse-drawn caisson, the murmuring words of a Chaplain, and the mournful sound of the 24 notes of Taps is floating through the air.

It is an announcement that other warriors are arriving to the country’s most hallowed ground. It is a beautiful day for a military funeral here at Arlington National Cemetery.

History of Arlington

Arlington National Cemetery is there because of three individuals, one a military-wife and two Army friends in the pre-war years of 1861-1865. The wife is Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee and the two Army buddies are Robert E. Lee and Montgomery C. Meigs who worked together in the Corps of Engineers.

Arlington Heights, in the spring of 1861, was a 1,100-acre plantation overlooking the Potomac River and the city of Washington, D.C. Mrs. Lee inherited Arlington in 1857 upon the death of her father George Washington Parks Custis.

Her father’s daughter

Mary was very much her father’s daughter. Her charm, wit, manners, thoughtfulness and vivacity made her a popular guest surrounded by friends and admirers. Her historical and political education was equal to her religious devotion and love for nature.

The rose garden that Mary and her mother cultivated was as important to the family as any room in the Arlington House. Mary grew up at Arlington, lived there while her husband was stationed at a western Army post, raised six of their seven children on the estate and was married to Robert in 1831 in the home.

Following the war, she made a valedictory tour in 1873 to Arlington and wrote “it seems to me almost like a terrible dream.” Only one rosebush remained that she had planted in the garden upon the death of her mother.

Robert E. Lee

Robert was a dashing figure when he married Mary on June 30, 1831. He was adored by the women and admired by men. Fatherless by the age of six and with few financial resources, he settled on a career in the Army.

By age 50, Lee had traveled throughout the country with the Corps of Engineers, served in the Mexican War, spent years living out of trunks, sleeping in tents, and lodging in borrowed houses.

Pressing problems

In 1857 he finally found a home at Arlington, only to have pressing problems. Forced to take an extended leave from the Army, Lee was faced with an ailing wife suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, a house and surrounding grounds that declined during his father-in-law’s final years, 63 slaves who did not learn quickly military lifestyle, fields that were not productive, and difficulty with the tangled will of Mary’s father. It was an unpleasant legacy.

On April 17, 1861, Lee learned that Virginia had voted to leave the Union. While he opposed secession he could “take no part in an invasion of the Southern states.”

Leaving Arlington

On April 20, 1861, after a long talk with his mentor and close friend – General Winfield Scott – Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army, provided instructions for Mary to close Arlington and headed toward Richmond to command the Army of Northern Virginia. He was among the first generals named in the Confederate Army but to the North he was the century’s Benedict Arnold.

Montgomery Meigs

Montgomery C. Meigs was born of Southern stock in Augusta, Georgia, to a wealthy and well-connected family. Educated in language, literature and history at the University of Pennsylvania, he was admitted to West Point in 1832. Upon graduation he spent most of his service in the Corps of Engineers with Lee.

A highly intelligent officer with management skills and organizational talent, he supervised the building of the Washington aqueduct and the dome of the Capitol building. When the Civil War began, he was appointed U.S. Army Quartermaster General.

Essential land

When Lee rode away from Arlington on April 22, 1861, he left behind not only a valuable piece of property, but land essential to Washington’s defense. With land that rose some two hundred feet above the surrounding countryside, good artillery high ground, there was no way the war planners in Washington were going to cede that ground to the enemy.

One last rose

On May 9, Mary took one last stroll through the rose garden, picked a Cherokee rose and left for Richmond. On May 10th the New York Zouaves, in their flamboyant uniforms, were encamped on Arlington Heights. By the end of May some 14,000 Union troops were camped on the Arlington property, and it was lost to the Lees forever.

Lee and Meigs never met on the battlefield, but Meigs proved to be one of Lees most implacable foes during the Civil War. As Quartermaster General, he mobilized for the conflict as a life-death struggle. Acquiring Arlington for a cemetery was important a victory as on the battlefield.

Arlington sold

In 1862, Congress levied taxes on real estate in “insurrectionary” districts. The taxes had to be paid by the owners. Mrs. Lee, wheelchair-bound, was unable to appear in person with uncommon speed, the Arlington property went to the auction block and was sold to the United States government for a paltry $26,800.

By the time the Federal Government acquired ownership to Arlington, the Civil War had created an urgent need for national cemeteries. Authority for developing military cemeteries rested with the Quartermaster Department and General Meigs.

Although he was southern raised, once the war began and the family lost a son to the war, Meigs became virulently anti-southern. He saved his deepest hatred for the “traitor Robert E. Lee.”

National cemetery

In 1864, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered the creation of a national cemetery near Washington, Meigs wasted little time recommending that two hundred acres of the Arlington property, close to the house, be designated a cemetery for Union soldiers.

The first graves were dug in Mrs. Lee’s rose garden, and by the end of 1864, over 7,000 graves were spread across the yard of Arlington. A huge vault, 20-feet square, was dug in the rose garden to bury the remains of all the unidentified war dead from the two Bull Run battles. This was the first Unknown Soldier Tomb. By the end of the Civil War 16,000, Union graves surrounded the house.

Court battle

The Lees spent the postwar years trying to regain possession of Arlington. The chess match between the Lee family and the Federal government was played out in Congress, the jury of public opinion, and finally the Supreme Court ordered “fair value and restitution” be paid to the oldest son of Mary and Robert, George Washington Custis Lee. The payment of $150,000 was paid on April 24, 1883.

Today roses grow profusely in the restored garden much like they did in 1857.

And every Memorial Day thousands of roses are placed on the white headstones around the cemetery to remember a land long, long ago.


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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to:



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