Arlington National Cemetery

When I was updating my “What Happened Today” post on my other blog “Revolutionary, My Dear George”, I saw a small entry about Arlington National Cemetery.  When I visited Washington, DC last summer with Mrs. Cochrane and Mrs. Gibson, we traveled to Arlington.  We were moved by the solemnity of the place and moved by the sacrifice of thousands of men and women who are buried here. With all of this in mind, I thought I would write about how Arlington National Cemetery came to be.  Long before it was cemetery, the land belonged to a family you might recognize – George Washington Parke Custis – the adopted son of George Washington. 
Custis home atop the hill overlooking Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery is located across the Potomac River from Washington, DC.  More than 300,000 veterans from every American war is buried here, even the American Revolution.

As I mentioned above, the area/land used to belong to George Washington Parke Custis.  Many do not know George Washington Parke Custis.  The land actually belonged to his father, John Parke Custis, who bought the land in 1778.  He was going to build an estate on the land after the Revolutionary War.  Unfortunately, he contracted swamp fever while stationed at Yorktown and the land was held in trust for his young son.  His son and daughter were adopted by George and Martha Washington, who raised them.  When George Washington Parke Custis turned 21, he inherited the land.  He originally wanted to name the land after his grandfather, but changed the name to Arlington in honor of the family’s ancestral estate in the tidewater area. Arlington House was built in 1802 by George Washington Parke Custis.  He lived here with his wife, Mary.  The house was built in stages and finished in 1818.  He adored his grandfather and spent considerable funds purchasing items that once belonged to him. His daughter Mary Anna married Robert E. Lee in 1831.  When her father died in 1857, she inherited the estate and all its holdings. The couple lived at Arlington House until 1861 when Lee took over command of the Confederate Army.  At this time, his wife, Mary Anna went to live elsewhere, knowing to remain there would be too dangerous.  When she left, she sent several portraits of her great grandfather, George Washington, to family members for safe keeping.  Other memorabilia was stored in the attic or basement. When federal troops took up residence, she sent them a letter, asking that the belongings be taken care of in memory of George Washington, but her pleas were ignored. The house was ransacked and many artifacts were destroyed.

The federal government repossessed the land over failure to pay taxes (although how Robert E. Lee could pay taxes during the war seems a bit dramatic to me). It was put up for auction and purchased by the tax commissioner to be used by the government. The Union Army took over the house and turned it into a military headquarters.  The surrounding grounds became a camp for Union troops. 

In 1864, the land was turned into a military cemetery by Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War.  Apparently, it was designated as a cemetery by Quartermaster General Meigs who wanted to be sure Lee never returned to the site. The body count continued to mount and if you have ever been to DC or Virginia, you know the humidity can be quite dreadful.  The bodies had to be buried immediately or risk a terrible plague. Many believe Meigs despised the South and he served under Lee in 1838, resenting him. (of course, this is mere speculation).  According to records, the first burial was Private William Henry Christman of Pennsylvania.  According to another report, the first burial was a Confederate prisoner of war. Approximately 3800 freed slaves who died while living at the Freedman’s Village are buried here.  Confederate soldiers were first buried in civilian graves but were later reintered in marked graves with pointed headstones to signify they were in the Confederacy. Many believe the reason for such hasty burials also occurred because many were too poor to pay for the bodies to be shipped home to families across the United States.  For many years after the Civil War, the Confederate widows tried to go and decorate the graves of their loved ones but were turned away.  Many found ways to pay for these soldiers to be removed from the cemetery and taken back home so they could be buried with dignity.

Years later in 1882, Robert E. Lee’s son, George Washington Custis Lee, petitioned the government to reparations.  He was upset the family estate was confiscated.  He finally won $150,000 in compensation from the government.  The land was given back to the Lee family, but then Congress purchased it from Custis.

The Tomb of the Unknowns contains the remains of three unidentified service members – from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.  Three Greek figures representing Peace, Victory, and Valor grace the tomb.  The tomb is guarded by the 3rd US Infantry, known as the Old Guard, because it is the oldest active duty infantry unit in the Army.

The Civil War Unknown Monument was the first monument to unknown soldiers.  It was dedicated in 1866 and holds the remains of 2,111 soldiers from Bull Run.  Many believe it holds the remains of both Union and Confederate soldiers.

Two former presidents – William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy are buried here. 
The Memorial Amphitheater is inscribed with the words “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” which means “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”.  I do not think anyone could say it better.  With Memorial Day coming soon, it is important to remember all who died for our country, from those first days to today – any man or woman who offers their life for their country should be commended.  We thank them for their sacrifice, for their bravery, but most of all, we thank them for their belief that this great country is worth fighting for.  You will always be remembered.  You will always be honored.

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