Arlington House

It’s been a few years since I’ve visited Arlington House, but since Robert E. Lee’s birthday is January 19, I thought I’d post some of my photos.

The beautiful house sits high atop the ridgeline of Arlington Heights, overlooking the Potomac River and directly across from the capital. Arlington House stands out, as Robert E. Lee said, “as a house anyone could see with half an eye.” Certainly, it is one of the most visible sights in Washington D.C.

Constructed between 1802 and 1818, Arlington House served not only as the Custis family home but also as the nation’s first memorial to our country’s first president, George Washington.

Connection to George Washington

George Washington Parke Custis and his sister Nelly were the two youngest grandchildren of Martha Dandridge Custis. They were raised from infancy by Martha and her second husband George Washington at Mount Vernon. (Martha’s first husband died).

inside arlingtonYoung Custis grew to revere Washington as a father and military hero. On his grandmother’s death in 1802, Custis inherited the Custis estates, including the 1,100 acres on the Potomac that became Arlington Plantation.

Custis first christened the property Mount Washington, later renaming it Arlington after an early Custis family plantation. Modeled after a Greek temple, Custis turned the mansion into a museum for his “Washington Treasury,” a collection of Mount Vernon and Washington artifacts he delighted in showing to people.

robert e leeIn 1804, Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh. In 1831, their only surviving child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, married Lt. Robert E. Lee, a childhood friend and distant cousin. Mary and Robert Lee had seven children and divided their time between Arlington House and Lee’s duty posts in various parts of the young country.

Mary Lee inherited Arlington House when George Washington Parke Custis died in 1857, but of course fled during the Civil War due to its proximity to Washington, D.C.

arlington house doorI remember this old door when touring the house. Can you imagine all of the hands that touched this wood?

The Civil War

After Virginia seceded from the United States on May 24, 1861, the Lees left Arlington House, never to return. The U.S. Army then occupied their estate as a camp and headquarters, constructing forts on the property. Buildings were dismantled for fire wood, crops destroyed, animals stolen, and family heirlooms taken and put on display at the Patent Office.

Robert knew of his wife Mary’s distress about her beloved family property and wrote to her:

“Even if the enemy had wished to preserve [Arlington], it would almost have been impossible. With the number of troops encamped around it, the change of officers, the want of fuel, shelter, & etc., all the dire necessities of war, it is vain to think of its being in a habitable condition. I fear, too, books, furniture, & the relics of Mt Vernon will be gone. It is better to make up our minds to a general loss. They cannot take away the remembrances of the spot & the memories of those that to us rendered it sacred. That will remain to us as long as life will last…”


Most people have probably heard the story that Arlington was confiscated because the taxes were not paid. That is true, however, prior to the delinquency, Mary sent her cousin Philip Fendall to pay the tax.

Unfortunately, the tax commissioner refused the payment, citing a new statute that land owners in Confederate territory must pay in person. The Federal government knew of Mary’s ailing health (debilitating arthritis) and her inability to make the journey — as well as the fact she was the wife of the commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia. They were no doubt sure Mary Custis Lee would not be paying the tax in person.

On January 11, 1864, the taxes on Arlington became delinquent and it ended up on the auction block at Alexandria Courthouse where it sold to the U.S. Government for a mere bid of $26,800.

arlington grave in gardenTo add insult to injury, the Union army began burying their dead on the property, including in Mary’s prized garden. Officers were buried within view of the home, beginning with Captain Albert H. Packard, from the 31st Maine Infantry. He was laid to rest “about a hundred paces from the mansion,” at the edge of the garden where Mary Lee had once tended to jasmine, honeysuckle, and roses.

It wasn’t until June of 1873 that Mary was well enough to make a return trip to Arlington. She refused to enter and left after only a few moments. Later she wrote:

“I rode out to my dear old home, so changed it seemed but as a dream of the past. I could not have realized that it was Arlington but for the few old oaks they had spared, & the trees planted on the lawn by the Gen’l & myself which are raising their tall branches to the Heaven which seems to smile on the desecration around them.”

old tree at arlington

On display

I love old trees, so I found this display very interesting. This a cross section is from a White Oak tree that that fell on the property on March 22, 2002. The tree was approximately 230 years old and was more than three inches in diameter when George Washington Parke Custis started building Arlington House in 1802.


Arlington House


arlington house
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