Everyone has heard of Arlington Cemetery, but few realize that this national shrine is part of the grounds of the historic Arlington House, the home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee for three decades.
According to the National Park Service, the stately and impressive Arlington House is the most visited historical home in their system, and it is one of the top five most visited historical home in the entire United States.
If you live anywhere near the District of Columbia, a road trip to the Arlington House and Arlington National Cemetery is worth your while.
How Is Arlington House Connected To Arlington Cemetery?
Many people don’t realize that the history of Arlington Cemetery actually begins with Arlington House.
Built in 1802, with amazing views of the Potomac River and the nation’s capital, the mansion was constructed as a memorial to George Washington by his adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis.
Custis was raised from infancy by his grandmother Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, and her second husband George Washington. (Yes, the George Washington).
Young 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-acre property on the Potomac that became Arlington Plantation.
Custis grew up and married Mary Lee Fitzhugh in 1804. Their only surviving child, Mary Anna, married Lt. Robert E. Lee, a childhood playmate. The couple eventually inherited the house and had seven children.
When touring the home, it isn’t hard to imagine the sound of all of those children playing throughout the house. Little Agnes Lee, one of the Lee’s daughters, recalled how they “rode round and round on stick horses, making stables of the niches in the (window) arches.”
The Civil War Era At Arlington House
The family life of the Lees at Arlington abruptly ended at the start of the Civil War when Arlington House became a military camp rather than a home. Lee left for Richmond in April of 1861, and Mrs. Lee left in May when she received word that Union troops were preparing to occupy Arlington Heights.
It must have been very difficult for Mary Lee to think of abandoning the property where she had grown up, married, raised seven children and buried her parents. Robert E. Lee loved the place as well, referring to Arlington as “our dear home,” and the spot “where my attachments are more strongly placed than at any other place in the world.”
In fact, when Mrs. Lee first received word that Union forces were on their way, but were then delayed, she lingered at the house, even though she knew her forced departure could not be avoided. She wrote to her husband: “I never saw the country more beautiful, perfectly radiant. The yellow jasmine in full bloom and perfuming the air; but a deathlike stillness prevails everywhere.”
The Enemy Is Approaching
The general feared for his wife’s safety, writing on April 26, 1861: “I am very anxious about you. You have to move and make arrangements to go to some point of safety….War is inevitable & there is no telling when it will burst around you.”
After Virginia seceded from the United States on May 24, 1861, U.S. Army began to use their estate as a camp and headquarters, constructing forts and cutting down trees. 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:
“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.”
In 1864, the government took full possession of the estate when Mrs. Lee could not appear in person to pay property taxes. (The fact that they required that she appear in person in the Union capital was taken to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the Lee’s on Dec. 4, 1882—after both Lee’s had died).
In June of 1873 (just a few months before her death) Mary made one final visit to Arlington House. She refused to enter the home 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.”
For mostly symbolic reasons, the army began burying their dead on the grounds, starting in Mary Lee’s beloved gardens. An official military cemetery was later established on the grounds, which grew to become Arlington National Cemetery.
Touring Arlington House
The Greek revival mansion is spectacular to say the least, sitting on top of the ridgeline of Arlington Heights, overlooking the Potomac River and the capital beyond. The imposing home features eight massive Doric columns, six of them on the front. Each column is 23 feet tall and five feet in diameter at the bottom, tapering at the top.
Robert E. Lee said that the house stands out “as a house anyone could see with half an eye.”
The mansion itself is made of brick, covered with a very hard cement called “hydraulic cement.” The surface was then scored and painted to look like marble and sandstone. These “faux finishes” were very popular in the early 19th century.
Among the rooms that you can see during the tour of the house are the Family Parlor, where Mary Custis and Robert E. Lee were married; the Dining Room, where Lt. Lee proposed to Mary Anna; the White Room, where the Lee children played; and the Lees’ bedroom where Robert E. Lee spent a sleepless night agonizing over his decision to remain a U.S. Army officer or follow Virginia.
As a child, it is said that Mary Lee loved this first floor room because of the view of the flower garden. During their first 30 years of marriage, Robert and Mary Lee slept in this room—although Lee’s military assignments often kept him away from home.
Oral tradition suggests that six out of the seven Lee children were born in this bedroom. There are some original furnishing on loan from the Robert E. Lee family, including his writing chair.
Old House Charm At Arlington House
I loved the large windows, fireplaces and well-worn wood floors, but my favorite place in the house was the staircase. There are two, as is common in old houses. The servants’ stairs were very steep and narrow, and the handrail was well worn.
I happened to be alone when I was on the stairs and thought about all of the hands that had held onto that railing. It’s just an amazing experience to have the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of all that history.
Arlington House is a magnificent living memorial and historic landmark where visitors can study and contemplate some of the most significant aspects of American history, like service to country, sacrifice, duty, loyalty, slavery and freedom.
The Garden Area At Arlington House
One other spot of interest on the grounds of Arlington House is located in the flower garden. It is a monument to unknown Civil War dead that reads:
“Beneath this stone repose the bones of two thousand one hundred and eleven unknown soldiers gathered after the war from the fields of Bull Run and the route to the Rappahannock. Their remains could not identified but their names and deaths are recorded in the archives of their country, and its grateful citizens honor them as of their noble army of martyrs.
May they rest in peace.
September AD 1866″
This memorial, though lovely, had a deeply sinister purpose. The quartermaster in charge at the time of the Civil War dispatched crews to scour battlefields for unknown soldiers near Washington. Then he excavated a huge pit at the end of Mrs. Lee’s garden, filled it with the remains of 2,111 nameless soldiers and raised a sarcophagus in their honor.
The quartermaster understood that by seeding the garden with prominent Union officers and unknown patriots, he would make it politically difficult to disinter these heroes of the Republic at a later date.
He was right, and these hallowed grounds now hold the remains of more than 400,000 service men and women and their family members.
The Story Of Selina Gray
Interestingly, when Mrs. Lee departed Arlington House, she entrusted the house keys to a slave, Selina Gray.
This was not uncommon during the Civil War, and was in fact fairly typical of the trust many Virginia families placed in their slaves. Selina took the position seriously and confronted the Federal commanding officer when the Lee’s possessions began to disappear.
Selina is not only credited with saving the heirlooms and treasures of Arlington House, she is also recognized with helping to restore the home as well. She provided accurate details about the layout of the home, personal stories of the Lee family, and, through stories told to her children, helped preservationists in the early twentieth century.
Selina and her family were freed by the will of George Washington Parke Custis in December of 1862, but continued to live on the estate for several years.Find a place to stay in Arlington.
Visiting Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington Cemetery should be on everyone’s bucket list. It is both magnificent and sorrowful in its vastness and beauty. It is hard to believe, but between 27 and 30 burial services are held daily at the cemetery, requiring visitors to be respectful at all times when on the grounds.
You can walk around yourself (the cemetery is quite vast), or book an Arlington Cemetery and Washington DC Highlights Tour.
Some of the must-see sites at Arlington include:
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a tribute to unidentified fallen soldiers who fought in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The Tomb is a large white sarcophagus that is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by Tomb Guard sentinels from the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment.
Changing of the Guard is an elaborate and somber ceremony where a sentinel seamlessly takes over guard duty for the previous sentinel. It happens every hour from October through March and every half hour from April through September.
Grave of President John F. Kennedy is also on view at Arlington National Cemetery. At his funeral on Nov. 25, 1963, Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy lit an eternal flame that remains alight today. Two of Kennedy’s children and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis are also buried alongside the president.
In addition to the Kennedy family, President William Howard Taft, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, world champion boxer Joe Louis, the seven Space Shuttle Challenger astronauts and the Tuskegee Airmen are also buried at Arlington National Cemetery. There are scientists, Revolutionary War heroes, military leaders, Supreme Court justices, and thousands of other notable figures interred on the grounds.
Quick Facts about Arlington House and Arlington Cemetery
Who Is The First Person Buried In Arlington Cemetery?
The first soldier laid to rest at Arlington was Pvt. William Christman, 21, of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, who was buried on May 13, 1864. A farmer newly recruited into the Army, Christman never knew a day of combat. Like many others, he was felled by disease.
How Many Acres Are In Arlington Cemetery?
Arlington Cemetery is spread across 639 scenic acres of rolling hills and beautiful gardens and is the final resting place for more than 400,000 service men and women. The historic landmark is about four times the size of the National Mall.
Is Arlington House Open To The public?
Yes. The Virginia mansion of the Lees is open to the public after a $12 million rehabilitation and reinterpretation project that was completed in 2021.
Friday, Saturday and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. can be very crowded, so it is best to get a ticket up to seven days in advance of your visit at Recreation.gov to ensure timely entry. (Otherwise you have to wait for an open spot).
The tickets are technically free, but there is a $1 service charge per ticket.
You can also book a Tour of Arlington House Here.
Memorial Day at Arlington: On Memorial Day and Veterans Day, thousands of visitors attend remembrance services in the Memorial Amphitheater. These special services are often attended by the President or Vice President of the United States.
Getting To And Touring Arlington National Cemetery And Arlington House
The easiest way to get to Arlington National Cemetery is by Metro via the direct Arlington Cemetery stop on the Blue Line. Metrobus routes also stop at the site and it is accessible by several major roadways, including the George Washington Parkway. Once you’ve arrived, start at the Welcome Center, which offers an overview of the site. Here you can also sign up for a bus tour that stops at various sites throughout the cemetery. The cemetery is built into a hill and requires extensive walking if you choose to skip the shuttle.
Take water and good walking shoes!
Where Is Robert E. Lee Buried?
Robert E. Lee is not buried at Arlington House or the Arlington Cemetery. He is buried in a crypt beneath the chapel at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. He died in 1870.
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