Episode 28 - A Graveyard of Revenge: The Story of Arlington


George Washington Parke Custis was born in 1781 and was the grandson of Martha Washington through her first marriage. After Custis’s father died, George and Martha Washington adopted him as their own child. When Custis turned 21, he inherited a large amount of land in Virginia from his father’s will and got to work building a mansion on it that would also serve as a memorial to his stepfather, George Washington. In 1804, Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh. They had four children all together, but only one survived to adulthood, their daughter Mary Anna Randolph Custis. In 1831, Custis’s daughter married Lieutenant Robert E. Lee at the family home now named Arlington. Robert E. Lee had joined the military because his family didn’t have much money, so Robert and Mary moved into Arlington after they were married.

Robert was doing quite well in the Army and was moving up the ranks. During the Mexican-American War, General Winfield Scott called Lee “the very best soldier that I ever saw in the field.” When he came home to Mary at Arlington between military obligations, they managed to have seven kids and Robert ended up taking over many of the Arlington’s plantation duties as well. When George Washington Parke Custis died in 1857, Mary and Robert inherited the mansion, the plantation, and the owner of almost 200 slaves that were working on the plantation that Custis wanted freed within 5 years of his death according to his will.

As a slave owner, Robert E. Lee was very harsh and combative to the slaves at Arlington and had no intention of freeing them despite Custis’ will. He broke up nearly every single slave family on the plantation by hiring slaves off to other plantations. When slaves tried to escape Arlington and were recaptured, Lee would either beat them himself or personally watch it happen. He would then order the overseer to wash the newly whipped slaves’ lacerated backs with brine to make it sting all over again. The slaves at Arlington attempted several revolts against Lee and regarded him as a monster.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, seven states seceded in protest (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas), which started off the Civil War. The first battle of the Civil war was an attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina by Confederate soldiers on April 12, 1861. Less than a week after the battle, the state of Virginia also seceded from the Union. The next day, Robert E. Lee was offered command of the Union Army, but instead of accepting the position, Lee resigned his United States Army commission that he had held for 32 years. Lee was then appointed commander of Virginia’s army with the rank of major general. When Robert E. Lee left, his wife Mary decided to stay at Arlington and she kept busy tending to her rose garden while her husband was away.

A Union officer named Montogomery Meigs, who had attended West Point and served under Robert E Lee right after he commissioned. While serving under Lee, Meigs thought very highly of him. He said Lee was a “man in the vigor of youthful strength, with a noble and commanding presence, and an admirable, graceful, and athletic figure. He was one with whom nobody ever wished or ventured to take a liberty, though kind and generous to his subordinates, admired by all women, and respected by all men. He was the model of a soldier and the beau ideal of a Christian Man.” Meigs considered Robert E. Lee to be his friend, mentor, and idol. Even though Meigs had been born in Georgia, he was a staunch Unionist and believed that anyone who had joined the Confederacy was a traitor no better than Benedict Arnold. When he heard that Lee had left the Union for the Confederacy, he wrote his father “No man who ever took the oath to support the Constitution as an officer of our army or navy should escape without loss of all his goods & civil rights & expatriation.” Meigs believed that any many who resigned from the Union to join the enemy should be sentenced to death and executed for treason.

When another Union officer resigned and joined the Confederacy, Meigs was promoted to Quartermaster General, which meant his new job was to provide equipment, food, and transportation for the entire Union Army. Meigs was a very organized, efficient, and logistical commander and it seemed like he was made for the Quartermaster General job. The Secretary of State William H. Seward said of Meigs “that without the services of this eminent soldier, the national cause must have been lost or deeply imperiled.”

On April 26, Robert E Lee wrote his wife Mary a letter saying “I am very anxious about you. You have to move & make arrangements to go to some point of safety…War is inevitable & there is no telling when it will burst around you.” With Virginia being at the most northern part of the Union/Confederacy border, it was obvious that fighting would happen there soon and the Arlington plantation, with it’s hills being perfect for placing artillery, Lee knew that the Union would try to take over it soon. Mary’s cousin Orton Williams, who was also her daughter’s suitor, was a private secretary for the Union General in Chief Winfield Scott. He overheard Scott discussing the Union’s plans to overtake Arlington. He quickly made his way to warn his cousing/girlfriend’s mom and told her that “You must pack up all you value immediately and send it off in the morning.”

That night, Mary had some of her slaves pack up the family silver, her father’s and George Washington’s papers, and some of Robert E Lee’s files so that she could send them to Richmond in the morning. At dawn, Williams woke her up to tell her that the Union’s march on Arlington was delayed, but it was definitely still going to happen. Mary decided to stay as long as she could. Mary wrote Robert “I never saw the country more beautiful, perfectly radiant. The yellow jasmine in full bloom and perfuming the air; but a death like stillness prevails everywhere.” Eventually, Mary decided that she should leave before she was forced out by the Union. She wrote to her daughter “I would have greatly preferred remaining at home & having my children around me, but as it would greatly increase your Father’s anxiety I shall go. I fear that this will be the scene of conflict and my beautiful endeared by a thousand associations may become a field of carnage.”

On May 23, 1861, Virginia voted on and approved the Ordinance of Secession. Within hours of the Ordinance being ratified, Union forces left Washington D.C. and made their way towards Virginia. On May 24, at 2 am, 14,000 Union troops crossed the Potomac and arrived in Virginia and took Arlington with no struggle. Tents were set up and oak trees were cut down to make way for artillery fire. A battle never took place at Arlington, but the Union kept their hold on it all the same.

In June of 1862, so about a year later, Congress passed a law that would allow for the Union to assess and collect taxes on real estate that was in “insurrectionary districts.” The real estate taxes had to be paid in person, and if they were not paid, commissioners were allowed to auction off the land. The law was meant to raise money for the war and to punish traitors. The commissioner levied a tax of $92.07 on Arlington that year. Mary Lee, who was in Richmond now, was sick so she sent her cousin Philip R. Fendall to pay the tax bill in Alexandria. However, because the law stated that Mary Lee had to pay the tax herself, they refused the money from Fendall and declared Arlington in default and put it up for auction.

The auction of Arlington was on January 11, 1864 and was apparently so cold that blocks of ice kept all boats off of the Potomac river. The only bidder on the property was the federal government who offered $26,800 (by the way the property’s assessed value was $34,100). Per the certificate of sale, the federal government intended to reserve the property “for Government use, for war, military, charitable, and educational purposes.”

Many thought that the Civil War would be very brief, but it ended up lasting for years and causing mass casualties. In 1864, Washington D.C.’s temporary hospitals were overflowing with both sick and injured soldiers and those that died were quickly filling up the local cemeteries. In May of 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant started his Wilderness campaign which was 40 days of heavy fighting and produced around 82,000 combined casualties. Because they had so many bodies that needed burying and no where to put them, Montgomery Meigs set out to create a new cemetery in the area and who knew right where he wanted it.

On May 13, 1864 Meigs ordered that Private William Christman, who had died from peritonitis, be buried in the northeast corner of Arlington. There were no flags or bugles at his funeral, instead he was laid to rest in a very simple ceremony and a pine headboard that had been painted white with his name in black letters was placed to identify his grave. Soon other soldiers were buried next to him, most of them were from poor families that couldn’t afford to have their dead soldier embalmed or shipped back home for burial. The area where they were buried was called the Lower Cemetery and it filled up quickly.

In June, Meigs recommended that Arlington be made a National Military Cemetery and proposed devoting 200 acres as a graveyard. Meigs also proposed that all of the soldiers that had been buried in the Lower Cemetery be dug back up and reburied next to the mansion. Meigs wrote “The grounds about the Mansion are admirably adapted to such a use.” Meig’s proposal was accepted that day. Meigs was still so upset at Lee for leaving the Union that he wanted to make it unbearable for him to return to his home whenever the war finally ended. Some officers that were living in the mansion, didn’t want soldiers to be buried right next to where they were sleeping, so Meigs kicked them out of the mansion and replaced them with a military chaplain and a lieutenant that would be in charge of overseeing the cemetery operations.

Knowing how much Mary Lee loved her rose garden, Meigs planned on burying prominent Union officers there. The first officer laid to rest there was Captain Albert H. Packard who had been shot in the head during the Battle of the Second Wilderness. He had actually initially survived the head shot, but he later died in the Columbian College Hospital. Meigs buried Captain Packard right where Mary Lee had liked to sit and read. By the end of 1864, there were 40 more officers buried in the rose garden. Meigs wanted even more soldiers to be buried at Arlington and had his men scour battlefields near Washington D.C. for unknown soldiers. Meigs then had a huge pit dug at the end of the rose garden and filled the pit with over 2,000 unknown soldiers. He then buried them and built a sarcophagus to commemorate their grave. Meigs knew that with burying both war heroes and unknown soldiers, it would be a political disaster for anyone to try to dig up their graves and rebury them after the war.

On October 3, 1864, Montgomery Meigs’ son, Lieutenant John Rodgers Meigs, was shot during a scouting mission for General Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley. His body was brought back to Washington D.C. where he was buried in Georgetown. His funeral was attended by President Lincoln. The death of his son only increased Meig’s hatred for the Confederacy and Robert E. Lee. When Meigs heard about Robert E. Lee surrendering to General Grant on April 9, 1865, he wrote “The rebels are all murderers of my son and the sons of hundreds of thousands. Justice seems not satisfied if they escape judicial trial and execution by the government which they have betrayed and attacked and who people loyal and disloyal they have slaughtered.” It was Meigs’ hope that even if Lee and other Confederate leaders were not executed, that they would at least be banished from the United States. There were treason charges initially filed against Robert E. Lee, but they were quietly dropped. Lee then moved to Lexington, Virginia where he became president of Washington College. Robert and Mary Lee then started to try to regain Arlington. Robert E. Lee had his lawyer quietly research if it was even possible to get Arlington back in their possession.

Robert E. Lee’s older brother, Smith Lee, went to Arlington in late 1865 to try to see if it was even worth it for his brother and Mary to move back to the plantation. He figured that if they could build a wall tall enough to hide all of the graves from being seen from the mansion, it would be fine to move back in. However, Smith Lee accidentally told the cemetery superintendent why he was there who then reported the news to Meigs. So while the Lee’s tried to get Arlington back, Meigs went to work making sure that they never did.

While they were still working with their lawyers on getting Arlington back, Robert E. Lee died at 63 years old in Lexington on October 12, 1870. Now without her husband, she wanted her home back even more and petitioned Congress to examine the federal government’s claim to Arlington and what it would cost to have all of the bodies exhumed. Her petition on the Senate floor 54 to 4. Senators felt that it was not just a burial field, but hallowed ground, a shrine for “the sacred dead, the patriotic dead, the heroic dead and patriotic graves.” Meigs stayed on as quartermaster general for a total of 20 years and continued to engineer the look of Arlington cemetery. He had several memorials built including the Temple of Fame for George Washington and an amphitheater covered in wisteria that was big enough to hold 5,000 people for ceremonies. He also built a large red arch at the cemetery’s entrance that was dedicated to General George B. McClellan.

In June of 1873, Mary Lee decided to visit her old family home one last time. She took a carriage ride that lasted for three hours, going through the land that she once knew but was now filled with graves and memorials. She wrote “My visit produced one good effect. The change is so entire that I have not the yearning to go back there & shall be more content to resign all my right in it.” Mary Lee died five months later in Lexington at the age of 65. Months after her death, Mary and Robert E. Lee’s eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, petitioned Congress that they admit that the property had been taken unlawfully and he requested compensation for the land. His argument was that his mother’s attempt to pay the insurrectionary tax should have been accepted and that her good faith attempt to pay should be accepted the same as if it had been paid. Meigs was still alive and kicking and was worried that the petition would “interfere with the United States’ tenure of this National Cemetery – a result to be avoided by all just means.”

The petition died in committee and never even made it to the Senate floor. Custis Lee didn’t give up though and took his case to court. He asked the Circuit Court of Alexandria to evict all trespassers occupying the land as a result of the 1864 auction. The case was then shifted to federal court and eventually made it’s way to a jury trial. The jury found for Custis Lee on January 30, 1879 that by requiring the tax to be paid in person, the federal government had deprived Mary Lee and thus Custis Lee of his property without due process of the law. The federal government appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court then ruled for Lee where Associate Justice Samuel Freeman Miller wrote that the 1864 tax sale had been unconstitutional and therefore invalid.

Arlington belonged to the Lee’s once again, however, Custis Lee was willing to sell it to the federal government for $150,000 and Congress quickly appropriated the funds for the sale. On March 31, 1883, Custis Lee signed the papers that transferred the title of Arlington to the federal government. Robert Todd Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln’s son and current secretary of war, accepted the title on behalf of the federal government.

That same year, Montgomery Meigs had turned 65 years old and was forced to retire from his quartermaster job. Meigs continued to work in Washington D.C. for another decade though. He buried several of his family members in Arlington, including his wife and reburying his son John there. Meigs’ family is buried in Row 1 Section 1 of the cemetery and there are more of Meigs’ relatives buried at Arlington than there are Robert E. Lee’s relatives. Meigs came down with flu at age 75 and died shortly thereafter in January of 1892. His body was taken to Arlington, where it was accompanied by an Army band and an honor guard of 150 soldiers while his body made its way past all of the tombstones and memorials that he had built. The procession stopped on Meigs Drive and Montgomery Meigs was buried in Arlington, the National Cemetery he created because he hated Robert E. Lee so very much.


“Robert E. Lee” article

“George Washington Parke Custis” National Park Service article

“How Arlington National Cemetery Came To Be” by Robert M. Poole

“The Myth of the Kindly General Lee” by Adam Serwer

“Arlington National Cemetery, and the fight over Robert E. Lee’s Home” by Linda Wheeler

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