Arlington National Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Arlington National Cemetery
214 McNair Road
Arlington, VA 22211
The mansion, which was intended as a living memorial to George Washington, was owned and constructed by the first president’s adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, son of John Parke Custis who himself was a child of Martha Washington by her first marriage and a ward of George Washington. Arlington won out as a name over Mount Washington, which is what George Washington Parke Custis first intended calling the 1,100-acre tract of land that he had inherited at the death of his father when he was 3.
The north wing was the first structure completed in 1802. It was in this building that Custis made his home, with a significant portion of it used to store George Washington memorabilia Custis was acquiring with regularity. Among the items purchased and stored in the north wing were portraits, Washington’s personal papers and clothes, and the command tent which the president had used at Yorktown.
George Washington Parke Custis and his wife, Mary Lee Fitzhugh (whom he had married in 1804), lived in Arlington House for the rest of their lives and were buried together on the property after their deaths in 1857 and 1853, respectively. They are buried in their original graves in Section 13, at map grid N-30. On June 30, 1831, Custis’ only child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, married her childhood friend and distant cousin, Robert E. Lee. Lee was the son of former three-term Virginia Governor Henry (“Light Horse Harry”) Lee and was himself a graduate of West Point.
Between 1841 and 1857, Lee was away from Arlington House for several extended periods. In 1846 he served in the Mexican war under Gen. Winfield Scott, and in 1852 he was appointed superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, his alma mater. After his father-in-law died in 1857, Lee returned to Arlington to join his family and to serve as executor of the estate.
Under the terms of her father’s will, Mary Anna Custis Lee was given the right to inhabit and control the house for the rest of her life. Custis’ will also stipulated that upon Mary Anna’s death, full title would pass to her eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee. Contrary to popular belief, Robert E. Lee never owned the Arlington estate. Lee did serve as custodian of the property, which had fallen into disrepair by the time he returned to execute his father-in-law’s will. By 1859, Lee had returned the property and its holdings to profitability and good order.
Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Anna, lived at Arlington House until 1861, when Virginia ratified an alliance with the Confederacy and seceded from the Union
Arlington National Cemetery was established by Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, who commanded the garrison at Arlington House, appropriated the grounds June 15, 1864, for use as a military cemetery. His intention was to render the house uninhabitable should the Lee family ever attempt to return. A stone and masonry burial vault in the rose garden, 20 feet wide and 10 feet deep, and containing the remains of 1,800 Bull Run casualties, was among the first monuments to Union dead erected under Meigs’ orders. Meigs himself was later buried within 100 yards of Arlington House with his wife, father and son; the final statement to his original order.
Neither Robert E. Lee, nor his wife, as title holder, ever attempted to publicly recover control of Arlington House. They were buried at Washington University (later renamed Washington and Lee University) where Lee had served as president. The couple never returned to the home George Washington Parke Custis had built and treasured. After Gen. Lee’s death in 1870, George Washington Custis Lee brought an action for ejectment in the Circuit Court of Alexandria (today Arlington) County, Va. Custis Lee, as eldest son of Gen. and Mrs. Lee, claimed that the land had been illegally confiscated and that, according to his grandfather’s will, he was the legal owner. In December 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, returned the property to Custis Lee, stating that it had been confiscated without due process
On March 3, 1883, the Congress purchased the property from Lee for $150,000. It became a military reservation, and Freedman’s Village, but not the graves, was removed.