Arlington’s Journey: From Division to Reconciliation
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Va., May 13, 2014 Today, as Arlington National Cemetery marks the 150th anniversary of its first burial, it is a scene of harmony and reconciliation.
A sweeping view of Arlington National Cemetery with the Washington Monument in the background. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
It didn’t start that way.
Before the Civil War, the property overlooking the Potomac River -- called the Custis-Lee Mansion or Arlington House -- was the home of Robert E. Lee. The house and grounds belonged to Lee’s wife, Mary, and in 1861 the Lee family had called Arlington home for 30 years.
Lee was at Arlington House when he received word that Virginia had seceded from the Union in April 1861. This caused a crisis for Lee, who was a U.S. Army colonel at the time. He had been offered command of the Union Army, and he agonized over the decision on whether to stay with the Union or go with his state.
On April 20, Lee submitted his resignation from the Army. He left Arlington House two days later. He ultimately rose to command the Confederate army.
Across the river in Washington, another Southern officer came to a different decision. Montgomery C. Meigs was a Georgian who graduated from West Point and as a Corps of Engineers officer and had built many of the major projects of the day. Meigs considered his oath to “support and defend the Constitution” as paramount, and when his home state of Georgia seceded, he stayed with the Union.
Meigs rose to be quartermaster general of Union forces. He was one of the first officers anywhere to understand the importance of logistics in military operations, and he welded together a system that capitalized on the Union’s manufacturing and transportation expertise.
For Arlington House, whether Lee stayed with the Union or went with Virginia didn’t really matter in 1861, because the property was so strategically important, Arlington National Cemetery historian Stephen Carney said. The property included high ground and dominated two bridges into the district. If Confederate forces placed artillery units on the heights, they would have had everything from the White House to the Capitol and more in range.
In one of the first movements of the Civil War, Union forces occupied Arlington and built two forts on the heights as part of the defenses for Washington.
Lee’s family lost the land for failure to pay tax on the land. Mary Lee had attempted to pay the tax -- a total of $92.07. She did not appear in person, but asked an agent -- possibly her cousin, to do so, according to Carney. But the federal government refused to accept the tax payment from that person.
The government acquired the house and land for $26,800 in 1864 and built a Freedman’s Village on the property to house the freed slaves who gravitated to Washington.
On April 30, 1864, the Army of the Potomac began the Overland Campaign against the Army of Northern Virginia. Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant moved across the Rappahannock River and immediately ran into Lee’s forces at the Battle of the Wilderness.
But instead of a one-day battle, as was the case before, the warfare ground on with battles in Spotsylvania, Yellow Tavern, North Anna, Cold Harbor and so on. It was a blood-letting the likes of which the world hadn’t seen. Estimates vary, but Civil War historians put the number of casualties in the range of 55,000 for the Union and 34,000 for the Confederates.
Washington was the closest city and served as the base of operations. It was a hub where rivers, roads and rail came together. It was both a supply center and a hospice, Carney said.
And in charge of it all was Union Brig. Gen. Montgomery Meigs, the quartermaster general. Meigs detested the Confederacy and the officers who had betrayed their oaths to the United States of America. He was responsible for supplying the needs of the Union Army, and he also was responsible for burying them.
In May 1864, the graveyards of Washington and neighboring Alexandria were overwhelmed by the demand. Meigs ordered a review, Carney said.
Engineers came back saying that Arlington was the most suitable site. “It was high above the river and the center of many roads,” Carney said. That it was the home of Robert E. Lee -- the author of much of the destruction -- was not lost on Meigs, Carney said.
Meigs had served under Lee in the pre-war Army as the two worked to improve navigation on the Mississippi River. They knew each other well. When Lee followed his state, Meigs felt betrayed. Establishing a cemetery on the property would ensure the Lee family could not re-occupy the land or house, Carney said.
The first military burial at Arlington was Pvt. William Henry Christman on May 13, 1864. The 67th Pennsylvania Infantry soldier was buried a good distance north of Arlington House. Meigs saw this and ordered the next burials to be in what was Mary Lee’s rose garden, feet from the door to Arlington House, Carney said.
Meigs formally declared the cemetery open in June 1864, and thousands of burials followed. At the end of the war, Meigs gathered the bones of thousands of Union soldiers that had been hastily buried at Virginia battlefields, and placed them in a burial vault in the rose garden.
The Lee family ultimately received payment from the federal government for Arlington House, but no one ever lived in the house again, Carney said.
The cemetery became a focal point during Decoration Day. Thousands of Americans journeyed to Arlington to place tributes on the graves of those buried at Arlington. The cemetery also became a visible sign of reconciliation -- it features a Confederate Monument with the graves of Confederate veterans around it.
The construction of the Memorial Bridge in 1932 symbolically linked the Lincoln Memorial in Washington with Arlington House in the midst of the cemetery.
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneAFPS)