Arlington House

The first thing you’ll notice about Arlington National Cemetery is that it occupies the side of a hill. The second thing you’ll notice is that there’s a large, Greek temple-looking building at the top. That building is the Custis-Lee Mansion, officially known as Arlington House and memorial to Robert E. Lee.

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In 1802, George Washington Parke Custis inherited 1100 acres across the Potomac River from Washington DC from his grandmother, Martha Washington. He built a house on its highest point and in the parlor of the house, his daughter Mary married her third cousin, Robert Edward Lee.

Also at Arlington House, in 1861, Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army before traveling to Richmond to accept command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Mary left Arlington soon after, just ahead of the Union troops that had come to occupy it. The Lees would never return.

Saturday was a spring-like gorgeous day in DC so I decided to make a trip to Arlington National Cemetery to see the grave of the USS Monitor sailors. The Monitor, a Civil War ironclad battleship, went down in a storm off the coast of North Carolina in 1862, taking with it 16 sailors. Its wreck was found in 1973 and various bits salvaged through the years. In 2002, its gun turret was found and in the turret, the bodies of two sailors. The bodies were taken to the Joint POW MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii for testing, but identification wasn’t possible. They were buried as unknown at Arlington.

I thought that it would be easy to find the graves. There had been, after all, a full-honors military funeral for them the evening before, and I thought that there’d be funeral wreathes, or signs, or something showing the way. And I knew the general location: Section 64. But it wasn’t that easy. No flowers, no signs, no nothing. So my neighbor, Lee — who I’d dragged with me — and I wandered around until we spotted a group of teenagers — clearly a school group — following a guide.

“What are you looking for?” Lee asked one of them.

She shugged. “I don’t know.”

“We’re looking for the Monitor,” Lee told her.

“Oh yeah,” said another girl, “that’s what we’re looking for too.”

So we followed them and sure enough, they led us to the USS Monitor graves. There was only a tiny temporary marker there — no wonder we couldn’t find it — and I think it contains an error.

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Name: USS Monitor
Date of death: 03/09/1862
Date of internment: 03/08/2013

The Monitor went down on December 31, 1862. March 9 was the date of the Monitor’s famous battle with the CSS Virginia, which the Monitor won.

There wasn’t much to see, so after a couple of photos, we decided to visit Arlington House. The National Park Service — the house is run by the NPS, while the cemetery belongs to the Department of Defense — website said that all the furniture had been removed, because the house is being renovated. So I wouldn’t have taken a special trip to see it, but since we were there anyway….

The house is self-guided, with rangers in several of the rooms to answer questions. And all of the furniture was there. The first floor (with two parlors, a diningroom, a nursery and two bedrooms) and the basement (with a summer kitchen and a cellar) are open. No going upstairs.

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When Mrs. Lee fled, she left it in the care of her favorite maid, a slave name Selina Gray. Once the Union occupied the house, items started walking. Selina Gray complained to the commanding officer, and the furnishings were put into storage. So we can thank Selina Gray that many of the items now in the house are original to the house and Lees.

There are also two buildings that were slave quarters then and are a bookshop and exhibit spaces now. And there’s a small but very good museum. There were quite a few people at the cemetery but almost no one in the house and absolutely no one in the museum.

In 1864, Arlington was formally declared a bural ground. The story goes that Union Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs was angry at Lee for what he saw as Lee’s betrayal of his country, and decided that he would ensure that Lee was never able to return to the house. So he buried over 2000 of the dead — both Union and Confederate — from various Virginia batles in the flower garden.  Arlington became known as the cemetery that spite built.

After the war, Robert and Mary’s son Custis sued the government for the return of the house. He won, but the family decided against living in a house with thousands of war dead lying a few feet away. So Custis sold the estate back to the government and Arlington remained a cemetery. General Meigs is buried at Arlington. The Lees are buried at Washington Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.

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10 Responses to Arlington House

  1. Good story – I enjoyed reading it!

  2. Selina Gray was a heroine in her own right, at least in this history buff’s humble opinion.

  3. Kathie Shattuck says:

    Always wanted to see the house, envision what it must have been like before the war. So glad they still have so many of the original furnishings, that is a really amazing story. Wonder what happened to Selina afterwards.

    • The slave quarters and exhibits at the back of the house are of Selina’s quarters, where she lived with her husband and 8 children. The house features quite a bit of her story. They were all freed after the war, bought a 15 acre farm not too far from Arlington House and, it seems, did very well for themselves. So a good ending for her.

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