Historic Highlight: Arlington House

Have you ever driven around the Lincoln Memorial near the Arlington Memorial Bridge and seen a lovely structure on the hill across the river in the middle of Arlington National Cemetery?  It looks like this:

When I first moved to the city and didn’t know where anything was, I thought that the house was Mount Vernon.  And then, when I understood that I was looking at a structure in the middle of the cemetery, I thought it must be some kind of war memorial or museum.  Little did I know that my first guess was very close.

The Arlington House was built by George Washington’s step-grandson and adopted son George Washington Parke Custis.  The mansion was designed by George Hadfield, an English architect who also worked on the design of the U.S. Capitol.  The north and south wings were built between 1802 and 1804, and the large center and columned portico were built 13 years later.

The most interesting facts about the house concern its other famous residents and their connection to the cemetery.  Custis’s only child to survive to adulthood, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, married her cousin Robert E. Lee in 1831 and they lived in the home for over 30 years.  When General Lee took his post in the confederate army, Union forces occupied the mansion and General Lee never set foot on the property again.  Many of the George  Washington heirlooms saved and collected by George Washington Parke Custis were moved to the Patent Office for safekeeping, but others, including some pieces from Mount Vernon, were looted and scattered.

By 1864, when the military cemeteries in Washington and Alexandria had been filled, Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs ordered that graves be made right outside the front door of the mansion to prevent General Lee and his family from ever returning.  Thus, Robert E. Lee’s yard was turned into the country’s most important military cemetery.  Meigs personally oversaw the burial of 26 Union soldiers in Mrs. Lee’s rose garden.

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