Visit To Arlington National Cemetery Is A Lesson In History

by : Ann Knapp

For the four million people who visit Arlington National Cemetery every year, the reasons for making the trip vary.

Some might see it as simply a chance to walk among headstones that chronicle the cost of war in very personal terms. Others remember and honor the nation's fallen war heroes. And there are the personal "last farewells" that occur during funeral services for a family member or friend.

The veterans and exceptional individuals buried at Arlington represent a cross-section of Americans who lived from the Revolutionary War to the present military actions overseas. From the perspective of visitors to the Washington, D.C. area, this most hallowed burial ground of fallen American military is one of the most visited sites.

A visit of at least two hours is recommended for those who choose to include Arlington on a student group travel itinerary. Among the highlights of any visit, is the Tomb of the Unknowns and the grave site of President John F. Kennedy.

Arlington National Cemetery has been operational since May 1864, with recent funerals averaging 27 per workday, some from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, others from burials of aging World War II veterans and others.

Renovations of the Display Room and the development of some 40 acres of land are among the recent activities to have taken place at Arlington National Cemetery.

If Arlington House seems out of place among more than 250,000 military graves, standing on a Virginia hillside and rising above the Potomac River as it overlooks the nation's capital, it may be because the estate was not intended to be a national cemetery.

In fact, Arlington House was built by George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted son of United States President George Washington, and was originally intended be called Mount Washington, a memorial to Custis' adopted father. Eventually, however, it was given the name of the Custis family ancestral estate in the Virginia tidewater area.

The estate was designed by George Hadfield, who had helped construct the U.S. Capitol. It would take Custis 16 years to complete the Greek revival design.

The first building to be created was the north wing, which was completed in 1802 and served as Custis' home. Part of it was also used to store George Washington memorabilia, including portraits, personal papers, and clothes.

Even after the south wing was finished in 1804, Arlington House was no more than a set of detached buildings. With the completion of the central section in 1818, the house stretched 140 feet from the north to the south wing. Facilities in the central section included a dining room and sitting room, a large hall and a parlor. One of the most recognizable of the section's features is the eight columns of the exterior portico, each 5 feet in diameter at the base.

George Washington Parke Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh in 1804 and they lived in Arlington House for the rest of their lives. They were buried together on the property. On June 30, 1831, Custis' only child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, married her childhood friend and distant cousin, Robert E. Lee.

Between 1841 and 1857, Lee was away from Arlington House for several extended periods, serving in the Mexican war under General Winfield Scott, and as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. 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. 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.

Lee deeply regretted the loss of his home at Arlington, although he continued to feel responsible for the estate. He was said to have earnestly hoped that the slaves who were left behind would be educated and freed, according to the provisions of George Washington Parke Custis' will.

The property was confiscated by the federal government when property taxes levied against Arlington estate were not paid in person by Mrs. Lee. The property was offered for public sale Jan. 11, 1864, and was purchased by a tax commissioner for "government use, for war, military, charitable and educational purposes."

Arlington National Cemetery was established after 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. Among the first monuments to Union dead was a stone and masonry burial vault in the rose garden that contained the remains of 1,800 Bull Run casualties.

After the Civil War, the oldest son of Robert E. Lee, George Washington Custis Lee argued in court that the land had been illegally confiscated and that he was the legal owner. In December 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, returned the property. On March 3, 1883, Congress purchased the property from Lee for $150,000. It became a military reservation.

Today, Arlington National Cemetery, steeped in history, remains a place worthy of a visit during student group travel to the Washington, D.C., area.