Thursday, August 2, 2007

arlington national cemetery 1: too many lost

Looking southeast from Roosevelt Drive.

For anyone who hasn't heard of it, Arlington National Cemetery is a US national military cemetery. It sits just across the Potomac River from Washington DC. It currently holds more than 300,000 graves; veterans from every American war since the American Revolution (1775-1783) are buried there. Here's how it came to be.

The story begins with our first president, George Washington, who lived in northern Virginia. He married a widow named Martha Custis. George and Martha Washington had no children together, but Martha had children from her first marriage--George Washington subsequently adopted them. One of her grandchildren built Arlington House, some 15 miles upriver of Mount Vernon, the home George and Martha Washington shared.

One of George and Martha's great-granddaughters lived at Arlington House with her husband, a famous graduate of the US Military Academy. His name was Robert E. Lee. Lee was a pivotal figure in the US Civil War (1861-65), when 11 states seceded from the Union and fought for their independence. The reasons were many and varied and would take too long to summarize here. Let's just say they were really unhappy with the way things were going in the country at the time. The Civil War, for those who don't know, was fought between Union troops (the US, the Union, or the "North"), and the Confederacy (the Confederate States of America or the "South"). It began in 1861 and effectively ended with Lee's surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox Court House in 1865.

Anyway. Virginia was Lee's home state, and when Virginia seceded from the Union (the United States) in 1861, Lee (who had opposed secession) chose to remain loyal to his home state of Virginia. He served as a military advisor to Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy. Then he took command of Confederate forces in the East.

Perhaps obviously, Union officers who were at the military academy with Lee felt betrayed when he chose the Lee aroused feelings of betrayal when he chose to serve in the Confederate Army. That might explain why the estate he lived at with his wife--though neither of them owned it--was targetted by Union troops. After the war broke out, Union troops were installed around Arlington House and its 1,100-acre estate shortly after war broke out. It was a nice target for them, being so close to the nation's capital and the home of one of the Confederacy's most important generals.

Lee's wife (who obviously wasn't going to go running around town with Union troops occupying the land surrounding her family's estate) failed to pay the estate's taxes in person three years later. The entire 1100-acre estate was confiscated that year. The general in charge of the units occupying the estate, intending to prevent the Lee family from ever being able to live at Arlington House again, turned the 200 acres closest to Arlington House into a military cemetery. The first grave at Arlington was a mass grave, containing 1800 Union soldiers who died at the Battle of Bull Run. As you can imagine, having the grounds surrounding the house turned into a cemetery went a long way toward rendering the house uninhabitable.

A few years after the Civil War ended, Lee's brother-in-law (one of the Custis family) sued to reclaim the estate, which would have belonged to him but for the intervening occupation and cemetery-making. The case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which gave the land back to Mr Custis. The federal government bought the land back from him for $150,000, and now owns Arlington National Cemetery. The house, incidentally, is now called the Custis-Lee House, and still stands in the cemetery.

Okay, I know this is a photo blog, not a blog blog, but the history's sort of interesting (at least to me). I'll stop babbling now.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i liked your space,im looking for some pictures of the arlington hou se for a project im working on. contact me at thomasfburke1401@aol.comthanks