Civil War Profiles: Arlington House: A memorial to R.E. Lee

The trauma of the oncoming Civil War caused Southerners in active military service to the United States to make, in many cases, a heart-wrenching decision: To honor their oath of allegiance to their country, or join the rebellion and pledge loyalty to their home state.

At Arlington House in Virginia, sitting on a knoll overlooking the Potomac River with a magnificent view of the capital city of Washington, a high-ranking military officer faced the decision of a lifetime.

Newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln, through an intermediary, had offered Col. Robert E. Lee command of his entire army, if he would remain loyal to the United States. After spending the night pacing the floor of his bedroom, Lee concluded he could not raise his sword against Virginia nor his family; therefore, he tendered his resignation.

Beginning in 1802 and over the next 16 years, George Washington Parke Custis had built Arlington House as a magnificent Greek revival-style shrine to Gen. George Washington, who, along with his wife, Martha, had taken young George into their home after the untimely death of the boy’s father and raised him as their grandson.

It was at Arlington House, the center of a 1,100-acre plantation, in 1831 that Washington’s great-granddaughter, Mary Anna Parke Custis, married her third cousin and young graduate of West Point, Lt. Robert E. Lee.

Over the next 30 years of army life, Mary and Robert would be blessed with seven children, and much of their time was spent at Arlington, especially Mary and their offspring, while Robert served in remote assignments around the country. The Civil War, however, would change their lives forever.

Once Lee resigned from the U.S. army in 1861, Arlington House became a target because of its strategic location across the Potomac. With Lee away as a general in the Confederate army, Mary was forced to abandon the house and became a refugee, fleeing just ahead of the Union army as it moved south through Virginia.

As war-related deaths occurred in large numbers, Quartermaster-General Montgomery Meigs decided to bury Union soldiers on the grounds of Arlington. In addition to creating a cemetery, Meigs — himself a Southern-born man who remained loyal to the U.S. — reportedly wanted to insure that Lee, whom he considered a traitor, would never again be able to call Arlington home.

As noted on the Arlington National Cemetery website, burials of soldiers who died in Washington and Alexandria hospitals during the war continued at Arlington. (See Coastal Point, Sept. 19, 2014). As the conflict continued, Union dead were gathered from the brutal battlefields of Bull Run, Bristol Station, Chantilly and elsewhere and placed in the new national cemetery, along with some Confederate dead — mostly those who died in Washington hospitals after the war ended (

In 1863, the government established Freedman’s Village on the grounds of Arlington. The New York Times on Dec. 12, 1863, described the village as a colony of contrabands or former slaves who were cultivating the Arlington soil for themselves, rather than the former owner, Gen. R.E. Lee, “the leader of the rebel army.” The village was dedicated on Dec. 3, and a schoolhouse and chapel were erected, as well as a home for the aged and infirm freedmen that were to make “many comfortable and happy who have spent long years of unrequited toil.”

Fast-forward to modern times — in 1925, Congress allocated funds to restore Arlington House to “how it looked when the Lee family left in 1861.” The National Park Service acquired the property in 1933 and continued restoration of what it designated the Custis Lee Mansion. The previous year, the Arlington Memorial Bridge was constructed over the Potomac to “visually connect the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington House.”

By 1972, Congress and the National Park Service symbolically pardoned Lee’s leadership of an army in rebellion to the United States by renaming the Custis Lee Mansion as Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial. Recent additional restoration has improved the structural integrity of the mansion.

The R.E. Lee Memorial is open to the public year-round. Guided tours of the building take you back through 200 years of history. You can combine a visit to the mansion with a tour of Arlington National Cemetery. For information and directions, go to or call (703) 235-1530.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (available at Bethany Beach Books or from Contact him at