Arlington National Cemetery is a sprawling 624 acres of prime real estate, directly across the Potomac River from Washington D.C. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the hills overlooking the Capitol and the White House were a perfect spot for artillery. And Arlington, right on the cusp of the Union’s capital, was part of Virginia, which was about to secede from the Union.

It also happened to be the home of Col. Robert E. Lee, one of the most respected officers in the United States Army. He’d served with distinction in Mexico and put down John Brown’s raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Lee was offered command of all Union troops at the outset of the war. Torn between his oath as an officer of the U.S. Army and his state voting to go to the Confederacy, Lee chose the latter, resigning his commission and becoming a brigadier general in the Confederate Army.

That the U.S. Army would seize Lee Mansion was a given, as it was needed to protect Washington D.C. and the seat of the United States government, but what happened in 1864 was unexpected. With the dead from the Civil War rapidly filling Washington’s existing cemeteries, U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton signed the order to allow Quartermaster General Meigs to begin to bury the Union’s dead right outside of Lee Mansion, forever making it inhospitable for the family to inhabit it again.

It was designed and carried out to admonish and humiliate Lee for turning down his appointment and resigning his commission.


Arlington National Cemetery originally consisted of 1,100 acres and was owned by George Washington Parke Custis, the father of Mary Lee, General Lee’s wife. Custis was the grandson of Martha Washington and was adopted by George Washington when his father died in 1781.

Arlington National Cemetery established by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton
Mary Custis Lee

With the nation’s capital being constructed, Custis decided to build himself a palatial home overlooking the city. He reportedly based the design of his home on the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens. When he died in 1857, the mansion became the property of Mary Lee, the only surviving child of Custis. She buried both of her parents there and she and Colonel Lee loved the place. He referred to it as the spot “where my attachments are more strongly placed than at any other place in the world.”

In April of 1861, Fort Sumter was fired upon in Charleston, South Carolina, the Civil War was beginning. When Virginia succeeded from the Union, Lee resigned his commission and was made a brigadier general in charge of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s defenses.

He made the sound decision to base the state’s defenses around Manassas Junction, about 20 miles away at the junction of two important railroad lines. The Federal army had to secure Arlington Heights to safeguard the capital. Lee knew this and with as many of 75,000 troops pouring into the region, it was simply a matter of time.