Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial

Arlington House

On a Virginia hillside rising above the Potomac River and overlooking Washington, D.C., stands Arlington House. The 19th-century mansion seems out of place amid the more than 250,000 military grave sites that stretch out around it. Yet, when construction began in 1802, the estate was not intended to be a national cemetery.

'Custis-Lee Mansion'

The mansion, which was intended as a living memorial to George Washington, was owned and constructed by the first president's step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, son of John Parke Custis who himself was a child of Martha Washington by her first marriage and a ward of George Washington. The name 'Arlington' won out over 'Mount Washington,' which is what George Washington Parke Custis first intended calling the 1,100-acre tract of land that he had inherited at the death of his father when he was an infant. Arlington was the name of the Custis family ancestral estate in the Virginia tidewater area.

Custis hired George Hadfield, an English architect who came to Washington in 1785 to help construct the U.S. Capitol, to design his estate. The Greek revival structure which Hadfield designed took Custis sixteen years to complete.

The north wing was the first structure completed in 1802. It was in this building that Custis made his home, with a significant portion of it used to store George Washington memorabilia that Custis was acquiring with regularity. Among the items purchased and stored in the north wing were portraits, Washington's personal papers and clothes, and the command tent which the president had used at Yorktown.

George Washington Parke Custis and his wife, Mary Lee Fitzhugh (whom he had married in 1804), lived in Arlington House for the rest of their lives and were buried together on the property after their deaths in 1857 and 1853, respectively. They are buried in what is now Section 13. On June 30, 1831, Custis' only child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, married her childhood friend and distant cousin, Robert E. Lee. Lee was the son of former three-term Virginia Governor Henry ('Light Horse Harry') Lee and was himself a graduate of West Point.

George Washington Parke Custis

George Washington Parke Custis gravesite

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. Contrary to popular belief, Robert E. Lee never owned the Arlington estate. Lee did serve as custodian of the property, which had fallen into disrepair by the time he returned to execute his father-in-law's will. By 1859, Lee had returned the property and its holdings to profitability and good order.

On May 24, 1861, just a few hours after voters of the Commonwealth of Virginia ratified an ordinance of secession, thus joining the Confederate States of America, over 3,500 U.S. Army soldiers, commanded by Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell, streamed across the Potomac River into northern Virginia and captured Arlington estate. Although many believed the occupation of the estate was an intentional insult towards the Lee family, in reality the confiscation of the property was a military necessity. Arlington House, located on Arlington Heights, the high ground overlooking Washington, D.C., posed a tempting target for Confederate forces. Mid-19th-century artillery, situated on this elevated terrain, could easily range every federal building in the city, including the White House and Capitol. Throughout the war, federal troops used the land as a camp and headquarters with forts constructed and incorporated into the defenses of Washington, DC, including Fort Whipple (now Fort Myer) and Fort McPherson (now Section 11).

Lee deeply regretted the loss of his home at Arlington. During the early stages of the war, foreseeing the probable loss of his home and belongings, Lee wrote to his wife about Arlington:

'It is better to make up our minds to a general loss. They cannot take away the remembrance of the spot, and the memories of those that to us rendered it sacred. That will remain to us as long as life will last, and that we can preserve.'


The federal government confiscated the property when Mrs. Lee failed to pay, in person, taxes levied against Arlington estate. Offered for public sale on January 11, 1864, a tax commissioner purchased the property for 'government use, for war, military, charitable and educational purposes.'

Arlington House painting in Welcome Center


It was not until 1864, when the increasing number of battle fatalities was outpacing the burial capacity of Washington, D.C., cemeteries that 200 acres of Arlington plantation were set aside as a cemetery. Upon the authority of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army, 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. A stone and masonry burial vault in the rose garden, 20 feet wide and 10 feet deep, and containing the remains of 2,111 war casualties, was among the monuments to Union dead erected under Meigs' orders. Meigs himself was later buried within 100 yards of Arlington House with his wife, father and son – the final statement to his original order.

Throughout the war, Arlington estate also provided assistance to the thousands of African-Americans fleeing enslavement in the South. On December 4, 1863, the federal government dedicated a planned community for freed slaves on the southern portion of the property, which was named Freedman's Village. The federal government granted land to more than 1,100 freed slaves, where they farmed and lived until the turn of the 20th century.

Neither Robert E. Lee, nor his wife, as title holder, ever attempted to publicly recover control of Arlington House. The couple never returned to the home George Washington Parke Custis built and treasured. After Lee's death in 1870, his son, George Washington Custis Lee, brought an action for ejectment in the Circuit Court of Alexandria (today Arlington) County, Va. Custis Lee, as eldest son of the Lees, claimed the land was illegally confiscated and that, according to his grandfather's will, he was the legal owner. In December 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, returned the property to Custis Lee, stating that confiscation of the property lacked due process. On March 3, 1883, Congress purchased the property from Lee for $150,000. Arlington National Cemetery continued its mission as a military reservation and burial ground for United States service members and family.

Arlington House (Custis-Lee Mansion) and its grounds are administered by the National Park Service.