Veterans Day and the legacy of spite at Arlington National Cemetery

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 11 Nov. 2014. Today is Veterans Day -- the anniversary of the armistice the ended World War I -- and is an appropriate time to consider the nation's chief cemetery for veterans at Arlington, Va., which was established 150 years ago.

Nov 11th, 2014
After big defense cuts, what lies ahead?
After big defense cuts, what lies ahead?
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 11 Nov. 2014. Today is Veterans Day -- the anniversary of the armistice the ended World War I -- and is an appropriate time to consider the nation's chief cemetery for veterans at Arlington, Va., which was established 150 years ago.

Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place of U.S. presidents, military leaders, and more than 400,000 U.S. military veterans and their dependents, was established in May 1864 as the American Civil War entered its last year.

The land overlooking the nation's capital of Washington where Arlington National Cemetery is today had belonged to the Lee family of Virginia since 1802, and until three years earlier had been the home of Robert E. Lee, his wife Mary Custis Lee, and their children.

Related: Firing on Fort Sumter, which sparked the American Civil War, happened 150 years ago today

When the Civil War started, Robert E. Lee left Arlington to take command of Confederate forces in Virginia, and his wife, Mary, joined family members at a home farther away from Washington. The Lees were concerned that Arlington, with its commanding height above Washington, would be occupied by federal soldiers, which it soon was.

Although understandable for its era, establishment of a cemetery on land that still legally belonged to Robert E. Lee and his family was done out of pure spite.

By the time the first deceased Union Civil War soldier was buried at Arlington on 13 May 1864, many terrible battles of that war like Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, and Antietam were in the past. Federal veterans cemeteries were nearly full. The Battle of the Wilderness had concluded not two weeks before and Union and Confederate armies were locked in combat at Spotsylvania, Va.

Related: Confederate surrender at Appomattox ended the American Civil War 148 years ago this month

Federal government officials wanted to make Robert E. Lee pay for leading Confederate forces. What better way to do it than to take his family home and make the estate a burying ground for Union Civil War dead -- many of whom died at the hands of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia?

The aim was to deny Lee and his family the use of Arlington after the war, and burying Union dead on the family's land was one way to do it. Lee's wife, Mary, tried to pay the taxes on the property, but was turned away. After the war the federal government took over the property for non-payment of taxes.

After the war Rober E. Lee and his wife moved to Lexington, Va., far from Arlington where he became president of Washington College (today Washington and Lee University). He died in 1870 without ever returning to Arlington. His wife died three years later.

Related: The haunting bugle call Taps is 150 years old this summer

The story of the Lees and Arlington, however, doesn't end there. George Washington Custis Lee, the eldest son of Mary and Robert E. Lee, was heir to Arlington, and in 1877 he took the U.S. government to court to recover the land. It took six years and proceedings that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, but Lee regained title to the home and surrounding 1,100 acres of land in 1883. He promptly sold it back to the federal government for $150,000.

The Lee home still stands today in the middle of Arlington National Cemetery. In what had been Mary and Robert E. Lee's front yeard are buried Union generals Philip Sheridan, John Gibbon, and George Crook. Just down the hill from the front door are the graves of John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert. In what had been the back yard are the graves of other Union generals, including Abner Doubleday.

So many other giants of American history are interred at Arlington. It's a peaceful place today. It's ironic that the cemetery's beginnings are rooted in so much animosity.

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