July 26, 2019

Arlington Cemetary's Southern Expansion


With space running out, Arlington spreads out to surround the US Air Force Memorial––and to limit who can be buried on its hallowed grounds.

The day after Virginia voted to secede from the union in 1861, US Army troops crossed the Potomac and took a strategic hill overlooking Washington, D.C. From a hilltop mansion built by President George Washington’s adopted grandson, they had a commanding view of the White House and Capitol, and they quickly settled in on the property. Almost exactly three years later, the first American soldier was buried there.  

There would be many more. The estate belonged to Mary Custis Lee, wife of Gen. Robert E. Lee, and both she and her children had been raised there. Lee, who had declined President Abraham Lincoln’s offer to command the Union Army in a fight against the South, had hoped to preserve the property, but Union Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs had other ideas. In his view, Lee was a traitor, and his punishment deserved to be severe, personal, and lasting.  

“I recommend,” Meigs wrote in June 1864 to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, that “the land surrounding the Arlington Mansion, now understood to be the property of the United States, be appropriated as a National Military Cemetery.”