Camp Martin Travels

These entries will be a combination of historical day trips, graduate level travel courses, and just little stops along the way. I have been teaching 8th grade American History for over 25 years. I am also a Civil War Reenactor and have traveled to Germany and Austria with several groups of exchange students and written about our adventures. Please check all my posts by using the monthly Blog Archive tabs shown below. I have posted over 150 Blog Episodes since 2009... Please explore them all!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Arlington House / Robert E. Lee Memorial

Arlington House / Robert E. Lee Memorial
Arlington National Cemetery / Washington D.C.

General Robert E. Lee
(Painting Credit / Rick Timmons)
On the evening of April 19, 1861, Robert E. Lee faced a difficult decision.  Tensions between northern free states and southern slave states had erupted into secession and war between the two regions was imminent.  Virginia was about to follow in the footsteps of South Carolina and secede from the United States of America.  The previous day, the new President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, asked the highly acclaimed general to side with his home state and lead the military of the CSA.  Earlier, President Abraham Lincoln had asked that Lee continue his career serving the United States Army as he had faithfully for the previous thirty-two years.  Lee wrestled with the decision privately in the upstairs bed chamber of his home known as Arlington House.  Around midnight, he emerged from his private council to announce to his family that he made his decision and would support his home state of Virginia.  In his hand he held his letter of resignation that would be sent to President Abraham Lincoln.  Several days later, Lee left Arlington House and traveled to Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy.  He would never see his home again.

Arlington House Mansion
Robert E. Lee did not believe in the institution of slavery and did not own any slaves.  The slaves his wife inherited along with Arlington House, following the death of her father, were freed.  Lee believed the institution was inhumane and evil.   He looked to the future with the dawning of new technology, such as the mechanical reaper invented by Cyrus McCormick, to ease the need for manpower in agriculture.  In his opinion, the institution of slavery was now unnecessary.  Despite this attitude toward the slavery issue, Lee could not take up arms against his beloved home state and thus had no choice but to lead the Army of Northern Virginia for the Confederacy.  Lee's conflict with Lincoln was in the president's unwillingness to accept some form of compromise to avoid violence but there was no bend in Lincoln's attitude concerning the subject.  Diplomacy had failed time and again to find a solution and now war would ultimately determine the outcome.

 George Washington Park Custis
(Photo Credit / Library of Congress)
The Arlington House estate was built by the adopted grandson of President George Washington, George Washington Parke Custis, who intended the mansion to be a memorial to his famous grandfather.  Upon his death, the property was inherited by his only surviving child, his daughter Mary Anna Randolph Custis, who later married Robert E. Lee.  It is ironic that the man who would lead armed resistance against the United States had family connections to the man who helped create the United States of America, George Washington, better known as the Father of his Country.  Arlington House included 1,100 acres of land just outside the nation's capitol city of Washington in the District of Columbia.  The Greek revival style home took sixteen years to construct on a hill above the Potomac River with a beautiful view overlooking Washington.  

Union Troops Occupy Arlington Heights
(Photo Credit / National Archives)
Robert E. Lee left his home to join the cause of the Confederacy and his family soon followed, vacating Arlington House within a month's time.  His wife Mary and their daughters also disagreed with the institution of slavery and were active in abolitionist-like causes.  They sponsored an illegal school, teaching slave children how to read and write on the Arlington Plantation.  They also raised funds for the American Colonization Society, an organization that purchased land in northern Africa to create a homeland for emancipated slaves, which later became the nation of Liberia.  Lee was supportive of his wife's work which included the freeing of the Custis family slaves in 1862.  Later in the war, Lee even pushed the idea of enlisting slave soldiers into the Confederate Army in exchange for their freedom at the end of the war.  Lee was full of internal conflicts concerning the true purpose of the war throughout the four year conflict.  However, his steadfast allegiance to the State of Virgina never wavered.

General McDowell and Staff at Arlington
(Photo Credit / National Archives)
The Army of the Potomac immediately occupied the Arlington property and stationed guns on the heights by the mansion overlooking the city to prevent the Confederacy from using the high ground to launch an assault against Washington.  Trees were cut down to make room for batteries of cannon, creating an unobstructed line of fire against a potential enemy invasion from the south.  Over time, a total of five forts were built on the large property along with newly constructed roads to deliver supplies.  Mrs. Lee, now safe in Richmond, was worried about her family's ancestral home and actually wrote a letter to Union General Irvin McDowell.  She respectfully asked General McDowell, who led the First Corps of 40,000 troops assigned the task of defending Washington, if he could spare Arlington House and not to disturb their private residence.  He responded promising to do what he could to protect the house.  However, with the necessities of war, the house was later opened up as a military headquarters.  The interior space of the house was now violated by the Union.

Union Graves at Arlington
 (Photo Credit / Arlington National Cemetery)
As the war dragged on, the South's unwillingness to bend to the might of the Union was blamed on Lee's gifted abilities as a military commander.  The increasing number of Union dead needed a place to rest.  The veteran's cemetery outside the Soldier's Home in Washington D.C. was at capacity.  Therefore, it was decided to begin to bury the Union dead at Arlington as a means of punishing General Lee for siding with the South and causing so many deaths.  General Montgomery C. Meigs, who commanded the garrison at Arlington Heights is credited with creating Arlington National Cemetery in 1864.  The first grave created was a massive tomb in the Lee family's rose garden that contained 1800 Union dead from the Battle of Bull Run. The spiteful intention was that General Lee and his family would now, never be able to come home to Arlington House again and ultimately, they never did.

Endless Gardens of Stone
Since its inception, the military cemetery has grown to encompass 624 acres and remains an active cemetery to the present day.   After 1900, veterans from previous wars were recovered for reinturment within the sacred space so Arlington National Cemetery now contains the remains of veterans from all of America's wars, including Iraq and Afghanistan.  More than 300,000 veterans have been laid to rest at Arlington with an average of 28 funerals taking place every weekday, equating to almost 7,000 per year. The most well known grave at Arlington is that of President John F. Kennedy, along with his wife Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and their infant son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy.  The grave site is located at the base of Arlington House and is marked by an eternal flame.  The slain president's brothers Robert F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy were laid to rest nearby. 

Freeman's Village
(Illustration Credit / Harper's Weekly)
In June of 1863, a portion of the Arlington estate to the south was set aside to create a model community for former and fugitive slaves.  The federal government gave over 1,100 freed slaves tracts of land to farm in what became known as Freeman's Village.  It originally started as a tent city for southern slaves running to Washington for freedom and protection but grew into a community that lasted more than thirty years.  Some of the residents were former slaves of the Arlington Estate, owned by the Custis family.  A school was soon created that grew in attendance, containing a child and adult enrollment of over 900 students.   In a strange twist of fate, the Lee family's vision of what life could be like for the former slaves of Virginia, came to be on the grounds of their former home.   

George Washington Custis Lee  / Robert E. Lee / Walter Taylor
Photo Taken Days Following Lee's Surrender to Grant
(Photo Credit / Andrew Gardner / National Archives)
The federal government officially seized the Arlington estate because taxes had not been paid on the property.  Mary Custis Lee sent an agent from Richmond to pay the ninety-two dollar tax but was turned away by government agents.  Following the death of his parents, George Washington Custis Lee, the oldest son of the Lee family, sued the federal government for seizing the Arlington property illegally.  He argued that he was the rightful owner according to the family will and in a 5-4 decision, Lee won his case and regained control of what was left of his family's estate.  However, the following year he agreed to sell it back to the federal government for $150,000 on March 3, 1883.  The deed was ceremoniously transferred from George Washington Custis Lee to Secretary of War, Robert Todd Lincoln.  Both men were the oldest sons of their famous fathers, who were the opposing leading figure heads of the Civil War conflict.  Ironically, Arlington House is now considered an official monument, dubbed the Robert E. Lee Memorial and looks out over the Lincoln Memorial, located in direct line on the opposite side of the Potomac River.  

The Eternal Flame
(Photo Credit / Sharpresolution, LLC)
I have visited Arlington National Cemetery several times and each visit brings out the real emotional cost of war.  It is a humbling reminder of how hollow statistics found in books can have true measure with the visual representation of endless fields of neatly spaced stone markers.  It is a quiet place, one of reflection, and private personal thoughts.  I vividly remember my first visit to the site when my mother and I traveled to the nation's capital.  It was a gloomy day in May with a cold steady rain, which added to the sad atmosphere of the cemetery.  As we stood in front of the eternal flame, my mother recounted the emotional story of the events, as they unfolded in late November of 1963.  Her tears were a testimony to the weight of grief, burdened by a nation in mourning.   It is impossible to describe the impact of Arlington with words.  It is something everyone should take the time to experience, as a tribute to all who rest here within hallowed ground. 

 Taps at Arlington
(Photo Credit / Arlington National Cemetery)

"Get correct views of life, and learn to see the world in its true light.  It will enable you to live pleasantly, to do good, and, when summoned away, to leave without regret." 

Quote / Robert E. Lee

"In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bittersweet agony, because it takes them unawares."

Quote / Abraham Lincoln


My Mother / Wanda Martin
Vietnam War Memorial / Washington D.C.


  1. Thank you for this beautiful post.

  2. Very interesting pictures

  3. Thank you for the beautiful post and the time it must have taken. jm


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