Sunday, August 07, 2011
SC6's Civil War Rewind, Part Six: America's Most Hallowed Ground... From a Strange Source
The next installment of our Civil War 150th Anniversary series is the curious story of what is considered to be the most sacred places in the United States. As most of you know, Washington DC is just a stone's throw across the Potomac River from Virginia. Arlington and Alexandria are directly across, so when the war broke out, protecting the US capital was of paramount importance...
To make sure DC was safe from cannon fire, it was open season on Northern Virginia. For example, Winchester changed hands 78 times during the course of the war. For Arlington and Alexandria, it was pretty simple: they were almost immediately taken over for the entire conflict. One resident was of particular interest - Robert E. Lee.
Offered the command of the entire Union Army by Abraham Lincoln, Lee waited until his home state of Virginia decided whether of not it would secede. When the Cavalier State went with the South, Lee declined the job, and went with it. A key loss for the Union to be sure.... Problem for Lee was that he lived in Arlington House, the family home of Lee's wife Mary Anna Custis, a direct descendant of Martha Washington. Ironic..
Needless to say, the Lee's evacuated Arlington House, and it soon became holding of the US Army for various reasons. Mrs. Lee kept up on the annual taxes on the place until 1864, when Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs had an idea. Meigs, who lost his son in battle earlier that year, decided to pick places to bury the mounting war dead - and Arlington was his first choice.
Mary Custis Lee sent an agent to pay her annual taxes as usual, but the US Government refused to accept it, and they purchased Arlington at auction for $26,800. Meigs then preparing the site for Union dead, starting with his own son, who was buried in Mrs. Lee's rose garden, next to the home. He ensured that if Robert E. Lee ever came home, he would be forced to see the cost of what Meigs considered his disloyalty.
The Lee's never moved back in, but their son did sue the US Government after the war for improper due process in the sale. The Supreme Court voted 5-4 in favor of the Lee estate, and the property was returned. Useless by then for private use, Arlington House was sold back to US for $150,000. It now stands as Arlington National Cemetary - the most hallowed ground for over 300,000 US war dead. Certainly one of the more ironic stories of the Civil War, it happened 150 years ago...