George Washington Parke Custis was raised at Mount Vernon. After inheriting the 1,100 acre Arlington estate from his father, John Parke Custis, the only surviving son of Martha Washington, G.W.P. Custis built Arlington House between 1802 and 1818, largely to serve as a memorial to the nation’s first President and as a museum for his own Washington mementos that had come from Mount Vernon. In fact, Custis was ahead of his time in understanding the importance Americans held for historic artifacts. At Arlington House, visitors could see the bed Washington died in or sip punch beneath his campaign tents, set up on the front lawn.
It was here, at Arlington House, that the great political and cultural figures of the age gathered to shape American culture. Washington Irving dined at the table, as did the painter Charles Wilson Peale. Every sitting president came to call and to gather inspiration from the Washington mementos. In 1825, Lafayette described the view from the portico as the finest he had seen in America, then led a torch-light procession across the Long Bridge to bid farewell to the nation he had come to visit.
Despite its important link to the Custis family and to George Washington, Arlington House is largely known today as the home of its next occupant, Robert E. Lee. In fact, the official principal significance of Arlington House, as defined by Congressional legislation, stems from its association with the Civil War general – hence its legislated designation: “Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial.” Accordingly, Arlington House is also a major Civil War Sesquicentennial site.
Robert E. Lee was related to Custis’ wife and was a frequent visitor to Arlington from childhood until 1831 when, at Arlington House, he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis and his wife. For 30 years, the cream-colored house and surrounding estate were was the anchor for Lee, his wife, and their seven children – six of whom were born at Arlington. Although Lee’s military career kept him away for long periods of time, he returned regularly to Arlington where he was able to make improvements to the property, which had declined in Custis’ later years. He was able to do this in large part because his wife had inherited scores of slaves from her father. Although Lee acknowledged the institution of slavery as a “moral and political evil” and eventually freed the family’s slaves, he did not hesitate to put them to work in the prewar years – draining the fields, rebuilding fences, and making other improvements. And he sent constables to track down and retrieve those who ran away.
Despite this troubled legacy, the Lee family had an extraordinary affection for their home, a lively place where the parlor was strewn with “paper babies” and the children tickling their father’s hands and feet while he regaled them with stories of the Mexican War. Even when he was working, Lee proved to be an indulgent father, allowing his children to use him as “a horse, dog, ladder, & target for a cannon by the little Lees” while he struggled to write business letters. Even when prominent visitors came to visit, they did little to upset the rhythm of family life at Arlington: President Franklin Pierce was surprised to find the Lee girls lying on the sofa in “dishabille” and too busy with their French lessons to pay him much mind.
Such domestic scenes were never far from Lee’s mind when Army duty called him away. On frontier duty in Texas, he wrote home at Christmas, longing for the holiday gaiety which he could only “enjoy in imagination and memory all that is going on.”
When Civil War broke out in 1861 and Lee turned to the South, he no doubt knew the consequences for his beloved Arlington, whose strategic position overlooking Washington required Union troops to occupy the property. Lee would never return to the home where his “affections & attachments are more strongly placed than at any other place in the world.”
On April 20, 1861, Lee wrote his fateful letter resigning his commission from the U.S. Army. On April 22nd, he left Arlington House forever, followed by his wife and family in May. Within days, the house and grounds were occupied by Union troops and incorporated into the defense of Washington, serving variously as a garrison, artillery post, and signal station. In 1864, Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs, Quartermaster of the Union and a vocal opponent of the Southern rebellion, authorized the use of Arlington as a new Civil War cemetery. To ensure that the Lee family would not return to Arlington, General Meigs ordered that graves be placed outside the front door of Arlington House, where 26 Union officers were buried along the boundary of Mrs. Lee’s garden.
In a 1882 Supreme Court decision, it was determined that the U.S. Government had confiscated Arlington from the Lees without due process or just compensation, thus returning ownership of the house and sprawling plantation to the Lee family--along with thousands of wartime graves. The oldest surviving of Lee’s children, George Washington Custis Lee, then sold the property to the government for $150,000, granting legal title to mansion and 1,100 acres of surrounding land.
Managed by the Army after the Civil War as an administrative building for the national cemetery, Arlington House was transferred to the National Park Service in 1933, With the revival of interest in General Lee, Congress designated the mansion as a memorial to Lee in 1955. It was placed on the national Register of Historic Places in 1966.