It’s not easy to visit Arlington House - the Robert E. Lee Memorial without getting distracted. The historic house is on the hill at the top of Arlington National Cemetery. There are so many possible diversions once you get into the cemetery, from its visitor center to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Kennedy graves, that it can be difficult to go directly to Arlington House.
But that's OK. This is a visit that should take time so you can take in all there is to see and learn.
Wander up the hill to see a group of buildings and gardens and you’ll get a good understanding of the human cost of the Civil War. You’ll also enjoy a wonderful view of Washington, D.C.
Arlington House has a distinguished history that starts with George Washington and ends with Confederate General Robert E. Lee. You see, George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington’s stepson, was raised by George and Martha Washington. Custis, who greatly admired Washington, first built the house on land he inherited from his natural father as a memorial to the first president. His youngest daughter, Mary Custis, married Robert E. Lee, and they raised their seven children in the house.
Gen. Lee had a distinguished career in the U.S. Army. It was said that he was against secession. But on April 19, 1861, Gen. Lee learned that Virginia had seceded from the Union. The general agonized over his future; should he stay with the Union or support his home state? The next day he resigned from the U.S. Army and sided with Virginia and the Confederacy. After he left for Richmond to command Virginia forces, Union troops prepared to occupy Arlington House and his wife and children left soon after.
Arlington House and its surroundings were transformed by the Union occupation. Union soldiers were encamped on the 1,100-acre estate. They cut down the forest and used the pastures and fields for drilling. The house became a headquarters and residence for officers and their staff. Many personal Lee family items were stolen.
Arlington National Cemetery was created in 1864 to bury the war dead that were pouring into Washington. Once that happened, it was obvious that General Lee and his family would never return to Arlington House. After the war, Gen. Lee became president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, and died there in 1870.
Later Lee’s son was compensated for the loss of his inheritance, and in 1933 the National Park Service acquired Arlington House. The children of former slaves helped in directing the restoration of Arlington House.
From the front of Arlington House, you can see many of the iconic Washington buildings: the Capitol, the Jefferson, Lincoln, and Washington memorials. The vista sweeps from Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River into Arlington Cemetery. Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who designed the city of Washington in 1791-1792, is buried right in front of the house.
Arlington House itself is being refurbished and is now empty, but you can still walk through it. The first floor has several parlors and the family dining room. The Lees had seven children and the second floor is full of bedrooms. The third floor was a storage attic, now closed off to the public.
There’s a small museum devoted to Gen. Lee’s life. It explains that the Memorial Bridge was positioned to unite Arlington (Lee’s residence) and the Lincoln Memorial across the Potomac River that divided North from South. Two small buildings housed the household slaves. One now holds a small museum explaining the role of slaves and freemen at Arlington House.
I walked to Arlington Cemetery from the Washington Mall area. The route took me past the Lincoln Memorial, and onto the Memorial Bridge with its wide pedestrian walkway over the Potomac River.
From the entrance into the cemetery it’s a 15-minute walk up the hill to Arlington House. Walking gave me a great feeling for the commanding location of Arlington. You can also get to the memorial on the Tourmobile shuttle. The Tourmobile makes several stops in the cemetery and you can get off and reboard the shuttle at any of the stops.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of General Robert E. Lee’s decision to resign his U.S. Army commission and join the Virginia forces, there are several upcoming programs. On Saturday evening, April 16, there will be a Vigil Commemorating Robert E. Lee's Resignation. On April 19, an event leads up to the point when it is believed that Robert E. Lee penned his letter of resignation.
Historian Dr. Peter S. Carmichael will present a special lecture on Southern Honor and the Election of Abraham Lincoln at Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, Sunday, April 24.