Arlington House

Arlington House

Arlington House, also known as the Lee-Custis Mansion, overlooks Washington, D.C., from a rise across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia. Constructed between 1802 and 1818, it was one of the earliest and boldest expressions of the Greek Revival architectural style in America. Arlington House claims special historical significance through its association with the Washington and Custis families, and particularly with Robert E. Lee. After his family's departure in 1861 at the start of the American Civil War (1861–1865), Arlington House became a Union army facility. In 1863 the United States government established a Freedmen's Village on the property that was intended to serve as a model community for African Americans freed by the 1862 abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia and the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Its location, meanwhile, was a striking reminder that Arlington had once been a slave labor–based plantation. In 1864 the federal government officially appropriated the grounds and there established Arlington National Cemetery, which continues to serve as a final resting place for members of the United States armed forces. MORE...

 

George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington and adopted son of U.S. president George Washington, built Arlington House. Naming it for a Custis property in Maryland, he saw Arlington not only as home but also as a monument to the first president, as well as a place proudly to display his large collection of items previously owned by George Washington. The house was based on a design by the Italian-born English architect George Hadfield, who had worked on the United States Capitol. Construction began in 1802 and continued over several decades before its completion in 1818. Here the young West Point graduate Robert E. Lee courted his distant cousin Mary Anna Randolph Custis, daughter of G. W. P. Custis and Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis. Here, too, the couple married on June 30, 1831, maintaining their home at Arlington until forced out at the beginning of the Civil War. Lee described it as a place where his "affections and attachments are more strongly placed than at any other place in the World."

Arlington encompassed 1,100 acres, where Custis-owned slaves cultivated crops including corn and wheat. After the 1857 death of his father-in-law, Lee took over management of the estate, which his wife had inherited. It was a time of frustration for some slaves, who had anticipated freedom at the death of G. W. P. Custis. Lee, dealing with a complex will and large residual debt, called it "an unpleasant legacy," and did not formally free the Custis slaves until January 1863.

On April 22, 1861, at Arlington House Lee made his famous decision to resign his U.S. Army commission and side with Virginia, whose convention in Richmond had just voted to secede. Arlington's location, close to the Potomac River, meant that continued residence by Lee, or his family, would be untenable. Lee's family departed the following month, though Mary Custis Lee had said as late as May 5, 1861, that she "would not stir from this house, even if the whole northern army were to surround it." Early in the war Arlington became the headquarters of Union general Irvin McDowell while he commanded forces defending Washington. It was a hub of military activity: the house provided office and residential space, while the grounds witnessed large-scale troop movements and encampments.

Arlington House also served another purpose: in May of 1863, Union officials selected the grounds of Arlington House as the site for a Freedman's Village where newly emancipated slaves could establish themselves. Formally dedicated in December 1863, the Freedman's Village would grow into an elaborate community, complete with a hospital, schools, and other public buildings. Despite persistent efforts to remove the African American community, residents successfully resisted overtures to eliminate the village until 1900. In June 1864, the Quartermaster General of the United States Army, the Georgia-born general Montgomery C. Meigs, ordered that a section of those grounds become a military cemetery, though the first burial had occurred the previous month. Revenge motivated these two developments, at least in part; Union authorities wanted to drive home the point that Lee, considered to be a traitor, had forfeited any claim to Arlington House.

The Lee family lost ownership of the Arlington property during the war, but a U.S. Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Lee (1882) ruled that the house had been seized without due process and resulted in a congressional act in 1883 authorizing the purchase of the property from Washington Parke Custis Lee for $150,000. The War Department began restoration of the house in 1925, and the National Park Service took over management in 1933. In 1955, Arlington House was designated a memorial to Robert E. Lee, and in 1966 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Welcoming numerous visitors, the National Park Service and the Arlington House staff continue to tell the story of the Custis and Lee families in general and of Robert E. Lee specifically. Through the use of various interpretive tools, however, the story is unfolding more expansively to include the many African Americans and their families who once labored and lived here, in slavery and in freedom.

Time Line

  • 1802 - George Washington Parke Custis begins construction of Arlington House on an 1,100-acre property inherited from his father, John Parke Custis. He uses plans prepared by George Hadfield, who in the 1790s had supervised part of the construction of the U.S. Capitol. Custis initially calls the estate Mount Washington.
  • December 1803 - Contemporary observers note that George Washington Parke Custis has finished one wing of what will become Arlington House.
  • July 7, 1804 - George Washington Parke Custis marries Mary Lee Fitzhugh of Chatham in Stafford County, Virginia. The name Arlington soon comes to replace the designation of Mount Washington for the property he has been building since 1802.
  • 1818 - Construction of Arlington House, which began in 1802, is completed.
  • June 30, 1831 - Robert E. Lee marries Mary Anna Randolph Custis, Martha Washington's great-granddaughter, at Arlington, the Custis family seat.
  • April 23, 1853 - Mary Fitzhugh Custis dies and is buried near Arlington House.
  • October 10, 1857 - George Washington Parke Custis dies, leaving Robert E. Lee as executor of his estate. Custis is buried adjacent to his wife at Arlington.
  • April 22, 1861 - Robert E. Lee leaves Arlington for the final time, having resigned his U.S. Army commission and offered his services to Virginia.
  • May 8, 1861 - Robert E. Lee's family begins evacuating Arlington, relocating initially to the nearby Fitzhugh home, Ravensworth, in Fairfax County.
  • May 23, 1861 - Union troops commence occupation of the grounds around Arlington House.
  • May 1863 - The War Department officially establishes a Freedmen's Village on the Arlington House grounds.
  • June 15, 1864 - The Quartermaster General of the United States Army, Montgomery C. Meigs, officially designates the area around Arlington House as a military cemetery.
  • June 20, 1873 - Mary Custis Lee writes of her sadness following her recent, and final, look at Arlington House and its much-changed grounds.
  • December 1882 - The U.S. Supreme Court rules, in U.S. v. Lee, that the U.S. government had seized Arlington House without due process.
  • March 10, 1883 - After a congressional act authorizes the purchase of Arlington House from Washington Parke Custis Lee for $150,000, the United States government gains title to the property.
  • ca. 1888 - The War Department begins to remove the Freedmen's Village from the grounds of the Arlington House property in order to provide room for expanding the National Cemetery.
  • March 24, 1925 - U.S. president Calvin Coolidge approves a joint congressional measure to restore Arlington House. The project falls under the direction of the U.S. War Department.
  • June 10, 1933 - Executive Order 6166 transfers control of Arlington House from the War Department to the Department of the Interior, National Park Service.
  • 1955 - Arlington House is officially designated the Custis-Lee Mansion and becomes a memorial to Robert E. Lee.
  • 1966 - The Custis-Lee Mansion is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Further Reading
Coulling, Mary P. The Lee Girls. Winston-Salem, N.C.: John F. Blair, 1987.
Hanna, Jennifer. Arlington House: The Robert E. Lee Memorial. Cultural Landscape Report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2001.
McCaslin, Richard B. Lee in the Shadow of Washington. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.
Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through his Private Letters. New York: The Penguin Group, 2007.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
McFarland, K. M. Arlington House. (2010, August 24). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Arlington_House.

MLA Citation:
McFarland, K. M. "Arlington House." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 24 Aug. 2010. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: January 14, 2010 | Last modified: August 24, 2010


Contributed by Kenneth M. McFarland, the director of education at Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, in Stratford, Virginia.