A photograph taken on June 28, 1864, shows Union soldiers and civilians lounging on the front steps of Arlington House, the home of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and his family. The Greek Revival mansion was built by George Washington Parke Custis, the step-grandson of the first president, in the opening decades of the nineteenth century; it was designed to house George Washington memorabilia that Custis had amassed. Arlington was inherited by G. W. P. Custis's daughter, Mary Custis Lee, who was the wife of future Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The imposing house was perched on a hillside above the Potomac River across from the nation's capital. Robert E. Lee once described it as "a House any one might see with half an eye."
When Robert E. Lee sided with the Confederacy and accepted command of Virginia forces on April 23, 1861, his wife Mary Custis Lee vainly hoped she could remain at Arlington. But the estate's strategic position insured it would soon be commandeered, so she was forced to flee with her children. The Union army took over the property by the end of May 1861. In 1863 the United States government established on the property at Arlington a Freedmen's Village 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.