Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Hello From Washington D.C. - Arlington House

One of the household slave's quarters, located in an outbuilding
One of the tram stops on the Arlington National Cemetery tour left us debark at the Arlington House (The Robert E. Lee Memorial), located on the cemetery grounds.  For two centuries this stately mansion overlooking Washington, DC, has borne symbolic meanings that reflect the history and changing culture of the United States.  Robert E. Lee called Arlington House home for three decades, and today it is a memorial to Lee and to his efforts to heal a nation torn apart by civil war.

The mansion was originally built from 1802 to 1818 by George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Dandridge Custis.  George Custis had been raised from infancy by his grandmother and her second husband, George Washington.  On his grandmother's death in 1802, Custis inherited her estates and enslaved workers, including 1100 acres on the Potomac.

View of Washington D.C. from the Arlington House
In 1804 Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh and they established their family in the Arlington House.  In 1831 their only surviving child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, married Lt. Robert E. Lee, a childhood playmate and distant cousin.  Mary and Robert Lee had seven children and divided their time between Arlington House and Lee's duty posts.

Dining room, where Robert E. Lee proposed to Mary Anna Randolph Custis
 With the coming of civil war, Arlington House ceased to be a home to the Custis and Lee families.  Lee left for Richmond in April 1861 and accepted command of Virginia's forces.  Mrs. Lee left in May as Union troops prepared to occupy Arlington in defense of the capital.

Colonel and Mrs. Lee's bedroom, with small sick room / birthing room attached
In 1863 the U.S. government dealt with the growing number of freed and runaway slaves by creating a Freedman's Village on the grounds.  Then in 1864, the government took possession of the estate when Mrs. Lee couldn't appear in person to pay property taxes.

Girls' bedroom
For reasons both practical and symbolic, the army then established a military cemetery on the grounds and began interring the rapidly mounting war dead.  Those were the first to be buried in what is now known as the Arlington National Cemetery.

Robert E. Lee's desk and spittoon
The establishment of Arlington National Cemetery ensured that Arlington House would no longer be a private residence, and Robert E. Lee would never return home.  His son Custis accused the government in 1877 of unlawful confiscation of his inheritance, and in 1882 the Supreme Court ordered the government to compensate Custis for his loss.

Child's desk chair
By the early 1900's Robert E. Lee, long a hero to the South, was being embraced by the North.  In a climate of reconciliation the nation now saw him as a great general who in the post-war years had by word and example helped to heal the country's wounds.

Of the original 1100 acres of the estate, now only 19 are within the boundaries of Arlington House, the Robert E. Memorial.  We were able to explore the first and second floors of the main house, the north and south slave quarters, the kitchen and flower gardens, and a small museum located in the old potting shed.

Next:  The National Geographic Museum

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