General Robert Lee’s estate Arlington was an 1,100-acre estate that his wife had inherited from her father, George Washington Parke Custis, upon his death in 1857. Custis was the grandson of Martha Washington and had been adopted by George Washington when Custis' father died in 1781.
After Virginia seceded, the federal government took over Arlington so that the Confederate army couldn’t use the estate's strategic location to attack Washington D.C. Prior to Mary Lee's leaving, she boxed the family silver, crated George Washington's and G.W.P. Custis' papers and secured General Lee's files. As the federal soldiers arrived they set up camp and began to loot Lee’s house and estate. They also built forts to provide protection in case of an attack.
As slaves became free, the Union army used the land for a Freedmen's Village. Some 1,500 freed slaves lived on the estate, complete with new frame houses, schools, churches and farmlands on which the former slaves grew food for the Union war effort. Even after the war, some of the freedmen remained and continued to farm parcels of land.
In 1862, Congress passed a law requiring taxes to be paid in person if their land was a part of an insurrectionist district. They required Mary Lee to pay $92.07 on her estate, but due to her health she couldn’t go in person to pay, and the representative she sent was denied. The property was sold at auction to the government, well below its assessed value.
As the war lingered, Union officials sought a place to bury the growing number of dead soldiers. They chose Arlington, and the first soldier laid to rest there was Pvt. William Christman, 21, of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry. Arlington became a national military cemetery in 1864, and soon saw many more men interred during the war.
After the war, the Lees continued to try to get their property back. Lee wrote to his wife that "The prospect does not look promising.” The question of Arlington's ownership was still unresolved when Lee died, age 63, in Lexington on October 12, 1870. Both Mary Lee and her son, known as Custis, brought the issue before Congress but Congress never acted in their favor.
Custis Lee took the matter before the court and worked it up to the Supreme Court, which ruled the tax sale unconstitutional and awarded Arlington back to the Lee family. The government could either remove their fort, oust the residents of Freedmen's Village, disinter almost 20,000 graves and vacate the property, or the government could choose to buy the estate from Custis Lee.
Lee agreed to sell the property back to the government for $150,000 and the government agent that accepted the property title was Robert Lincoln. Today, thousands visit the cemetery that honors the brave men and women who served the United States in some capacity.
Written by Josh Yohe
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