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Unsavory Prelude to Preserving Lee’s Arlington

 
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btownsend
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PostPosted:     Post subject: Unsavory Prelude to Preserving Lee’s Arlington Reply with quote

Mary Anna Custis was the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington’s step-grandson and adopted son and founder of Arlington, and Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis. One of Mary’s early suitors was Sam Houston, and husband Robert E. Lee was the son of Col. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee and nephew of Richard Henry Lee, the signer of the Declaration of Independence who wrote the famous sentence, “That these Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” Lincoln’s military seized their home, Arlington, for remaining loyal to their State.

Bernhard Thuersam, Chairman
North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission
www.ncwbts150.com
"The Official Website of the North Carolina WBTS Sesquicentennial"

Unsavory Prelude to Preserving Lee’s Arlington:

“Following closely the model offered by the Mount Vernon movement, preservationists in the South attempted to make museums out of buildings associated with famous men. The first important post-Mount Vernon preservation in the South was “Arlington,” sometimes called the Lee Mansion. Instead of being the focal point of a [historic] preservation drive, this building was really a spoil of war.

In May of 1861, shortly after the last private owner, Robert E. Lee, had cast his lot with the South, federal troops occupied the mansion and the grounds. An old friend of the Lees used the house as his headquarters, apparently hoping to protect some of the Lee furnishings that remained. Within a year the building became a residence for other Union officers and their families.

Murray Nelligan, historian of Arlington Mansion, believes that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton determined that the Lee family should never occupy their home again. He placed a hospital on the grounds, along with a freedmen’s village for Negro refugees from the South. Not stopping there, he had a tax levied on the property which required payment by the owner in person. A relative of Mrs. Lee offered to pay the tax, but the authorities decided that such a procedure did not fulfill the letter of the law, so the estate was put up for sale at public auction on January 11, 1864, in Alexandria, Virginia.

Bidding was anything but spirited, because many people suspected that the confiscation and the sale of the mansion might be illegal. The direct tax that had been levied on the Lees might be declared unconstitutional, or the tax commission might later be found guilty of rejecting payment by a relative. Once the sale had ended, the title given to the government might have been considered invalid because the Lees had not been paid the balance of the purchase price.

In spite of these uncertainties, the government was the highest bidder and paid itself $26,800 for the property. Even the sale did not satisfy Stanton’s resolve that the property should never fall into the hands of the Lee family again. Through his urging, a national cemetery was established on the grounds in May of 1864. General [Montgomery] Meigs, representing the War Department, made sure that some graves were located near the house itself.

Mrs. Lee, now a widow, petitioned Congress in 1872 for some form of compensation for the loss of her estate. Her effort failed, but a few years later a new figure took up the battle for control of Arlington. General George Washington Custis Lee, son of Robert E. Lee, tried another line of attack. In April of 1874 he argued that his claim to Arlington was a just one, and then he offered to convey the estate to Congress in return for a fair settlement. Congress did not need to reply to his offer, for possession was indeed nine-tenths of the law. Lee’s friends persuaded him to turn to the judiciary.

The Arlington case moved up through the courts, reaching the Supreme Court in the 1880’s. On December 4, 1882, the Supreme Court decided that George W.C. Lee was the rightful owner of Arlington and that the United States Government had been trespassing. Fortunately, Lee was still willing to settle for a fair price, rather than to force the government to move Arlington National Cemetery!

Congress hastily appropriated $150,000 to pay General Lee for the property; and on the fourteenth of May, 1883, twenty-two years after the Union Army had seized it, the federal government acquired undisputed title to Arlington.

Further proof that the federal “preservation” of Arlington had been an act of revenge was the fact that the first real attempt to furnish and restore the mansion did not come until 1921. Not until 1924 did Congress pass a bill authorizing restoration of the house as it had been at the time of the Lee occupancy. Thus, largely by accident, and for an unsavory purpose, the federal government came to own its first historic house.

(Presence of the Past, A History of the Preservation Movement in the United States Before Williamsburg, Charles B. Hosmer, Jr., G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1965, pp. 63-65)
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