August 29, 1996
Earlier this year, Amanda Gard saw some of the interesting sights in and around Washington, D.C., while attending the National Young Leaders Conference there. Amanda, a junior at Perry high school this year, came home greatly impressed by the many historically significant buildings and monuments around our nation's capital. No one can escape the sense of pride and awe which that unique area inspires, and Amanda was struck by that too.
One thing in particular bothered her long after she returned here to the home of her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Michael Gard. During a tour of Arlington Cemetery, where many of the nation's heroic dead are buried, Amanda noticed the state of shabbiness to which Arlington House has been reduced. Arlington House pre-dates the cemetery and was once the home, inherited on the distaff side, of Gen. and Mrs. Robert E. Lee.
Amanda's father notes: "Visitors from all over the world are received at Arlington House and a doubt lingers over whether or not our country's honored dead are getting the honor they deserve. In all fairness," he adds, "it should be explained that the cemetery grounds, the Tomb of the Unknowns, and the new Amphitheater are all immaculate."
However -- and this is what bothers Amanda -- it seems that something could be done to upgrade Arlington House to the high standards of the rest of the cemetery. She spoke with a National Park Service official who informed her that owing to recent budget cuts, restoration of Arlington House has been shunted off to a siding from which it may not soon return. The official estimated the restoration would cost upwards of $100 million, money the government cannot allocate in the near future.
Further, he hinted that money from private sources would be put to good use as soon as received. The question that nags at Amanda is, how does one go about bringing such a restoration project to the public eye?
Shortly after Amanda's trip to Washington, I also visited there and made a point of touring Arlington House. Everything she reported is true. The grounds around the old home are neglected, some of the structures are in imminent danger of succumbing to lack of maintenance and repair, and the house itself needs attention. The attendant did indicate government help may be forthcoming, but no timetable has been established.
Some may wonder about priorities, when other causes cry out for the public's time and energies, to assist the pathetically struggling homeless, the unchurched, the throwaways of society. Is it right to encourage an interest in property that was, after all, built by slave labor?
I have asked this question of several others, and the unanimous response has been that yes, some kind of restoration certainly should be undertaken. Accepted moral standards of that era may not have been what they are today, but the same could be said of other ethical issues from the past measured against the contemporary precepts of today's society.
The story of Arlington House is packed with so much drama that it matches any antebellum fiction the human mind might concoct. It is uniquely associated with the families of Washington, Mary Custis (who became Mrs. Robert E. Lee), and of course Lee himself. It was built by George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington by her first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis. After his father died, young Custis was raised by his grandmother and her second husband, George Washington, at Mount Vernon. His house (Arlington) was begun in 1802 but not completed until 1817.
Mr. and Mrs. Custis had only one child who survived infancy. She was Mary Anna Randolph Custis, born in 1808. Young Robert E. Lee, whose mother was a cousin of Mrs. Custis, frequently visited Arlington. Two years after graduating from West Point, Lt. Lee married Mary Custis at Arlington on June 30, 1831. The Lees made their home there for 30 years, sharing it with Mrs. Lee's parents.
Lee was distressed when news reached him that the state of Virginia had adopted an Ordinance of Secession on April 17, 1861. He had supported preservation of the Union that his father and uncles had helped create and he opposed slavery, but he remained loyal to his native state. He was at home at Arlington on April 20, 1861, when he made his decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army. Two days later Lee left Arlington for Richmond to accept command of Virginia's military forces. He never returned to Arlington.
About one month later, with Union occupation imminent, Mrs. Lee also left Arlington and the home became headquarters for the officers who were superintending the nearby defenses of Washington. A wartime law required that property owners in areas occupied by Federal troops appear in person to pay their taxes. Unable to comply with this rule, Mrs. Lee saw her estate confiscated by the Union in 1864. An 81-hectare (200-acre) section was set aside as a military cemetery, and that was the beginning of today's Arlington National Cemetery. Thus, the property of the military commander of the Confederacy became the burial ground for Union soldiers. The irony is exquisite.
There is more to this story, but perhaps that should be saved for your next trip to Washington. When you do, by all means take the tour of Arlington House and the Cemetery, and see for yourself how the old Lee property has been allowed to deteriorate. In the meantime, if you'd like to help or just learn more about the property, write to the superintendent, George Washington Memorial Parkway, Turkey Run Park, McLean, VA 22101.
And thanks to Amanda Gard and her parents for calling our attention to the situation.