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Situated on a bluff near the Potomac River, Arlington National Cemetery offers a sweeping view of the nation’s capital— and a sweeping review of the nation’s history. In 1861 the 600-acre site belonged to Robert E. Lee’s wife, Mary Custis Lee, who had inherited it from her grandfather, George Washington Parke Custis, adopted son of George Washington. Stephen Carney, command historian at Arlington National Cemetery, explains how the site was used in the Civil War and how it became the nation’s most renowned cemetery. For a schedule of events honoring the cemetery’s 150th anniversary, visit

After the war, Mary Lee couldn’t bear to look at the alterations to her former estate. What had changed?

One of the bastions for Washington, D.C.’s defense was Fort Whipple, located west of Arlington House. When the Union Army took over the house, artillerymen cleared trees at least a half a mile to the front, to ensure a clear field of fire. The only trees they left would have been used for range markers, or to define the right or left limits of their guns. The same was true for Fort McPherson. Trees were cleared for a combination of defensive purposes, fires and construction.

When were the first military burials conducted on the site?

Robert E. Lee left Arlington House in April 1861, and Mary left a few weeks later. From the time the Army seized it, it was used as office space. In the summer of 1864, after the secretary of war approved Arlington as a national cemetery, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs ordered burials conducted on the rose garden’s southeast side. At that point, the area immediately around Arlington House—since 1955 known as the Robert E. Lee Memorial—took on a much more cemetery-type feel. In 1866 our first Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was established just outside of the rose garden, now Section 26 of the cemetery, which commemorates 2,111 Civil War unknown disinterred from battlefields from Maryland down through Virginia. A large vault was dug, and the remains were placed in a crypt.

Whose idea was it to make Arlington a national military cemetery?

Meigs was the strongest advocate for establishing a national cemetery at Arlington. By May 1864, when he made his recommendation, a couple of things were going on: The Army had seized this area known as Arlington Heights—going all the way down to Alexandria—in the early-morning hours of May 24, 1861, after Virginia officially announced that it had seceded from the Union. Fort Whipple [today Fort Myer] and Fort McPherson were some of the earliest fortifications built to defend Washington. Our first military burial was here on May 13, 1864, a little over a month before the secretary of war approved a national cemetery on June 15, 1864. There were already a number of military cemeteries at the time.

Why did this happen in 1864, not 1861?

The mission was to protect Washington; aside from the regiments and artillery batteries, there was a freedmen’s village there. By December 1863, contraband or freedmen’s camps in the District and Alexandria were overflowing. A fairly large one was established on the cemetery’s south side. In 1864 the fundamental problem was the number of soldiers dying in D.C. area hospitals—space for burials was tapped out. When you can look across the Potomac and see 1,100 acres of the Arlington estate, it seems like an ideal place for burials.

Who oversaw the burials and gravestone creation?

The Quartermaster Department. A lot of the actual labor was done by former slaves, as well as freedmen. From our first burial in 1864 to 1873-74, all the markers were wooden headboards. If you look at famous images of the Field of the Dead—Section 13 currently—the area south and west of the rose garden, that is the primary burial location of a lot of the Civil War dead. By the 1870s, those headboards were rotting, so the question became what type of marker to use: marble, concrete or ransom, a type of patented concrete. They experimented with marble, concrete and what became known as a Meigs marker, essentially melted-down ordnance. The only remaining Meigs marker is in Section 13, on the grave of soldier Daniel Keys, whose marker was erected in late 1873-74.

Tell me about U.S. Colored Troops burials.

Burials probably began in May 1864, when USCTs were interred in Section 27 alongside white troops, in the cemetery’s northern part. About 3,800 freedmen, who died in camps and villages, were buried in Section 27 too. Burials at Arlington were later segregated—the case in all national cemeteries until WWII.

Where was the freedman’s village?

It was a J-shaped village with a road running down the middle in what are now Sections 4, 8, 18 and 20. The original cemetery that was laid out was about 200 acres, and the rest—what is now Fort Myer and Henderson Hall—was all leased out to freedmen farmers. Around 1900 the last residents were compensated to leave, since civilians could not live there after it had been declared a military installation.

How did a Confederate memorial later come to be erected?

The Confederate section was authorized in 1900. Confederates who had been buried at Arlington National Cemetery, at Soldiers’ Home Cemetery and at Alexandria were relocated in the Confederate section. To further reconciliation, it was given a very prominent place, near where many visitors entered. In 1906 Congress authorized building the Confederate Memorial, designed by Moses Ezekiel, a Southern soldier and sculptor who was buried at the base of the memorial following his death in WWI. It was dedicated on June 4, 1914.

What was George Washington Parke Custis’ goal at Arlington?

Arlington House was something he wanted to do to honor his father. Custis wanted it to be an homage to the first president, but the name that was chosen related to some of the family’s holdings in the Tidewater area. The house and the grounds were always a popular stop for travelers—a house-on-a-hill vision.

What happened to the artifacts that belonged to Washington?

A lot of the items that belonged to President Washington had already been removed from Arlington House, and when the U.S. Army seized the Arlington property, those artifacts were initially transferred to the U.S. Patent Office for safekeeping. Now Washington’s belongings are at Mount Vernon.

How did Arlington become known as the premier national cemetery?

By the end of the war, we had more interments here at Arlington National Cemetery than at any of the 33 other national cemeteries developed during the conflict—over 15,000. It was easily accessible, so you always had a good flow of visitors. That only grew after General John A. Logan [Grand Army of the Republic commander in chief] declared May 30 Decoration Day, honoring the Civil War dead, in 1868. Decoration Day is one of the reasons Arlington became the premier national military cemetery. Then look at Sections 1 and 2: Phil Sheridan, Montgomery Meigs, Abner Doubleday—a roll call of well-known officers. They could have been buried anywhere, but so many wanted to be buried here at Arlington with their men.


Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.