Arlington Cemetery – the story behind the story.
This is my Memorial Day post. It has to do with the “original pain” that is behind Arlington National Cemetery. It starts with the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, Mary Anne Randolph Custis Lee, her father being Washington Custis, the adopted son of George Washington. The estate of Arlington was left to Mary Custis Lee’s father and passed on to her and her husband, Robert E. Lee. It was her beloved ancestral home. The outbreak of the American Civil War created the necessity for her to leave Arlington House, as her husband had chose, as men on both sides had to choose, to fight for Virginia. Prior to the civil war, people were prone to swear alligence and loyalty to their home states, so this was not an isolated event. This is how Arlington House probably looked (without grave stones and tour buses of course) when Mrs. Lee was forced to leave and locate herself and her children in Richmond, VA.
Enter Quartermaster/Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs. You can read about this honorable soldier’s stellar career here. Now the Army Quartermaster history page states in it’s bio how the cemetery came into being as:
General Meigs recommended that property in Arlington, Virginia owned by Mary Custis Lee, the wife of Robert E. Lee, be used as a military burial ground. Based on this recommendation, Arlington National Cemetery was created in 1864. In October of that same year, his son, First Lieutenant John Rodgers Meigs was killed at Swift Run Gap in Virginia. He is buried at Arlington Cemetery.
Now the story, behind the story is the fact the General Meigs so deeplly resented Robert E. Lee’s decision to resign his commission as an officer in the U.S. Army to join the Confederate cause, upon Mrs. Lee’s departure, the embers in the fireplace of Arlington House were still hot when he moved to make the house a headquarters for Union officers. General Meigs blamed Lee’s refusal to stick with service to the Union for prolonging the war, so when his beloved son was killed at Swift Run Gap, he ordered that his body be laid to rest in “Mrs. Lee’s Rose Garden”. It is the very human part of interaction during challenging times. Meig’s personal pain is forever enshrined at Arlington.
At the close of the American Civil War, Mrs. Lee not only lost her beloved ancestral home and left to bear the injustice of it (it was one of many unconstitutional actions taken by Lincoln and the Union). Also, her health had deteriorated and her beloved husband returned a broken man in spirit and in health as well. The war had taken a toll and the sacrifice had shortened lives and destroyed fortunes. Robert E. Lee eventually was offered the presidency of the struggling Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, VA. During his few years before his death, he brought it back to a viable institution of higher learning, and his son took up the mantle after his death in 1871. Mrs. Lee passed away two years later, still holding bitterness over the loss of her home and birthright. Her losses and grief being felt for the last few years of her life.
Knowing this story behind the honored resting place of so many of our fallen warriors, is to understand the grief and pain that those who lose their loved ones in any war, must endure. From it’s beginning, Arlington has been about pride in our nation and those who serve, but also about personal loss, suffering and grief. One of the most moving photos I’ve seen from Arlington is the photo of Mary McHugh who lost her fiance, Sgt. James J. Regan in Iraq. Mary has joined league with the honored loved ones who, as Lincoln so eloquently described, “laid down such a precious sacrifice on the alter of freedom”. In my mind Arlington Cemetery has become the symbol of the honored sacrifices made by Americans for hundreds of years, and so we must honor them and never forget what it means. God bless America and all our warriors who swear the oath to defend it at all costs.