Sunday, March 15, 2009

Arlington Cemetery, Part I

Arlington National Cemetery is probably one of the most popular historical destinations around the District, outside of the National Mall area. I had visited the cemetery a few months after moving to the city, but focused on finding the grave of a recently buried grandfather to one of my friends. I didn't stay very long to look around. I returned this past week determined to see a few of the tourist sites I had overlooked the first time. Winding my way up the hill toward the Lee House, I found myself pointing out graves to my companion with increasing excitement. "Wow, there's George Crook!" "Hey, that's Justice Burger." And so forth. I realized that there is far too much there for me to really take in at once. Therefore, I have decided to take advantage of what time I have left before the cherry blossom tourists arrive, and revisit Arlington a few times in the next two weeks and see what neat little tidbits I can dig up.

Almost everyone in the District seems to know a few basic things about the cemetery, but with so much history, I think a bit of an overview might be in order, as a preface to the more focused posts that will follow. To that end, here is a breakdown of a few anecdotes and details I gathered during my most recent trip:

Things you probably knew already:
-The property on which the cemetery was sited had been owned by Robert E. Lee.
-Lee's house, known as Lee House, Arlington House, or fifty other names, is still standing at the highest point in the cemetery.
-The house was originally built by a (indirect) descendant of George Washington, George Washington Parke Custis.
-The property was seized by the United States government during the Civil War after Lee resigned his commission in the US military and moved his family south, away from the armies of the North.

Things you might have known already:
-The first military personnel to be buried at Arlington were Northern soldiers who died fighting in the Civil War - an irony which was not lost on those who had designated the former Lee property as a burial site.
-One of Robert E. Lee's sons actually won the house back more than a decade after the war by suing the federal government. However, as the house was completely surrounded by graves, he ended up selling it right back to the United States government for $150,000.

Things I definitely did not already know:

-The very first person known to be buried at Arlington cemetery wasn't a veteran! It was Mary Randolph, a cousin of several residents of the house, who apparently died after caring for her son, who had been gravely wounded in an accident. Her tombstone (pictured below) lies on the hillside, beside one of the paths leading to Arlington House.
-One of the Lees' slaves, Selina Gray, who had been left in charge of the plantation when the Lees fled, actually saved some of George Washington's personal effects from looting by Union soldiers. When Gray noticed that the occupying Union forces had begun stealing items from within Arlington House, she alerted no less than General Irvin McDowell, who had what remained of Washington's effects sent to Washington for preservation.

Below: The grave of Mary Randolph.

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