Robert E. Lee reached his decision to command the Confederate Army while at his Arlington, Virginia home. Shortly afterward, Mrs. Lee and the family evacuated to Richmond. Upon the family’s departure, Union troops moved in.
Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs moved to seize Arlington by requiring Mrs. Lee to pay $92.07 in 1863 taxes in person, which she could not possibly do. So Arlington became the property of the United States due to non-payment of taxes.
The first official burial was Private William Christman from Pennsylvania. Christman was buried in the lower part of the cemetery, but purposefully away from Confederate soldiers and slaves. Officers were buried on high ground: the first, Captain Albert Packard from Maine, was buried at the edge of Mrs. Lee’s garden.
In order to prevent the Lees from ever returning to their estate, Meigs moved that Arlington be made a national military cemetery. Subsequently, over 2,000 unknowns from Bull Run were reburied at Arlington, and numerous other bodies were transferred from private cemeteries.
Bitterness over the war kept Confederate soldiers out of Arlington for many years. Although in 1873 all national cemeteries welcomed honorably discharged soldiers, it was not until 1899 that Confederate graves were given the same care and attention as the Union graves.
The Lee children sued the government for proper compensation for the estate, winning a judgement in 1882. Robert E. Lee’s son, Custis, delivered the completed paperwork to Secretary of War, Robert Todd Lincoln.
One former slave continued to live at Arlington: James Parks – the last of the Lee “home folks”. “Old Uncle Jim” died in August 1929 at age 86.
In the 1880’s, the US government began a massive effort to locate and re-inter soldiers. Beginning with the Spanish-American War, this included repatriating fallen soldiers from abroad.
Due to early intervention, the number of lost soldiers has dropped significantly: 42% of Civil War dead were not identified; 15% after the Spanish-American War, and reduced to 2.2% at the conclusion of WWI, due to the introduction of “dog tags.” The Tomb of the Unknowns is a relic of the past now. With the advent of DNA testing, soldiers can now be identified, regardless of the body’s condition.
More recent changes have brought Arlington into the modern era. The cemetery is now fully integrated. Soldiers are no longer buried by rank or separated by color. All soldiers, regardless of rank, receive full honors. All monuments are the same size, shape and made of the same marble, per the 1874 design.
Still, we remember these brave soldiers as today’s guards march beside the Tomb of the Unknowns: 21 steps one way; hold position for 21 seconds; shift the M-14 from one shoulder to the other; then 21 paces in the opposite direction; halt to face the Capitol … back and forth for an hour until relieved by the next serviceman.
For the full history, read On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery by Robert M. Poole.