"Welcome to Arlington National Cemetery, Our Nation's Most Sacred Shrine. Please Remember: These Are Hallowed Grounds," greeting inscribed at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery.
The American Civil War ended 154 years ago this week as Appomattox treaty meetings got underway on April 8, 1865. This ended five years of conflict, resulting in more than 1,000,000 U.S. casualties and 655,000+ deaths (Union troops - 364,000+, Confederate troops - 290,000+). The war gave America its greatest loss of life in the history of our nation, and the Confederacy lost what was then just under 25 percent of its white male population.
For more than a century since, the majority of southern states commemorated or celebrated Confederate Memorial Day on April 26th, the anniversary of the final completion of treaties and Confederate surrender. Georgia still has a state holiday on April 26th, but it no longer has a name or official cause for celebration. Governor Nathan Deal made that change, which was both practical and healing in its intentions. However, calls for erasing all recognition of the valor and sacrifice of more than 900,000 Confederate troops are another issue entirely.
Perhaps the most sacred cemetery in our nation is Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington was originally the 1,100 acre working plantation and home of General Robert E. Lee, and his wife and children. General Lee married Mary Custis Lee, who inherited Arlington from her father George Washington Park Custis in 1857. Custis was the grandson of Martha Washington and had been adopted by General George Washington. Custis built his showplace mansion atop a hillside looking across the Potomac at our nation's capitol in 1802. Running the plantation required the efforts of nearly 200 slaves, which also became the property of General Lee and his family in 1857. Prior to that time, Lee, a military career man with long tours away from home and out of the country in Mexico, had not previously been a slave owner. By coincidence or happenstance, it is interesting to note here that later Union Forces Commanding General, U.S. Grant, was himself a slave-owner until 1859.
Not long after Confederate troops fired on Union forces at Fort Sumter, South Carolina in April of 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called up 75,000 Union troops to surround and protect our nation's capitol, so devastated by the British during the War of 1812. Virginia seceded the Union in late April of that year, and Robert E. Lee resigned his Union officer commission and declined (twice) an offer by Lincoln to lead Union forces. Arlington and its hillsides overlooking Washington, D.C. would be the perfect place for Confederate cannons to shell the Capitol. A month after Lee accepted his Confederate commission, Union troops moved to confiscate Arlington.
Warned by a Union officer with ties to the Lee family, Mary Custis learned of the impending seizure of Arlington by the Union. She gathered family mementos, silver and the personal papers of President George Washington (then still under family control) and General Lee, and fled to Richmond. The Lee family would never again own or control Arlington. Though the Arlington Plantation home still stands and is offered as part of tours of the cemetery, little is said or explained about how our nation's most sacred shrine came to be.
In 1877, Lee's oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, sued the U.S. government, seeking to recover his family estate. Though in the midst of Reconstruction, the case eventually went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the Lee family claim to the land. The decision in essence said that our government can't confiscate someone's land, simply because he had led an army in rebellion against it. The Lee family was no longer eager to return to a graveyard, and they sold their claim to the government for $150,000 (roughly $3 million in today's dollars). General Lee never returned to Arlington, he is buried, along with his beloved horse Traveler, next to the Lee Chapel on the grounds of Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Mrs. Lee returned only once, but never left her carriage, after seeing the thousands of graves just outside the back door of the home in which she was married. Her former rose garden is now home to a mass grave of the bones of more than 2,000 unidentified Union soldiers. Today there are more than 400,000 U.S. veterans honorably buried on the lands of Arlington.
And for more than 150 years since, widows, descendants and survivors of veterans on both sides of the Civil War have met, prayed and honored their long dead at Arlington. If it can happen there...it should be possible most anywhere. This simply requires the will of reconciliation and the spirit to make our nation stronger, and not destroy itself with more self-inflicted wounds and endless self-criticism. As we pass over Confederate Memorial Day this year, and recognize and celebrate Memorial Day in May...we should all try and remember that.