In May of 1861, Virginia declared their secession to the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary vacated the premise knowing Union troops would come to the Arlington property because it was a strategic high ground overlooking all of Washington D.C. Within six hours of Virginia’s declaration, about 3,500 Union troops marched from Washington DC, across the river, to capture the Arlington House. The U.S. Army used the house and land as a camp and headquarters for the remainder of the war and they surrounded the grounds with military forts.
After Mrs. Lee, who owned the property, was unable to her pay property taxes in person, the government put it up for public sale on January 11, 1864. The land and house was purchased by a tax commissioner for government use, war, military, charitable and educational purposes.
By 1864, Washington D.C. area cemeteries had come to full capacity because there were so many causalities from the Civil War. Approximately one third of all Civil War battles took place within 100 miles of Washington D.C. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs of the Union Army was tasked with finding more burial space for the Civil War dead. Under the approval of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Meigs decide the Arlington property would be used to bury the Union dead. Approximately 200 acres of the Arlington grounds were set aside as a National Cemetery on June 15, 1864.
Meigs had served under Robert E. Lee before the Civil War started. Meigs saw Lee as a traitor and wanted to render the Arlington House and grounds unusable to the Lee family if they attempted to return at the end of the war. The first military burials took place at Arlington on May 13, 1864 in section 27. Private William Henry Christman was the first burial. He succumbed to the measles. Private William H. McKinney, 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, died due to pneumonia. He was the first to have family present at his funeral. Private. William Reeves, 76th New York Infantry, was the first draftee interred. Private William Blatt, 49th Pennsylvania Infantry, was the first battlefield casualty interred at the cemetery on May 14, 1864. He died during the Spotsylvania campaign. Two unknown Union soldiers were interred in section 27 on May 15, 1864.The graves were dug and maintained by James Parks, a former Arlington estate slave who is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in section 15.
Approximately 16,000 Civil War soldiers were laid to rest at Arlington in the following months. Nearly 30 Union troops were buried around Mrs. Lee’s famed rose garden, just steps from the House, on August of 1864. Later, in 1866, Meigs ordered the Tomb of the Civil War Unknown to be placed in the rose garden. It holds the remains of 2,111 soldiers. Today over 400,000 service members and their family lay to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
Arlington National Cemetery
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