Grave Matters

The surprising origins and enduring importance of Arlington National Cemetery.

The Wall Street Journal
By Alan Pell Crawford
October 27, 2009

After seizing Arlington, the northern Virginia plantation of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, federal officials in 1863 levied a tax of $92.07 on the 1,100-acre Potomac River property. The estate had already become a camp for homeless ex-slaves pouring into Washington in the wake of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. If Mrs. Lee did not pay the tax, the property would be sold.

Stranded in Richmond, Va., the general’s ailing wife—as it happens, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington by her first husband—could not make the trip and sent a cousin in her place. When the man arrived in Alexandria, Va., money in hand, tax officials told him that they could accept payment from Mrs. Lee and from no one else. They then declared the estate in default and sold it to the same federal government that had levied the tax in the first place. The land was to be reserved “for Government use, for war, military, charitable, and educational purposes.” Among these purposes, in a matter of months, was a burial place for hundreds of Union soldiers, and so Arlington cemetery was born.

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