Arlington House


Arlington House, also known as the Custis-Lee Mansion, overlooks Washington, D.C., from a rise across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia. Constructed between 1802 and 1818, it was one of the earliest and boldest expressions of the Greek Revival architectural style in America. Arlington House claims special historical significance through its association with the Washington and Custis families, and particularly with Robert E. Lee. After his family’s departure in 1861 at the start of the American Civil War (1861–1865), Arlington House became a Union army facility. In 1863 the United States government established a Freedmen’s Village on the property that was intended to serve as a model community for African Americans freed by the 1862 abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia and the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Its location, meanwhile, was a striking reminder that Arlington had once been an enslaved labor–based plantation. In 1864 the federal government officially appropriated the grounds and there established Arlington National Cemetery, which continues to serve as a final resting place for members of the United States armed forces.

George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington and adopted son of U.S. president George Washington, oversaw the construction of Arlington House, which was built by enslaved laborers with timber they harvested from local forests and brick and stucco they made from the red clay soil found on the plantation and shells from the Potomac River.

Naming it for a Custis property on the Eastern Shore, Custis saw Arlington not only as home but also as a monument to the first president, as well as a place proudly to display his large collection of items previously owned by George Washington. The house was based on a design by the Italian-born English architect George Hadfield, who had worked on the United States Capitol. Construction began in 1802 and continued over several decades before its completion in 1818. Here the young West Point graduate Robert E. Lee courted his distant cousin Mary Anna Randolph Custis, daughter of G. W. P. Custis and Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis. Here, too, the couple married on June 30, 1831, maintaining their home at Arlington until forced out at the beginning of the Civil War. Lee described it as a place where his “affections and attachments are more strongly placed than at any other place in the World.”

Arlington encompassed 1,100 acres, where Custis-owned enslaved laborers cultivated crops including corn and wheat. After the 1857 death of his father-in-law, Lee took over management of the estate, which his wife had inherited. It was a time of frustration for some of the enslaved people, who had anticipated freedom at the death of G. W. P. Custis. Lee, dealing with a complex will and large residual debt, called it “an unpleasant legacy,” and did not formally free the people enslaved by the Custis family until January 1863.

On April 22, 1861, at Arlington House Lee made his famous decision to resign his U.S. Army commission and side with Virginia, whose convention in Richmond had just voted to secede. Arlington’s location, close to the Potomac River, meant that continued residence by Lee, or his family, would be untenable. Lee’s family departed the following month, though Mary Custis Lee had said as late as May 5, 1861, that she “would not stir from this house, even if the whole northern army were to surround it.” Early in the war, Arlington became the headquarters of Union general Irvin McDowell while he commanded forces defending Washington. It was a hub of military activity: the house provided office and residential space, while the grounds witnessed large-scale troop movements and encampments.

Arlington House also served another purpose: in May of 1863, Union officials selected the grounds of Arlington House as the site for a Freedman’s Village where newly emancipated enslaved people could establish themselves. Formally dedicated in December 1863, the Freedman’s Village would grow into an elaborate community, complete with a hospital, schools, and other public buildings. Despite persistent efforts to remove the African American community, residents successfully resisted overtures to eliminate the village until 1900. In June 1864, the Quartermaster General of the United States Army, the Georgia-born general Montgomery C. Meigs, ordered that a section of those grounds become a military cemetery, though the first burial had occurred the previous month. Revenge motivated these two developments, at least in part; Union authorities wanted to drive home the point that Lee, considered to be a traitor, had forfeited any claim to Arlington House.

Members of the Enslaved Community at Arlington House

The Lee family lost ownership of the Arlington property during the war, but a U.S. Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Lee (1882) ruled that the house had been seized without due process and resulted in a congressional act in 1883 authorizing the purchase of the property from George Washington Custis Lee for $150,000. The War Department began restoration of the house in 1925, and the National Park Service took over management in 1933. In 1955, Arlington House was designated a memorial to Robert E. Lee, and in 1966 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Welcoming numerous visitors, the National Park Service and the Arlington House staff continue to tell the story of the Custis and Lee families. Through the use of various interpretive tools, however, the story is unfolding more expansively to include the many African Americans and their families who once labored and lived here, in slavery and in freedom.

George Washington Parke Custis begins construction of Arlington House on an 1,100-acre property inherited from his father, John Parke Custis. Custis initially calls the estate Mount Washington.
December 1803
Contemporary observers note that George Washington Parke Custis has finished one wing of what will become Arlington House.
July 7, 1804
George Washington Parke Custis and Mary Lee Fitzhugh, of Chatham, marry in Alexandria.
Construction of Arlington House, which began in 1802, is completed.
June 30, 1831
Robert E. Lee marries Mary Anna Randolph Custis, Martha Washington's great-granddaughter, at Arlington, the Custis family seat.
April 23, 1853
Mary Fitzhugh Custis dies and is buried near Arlington House.
October 10, 1857
George Washington Parke Custis dies of influenza at his Arlington estate and is buried there.
April 22, 1861
Robert E. Lee leaves Arlington for the final time, having resigned his U.S. Army commission and offered his services to Virginia.
May 8, 1861
Robert E. Lee's family begins evacuating Arlington, relocating initially to the nearby Fitzhugh home, Ravensworth, in Fairfax County.
May 23, 1861
Union troops commence occupation of the grounds around Arlington House.
May 1863
The War Department officially establishes a Freedmen's Village on the Arlington House grounds.
June 15, 1864
The Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army, Montgomery C. Meigs, officially designates the area around Arlington House as a military cemetery.
June 20, 1873
Mary Custis Lee writes of her sadness following her recent, and final, look at Arlington House and its much-changed grounds.
December 1882
The U.S. Supreme Court rules, in U.S. v. Lee, that the U.S. government had seized Arlington House without due process.
March 10, 1883
After a congressional act authorizes the purchase of Arlington House from George Washington Custis Lee for $150,000, the U.S. government gains title to the property.
ca. 1888
The War Department begins to remove the Freedmen's Village from the grounds of the Arlington House property in order to provide room for expanding the National Cemetery.
March 24, 1925
President Calvin Coolidge approves a joint congressional measure to restore Arlington House. The project falls under the direction of the U.S. War Department.
June 10, 1933
Executive Order 6166 transfers control of Arlington House from the War Department to the Department of the Interior, National Park Service.
Arlington House is officially designated the Custis-Lee Mansion and becomes a memorial to Robert E. Lee.
The Custis-Lee Mansion is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • Coulling, Mary P. The Lee Girls. Winston-Salem, N.C.: John F. Blair, 1987.
  • Hanna, Jennifer. Arlington House: The Robert E. Lee Memorial. Cultural Landscape Report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2001.
  • McCaslin, Richard B. Lee in the Shadow of Washington. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.
  • Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through his Private Letters. New York: The Penguin Group, 2007.
APA Citation:
McFarland, Kenneth. Arlington House. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/arlington-house.
MLA Citation:
McFarland, Kenneth. "Arlington House" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2024, June 03
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