The iconic landscape of Arlington National Cemetery is familiar to most Americans — rolling green hills spotted white with the headstones of America’s fallen heroes.
But fewer people probably realize it’s one of only two cemeteries classified as Army National Military Cemeteries. Arlington, along with the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., is in that category, and both fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Army.
Most people who’ve visited Arlington in person know the land once belonged to the family of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — his home is difficult to miss perched atop the hill. But the land actually passed into the possession of Lee’s family from George Washington’s step-grandson. George Washington Parke Custis “spent his life commemorating Washington and built Arlington House on the 1,100-acre plantation as a memorial to the first president,” according to Arlington’s website. “In 1857, Custis willed the property to his daughter Mary Anna Randolph Custis, who in 1831 had married U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Robert E. Lee.”
After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Lee family fled the property and federal troops expropriated it as a camp and headquarters. Military burials at Arlington began in May of 1864, roughly one year before the end of the Civil War.
The Lee family later regained ownership of the land by challenging the federal government before the Supreme Court, but they eventually sold it back to the government. If the court’s ruling had been followed to the letter, it could have resulted in the exhumation of the 17,000 graves already laid on the property.