First Posted: July 24, 2012
Jan 20, 2020

Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial aka Custis-Lee Mansion

Image: Public Domain
Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial U.S. National Register of Historic Places
U.S. National Memorial
Location: Arlington, Virginia, USA
Coordinates: 38°52'52.2?N 77°4'21.54?WCoordinates: 38°52'52.2?N 77°4'21.54?W
Area: 28.08 acres (11.36 ha)
Built: 1803
Architect: George Hadfield
Architectural style: Greek Revival
Visitation: 576,816 (2011)
Governing body:National Park Service

Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, formerly named the Custis-Lee Mansion, is a Greek revival style mansion located in Arlington, Virginia, USA that was once the home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It overlooks the Potomac River and the National Mall in Washington, D.C. During the American Civil War, the grounds of the mansion were selected as the site of Arlington National Cemetery, in part to ensure that Lee would never again be able to return to his home. However, the United States has since designated the mansion as a National Memorial to Lee, a mark of widespread respect for him in both the North and South.

Construction and Early History

Sketch: Public Domain
Arlington House from a pre-1861 sketch, published in 1875

The mansion was built on the orders of George Washington Parke Custis, the step-grandson and adopted son of George Washington and only grandson of Martha Custis Washington. Custis was a prominent resident of what was then known as Alexandria County, at the time a part of the District of Columbia.

Arlington House was built at a high point on an 1,100 acre (445 ha) estate that Custis' father, John Parke Custis, had purchased in 1778. ("Jacky" Custis died in 1781 at Yorktown after the British surrender.) George Washington Parke Custis decided to build his home on the property in 1802, following the death of Martha Washington and three years after the death of George Washington. Custis originally wanted to name the property "Mount Washington", but was persuaded by family members to name it "Arlington House" after the Custis family's homestead on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

George Hadfield, an English architect who also worked on the design of the United States Capitol, designed the mansion. Construction began eleven years after L'Enfant's Plan for the future city of Washington, D.C., had designated an area directly across the Potomac River to be the site of the "President's house" (now the White House) and the "Congress house" (now the United States Capitol).

The north and south wings were completed between 1802 and 1804. The large center section and the portico, presenting an imposing front 140 ft (43 m) long, were finished 13 years later. The house has two kitchens, a summer and a winter. The most prominent features of the house are the 8 massive columns of the portico, each 5 feet (1.5 m) in diameter.

Custis was a prominent resident of the jurisdiction that was then named Alexandria County and is now named Arlington County. Guests at the house included such notable people as Gilbert du Motier, marquis de La Fayette, who visited in 1824. At Arlington, Custis experimented with new methods of animal husbandry and other agriculture. The property also included Arlington Spring, a picnic ground on the banks of the Potomac that Custis originally built for private use but later opened to the public, eventually operating it as a commercial enterprise.

Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh. Their only child to survive to adulthood was Mary Anna Randolph Custis. Robert E. Lee, whose mother was a cousin of Mrs. Custis, frequently visited Arlington and knew Mary Anna as they grew up. Two years after graduating from West Point, Lieutenant Lee married Mary Anna Custis at Arlington on June 30, 1831. For 30 years Arlington House was home to the Lees. They spent much of their married life traveling between U.S. Army duty stations and Arlington, where six of their seven children were born. They shared this home with Mary's parents. After their deaths, Mary's parents were buried not far from the house on land that is now part of Arlington National Cemetery.

Upon George Washington Parke Custis' death in 1857, he left the Arlington estate to Mary Custis Lee for her lifetime and thence to the Lee's eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee. The estate needed much repair and reorganization, and Gen. Lee, as executor of Custis' will, took a leave of absence from the Army until 1860 to begin the necessary agricultural and financial improvements.

Civil War

Wikipedia Commons
East front of Custis-Lee Mansion with Union Soldiers on lawn

On April 17, 1861, just days after the American Civil War began with the Battle of Fort Sumter on April 12-13 (surrender on the 14th), the Virginia Legislature voted to secede from the Union. (Citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia ratified by popular vote on May 23 the Commonwealth's articles of secession, essentially finalizing separation from the Union. Also on April 17, US President Abraham Lincoln decided to offer the Command of the Union Army to Robert E. Lee. The next day, Lee, who at that time was a colonel who had served in the United States Army for 35 years, was offered command of the Federal Army by Francis Preston Blair (at Blair House) during a visit across the Potomac to Washington. Lee had disapproved of secession, but decided that he could not fight against his native State of Virginia. Instead of accepting the Union command, he resigned his commission in the Army in a letter written at Arlington House on April 20. Within days of his resignation, Lee reported to Richmond for the duty of commanding Virginia's Provisional Army. He joined the Confederate States Army with Virginia's forces a month later and was promoted to general. Lee was concerned for the safety of his wife, who was still residing at the mansion and convinced her to vacate the property, at least temporarily. She managed to send many of the family's valuables off to safety, as she had advance notice of the impending Union occupation from her cousin, Orton W. Williams. Robert E. Lee never set foot on the property again, but shortly before her 1873 death, Mary Anna Custis Lee visited her Arlington once more.

The Union Army occupied the Arlington estate soon after the Lees left their property, whereupon Arlington House became the headquarters of the Union's Army of Northeastern Virginia under Brigadier General Irvin McDowell. Many of the George Washington heirlooms that George Washington Parke Custis had collected were eventually moved to the Patent Office for safekeeping. Some items, however, including a few of the Mount Vernon heirlooms, were looted and scattered by Union soldiers living in or visiting the house. In 1864, the federal government of the United States confiscated the house and property because the property's owner, Mary Anna Custis Lee, had not paid her property tax in person.

By 1864, the military cemeteries of Washington and Alexandria were filled with Union dead, and Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs quickly selected Arlington as the site for a new cemetery. Meigs, a Georgian who had served under Lee in the U.S. Army and who considered that Lee had made a treasonous decision to fight against the Union, ordered the burial of 26 Union soldiers in Mrs. Lee's prized rose garden. In October, Meigs' own son was killed in the war, and was later buried at Arlington alongside his mother and father.

Post-Civil War

After his surrender on April 9, 1865, to Union Army Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at the McLean House in the village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia Robert E. Lee and his wife chose not to contest the federal government's seizure of their home, apparently because Lee felt that it would be too divisive. In 1870, after his father's death, the Lee's eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee (who had earlier been a Major General in the Confederate Army filed a lawsuit against the United States government in the Alexandria Circuit Court to regain his property. In 1882, the Supreme Court of the United States finally ruled on the case in a 5-4 decision (United States v. Lee, 106 U. S. 196 (1882)). The court found that the estate had been 'llegally confiscated' in 1864 and ordered it returned, along with 1,100 acres (4 km2) of surrounding property. In its decision, the court cited as precedential a similar case that it had decided in 1870 (Bennett v. Hunter, 76 US (9 Wall.) 326 (1870)) that had involved the nearby Abingdon estate. In 1883, Custis Lee sold the mansion and property to the U.S. government for $150,000 (roughly equal to $3.5 million in 2011 dollars) at a signing ceremony with Secretary of War, Robert Todd Lincoln.

In 1920, the Virginia General Assembly renamed Alexandria County as Arlington County, to honor Robert E. Lee and to end the ongoing confusion between Alexandria County and the independent city of Alexandria.

The mansion and some 28 acres around it are managed by the National Park Service as a memorial to Robert E. Lee. The grounds, flower garden, and kitchen garden are Colonial Revival in style. The land surrounding the mansion, over half of the original plantation's 1,100 acres, and known as Arlington National Cemetery, is managed by the Department of the Army.

Arlington House suffered moderate damage in the 2011 Virginia earthquake, requiring the closure of the back halls and upper floor pending an architectural assessment.


In 1919 a replica was built for the short-lived Lanier University in Atlanta, designed by architect A. Ten Eyck Brown. It is still standing at 1140 University Drive NE, housing the Canterbury School. Arlington Hall, in Dallas's Lee Park, is a two-thirds scale replica of Arlington House.

Index: Historical Buildings