George stood at his mother’s door and composed his expression. For years now the mere mention of Arlington was apt to send her into fits, and her health had not been good. She could read his face like a headline. Still, this was good news––of a sort. He tapped and entered.
She sat upright in bed amidst a foaming sea of lace, a Bronté novel perched in her hands like a tract.
She peered at him over pince-nez, still formidable despite her frailty. He held up the envelope. She put down her book.
“You may as well get it over with,” she said, closing her eyes.
“They ruled five to four in our favor, Mother.” He unfolded the letter. “A sale made under such circumstances is invalid, as much so as if the tax had been actually paid or tendered.”
“So we won, then? Our beloved Arlington will be restored to us?”
He swallowed. “Not exactly.”
Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s wife Mary was confined to a wheelchair, so she sent a representative to pay a $92.07 tax bill for the family estate at Arlington, once the property of Martha Washington’s grandspn. A new law stated that such bills had to be paid personally, so the US government seized the building and grounds in 1864.
Washington DC’s cemeteries were unable to handle the immense volume of dead soldiers arriving weekly, so Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs proposed Arlington as the location of a new military cemetery. The first soldier laid to rest there was Pvt. William Christman, 21, of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, who was buried in a plot on Arlington’s northeast corner on May 13, 1864. Thousands more burials followed.
More than a decade after General Lee’s death, the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. government had seized his estate without due process and ordered it returned to his family in the same condition as when it was illegally confiscated.
If followed, the ruling could have required the exhumation of all of Arlington’s dead. Realizing the enduring horror of such an event, Lee’s son George officially sold the property to Congress for $150,000 in 1883.