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Arlington's History

Very few regions in the United States can boast a local history that is inextricably tied to our National story. Arlington, Virginia is one of those regions located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., Arlington was once part of the original Federal City. From its very beginnings to the present day, Arlingtons geography, buildings, and citizens have played a leading role in the formation of the Washington D.C. area, and our rich, national history.

On July 16, 1790, Congress entrusted President George Washington with choosing on the River Potomac a territory, ten miles square, which should be come the Federal Territory and the permanent seat of the Government of the United States. A native Virginian and avid horseback rider, George Washington was familiar with the hills and valleys of the Potomac River region, and greatly enjoyed the land. Although Washington had made his home at Mount Vernon, and owned property in Arlington, he carefully avoided any appearance of personal gain by prohibiting the creation of public buildings on the Virginia side of the Potomac. In 1801, Congress took jurisdiction over the area, and specified that the portion ceded by Virginia should be known as the County of Alexandria, present day Arlington. Once a part of the frontier of America, George Washingtons Arlington would forever be tied to the heart of the United States national government.

George Washingtons grandson, George Washington Parke Custis began building his estate, called Arlington House, in 1802. Located on the grounds of present-day Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington House graced the Arlington Ridge, overlooking the new federal city. George Washington Parke Custis was considered the preeminent citizen of Arlington County from the beginning of the century until his death in 1857. His house became a treasury of Washington family heirlooms; during its lengthy construction, Custis collected as much from the Mount Vernon Estate of his grandmother and foster father as his fortunes would allow. George Washington Parke Custis only child, Mary Anne Randolph Custis, was eventually tasked with saving many of those family heirlooms from occupying Union troops.

Following the marriage of Mary Anne Randolph Custis to Robert E. Lee, (whose father, Lighthouse Harry Lee had fought for George Washington during the Revolutionary War,) the couple took residence at Arlington House. It was their beloved home for thirty years until Lee was forced to leave, with heavy heart, to defend his native Virginia. Never supporting slavery or favoring secession, Lee was nevertheless a consummate Virginian and would later write, With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. Upon secession by Virginia, and Lee's departure, Union troops marched on Arlington House, occupying it for the duration of the Civil War. Robert E. Lee was never able to return to his home after the war, and later became president of Washington University, now Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.

Following the end of the Civil War, land in Arlington continued to be a central fixture in the growing relationship with our young nation. Arlington House property became home to Freedman's Village, a community for freed slaves which opened in 1863; many of the original residents of Freedman's Village moved to Arlington following its closure in 1888, building its first African-American communities. Other areas surrounding the Arlington House estate were appropriated for War Department buildings beginning the 1930's, culminating in the construction of the Pentagon.

The historic lands of the Washington, Custis and Lee families eventually became hallowed resting grounds for many of our nation's founding fathers, as well as modern-day heroes. After dying a pauper, Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant, designer of the District of Columbia, was re-interred on the grounds of Arlington House. His final resting place offers an unobstructed, breathtaking view of the grand city which he designed. In 1864, following confiscation of the Arlington House estate, a 200-acre piece of land was set aside for a military cemetery. Arlington National Cemetery became the honored, final resting place of our nation's heroes throughout our history.

In 1932, the long-awaited Arlington Memorial Bridge was completed, creating both a physical and symbolic connection between Arlington House and Washington, D.C. The Arlington Memorial Bridge today known as the Memorial Bridgestretched from the doorstep of Robert E. Lee's beloved home, Arlington House, to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. The Bridge was considered the final healing gesture between North and the Old South, forever joining Abraham Lincoln to Robert E. Lee. In 1963, the founders and builders of our nation: George Washington, Pierre L'Enfant, Abraham Lincoln, and Robert E. Lee, who had been bound together forever by Arlington, welcomed a nations fallen President, John F. Kennedy. Arlington National Cemetery held special meaning for John F. Kennedy, who saw the cemetery as a sacred place of burial for thousands of American veterans who had died for their nations ideals. Just months earlier, President Kennedy had made an impromptu visit to Arlington House, remarking that the view of Washington, D.C., was so magnificent that he could stay forever a statement which seemed to confirm the Kennedy family's selection of his final resting place. President John F. Kennedy was buried on the hillside positioned along an axis line between the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington House: a site that would forever link President Kennedy with his martyred predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, with American history through Robert E. Lee. Arlington was once again the common thread, weaving together the builders of a nation, countless war heroes, martyred Presidents and 200 years of United State's history, creating the fabric of a great nation, and the story of Arlington.

Memorial Bridge
Memorial Bridge



Document Information
Source: Arlington CVB
Last modified: 20070503
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