Memorial to Confederate general

By Tom Hennessy

They were men of common denominators: Southerners by birth, West Point graduates, engineers, career military men.

One, Montgomery Meigs, was born in Atlanta. He was a child when his family moved to Philadelphia. The other, Robert E. Lee, was a Virginian.

But when Virginia seceded from the union and the Civil War began in 1861, the common denominators meant nothing. Meigs, despite his Georgian birth and his having once served under Lee, stayed loyal to the union.

Lee followed a more difficult path. It was a time when devotion to one's state had a greater pull than in today's transient society. So when Lee was offered command of the Union army, he turned it down. His Virginia bonds, he felt, demanded no less.

“(Despite) 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.'

Lee knew he would pay for his fidelity to his native state, and that it likely would mean the loss of the Arlington, Virginia, home he had shared for three decades with his wife, Mary, a descendent of Martha Washington.

As the fighting began in earnest, the home, on a hill across the Potomac, loomed as an irresistible prize of war especially to Montgomery Meigs. The man who would become quartermaster of the Union Army already had acquired a passionate hatred of military men who took up the Confederate cause Lee, perhaps most of all.

Lee, destined to become the Confederate commander, saw what was coming. In May, 1961, already having answered the call to arms, he wrote Mary:

“War is inevitable, and there is no telling when it will burst around you … You have to move and make arrangements to go to some point of safety … Keep quiet while you remain, and in your preparations …'

She took him at his word, abandoning the mansion days later. When she left, Union troops moved in.

Locked out

During the war, citizens living in areas occupied by Northern soldiers were required to pay their taxes in person. The Lees could not do this without risking capture. So the federal government seized their estate in 1864.

To further reduce the likelihood that the Lees could ever return home, Meigs ordered the bodies of 26 Union dead to be taken from an Army morgue and buried virtually at the doorstep of the Lee mansion. One account has Meigs looking on in “grim satisfaction' as the burials took place.

There was more. He then ordered the construction of a Tomb of the Unknown Dead to be built in what had been Mrs. Lee's rose garden. He had it filled with the anonymous bones of soldiers 1,100 soldiers who had been killed in fighting within 25 miles of Washington.

Through the years, there would be more wars. And more graves about a quarter million more. But thus was born, from one soldier's desire to avenge another, the most renowned burial ground in America.

Arlington National Cemetery.

Proclamation site

It was there, in early May, 1868, on what had been the front porch of the Lee mansion, that the proclamation was read declaring the nation's first official Memorial Day.

The Lees never returned to their home. Robert died in 1870, while serving as president of Washington University (later Washington and Lee) in Lexington, Virginia. He is buried there.

Custis Lee, son of Robert and Mary, later sued the federal government, claiming the property had been confiscated without due process. In December, the Supreme Court agreed by a vote of 5 to 4. The following March, Congress formally purchased the property from the Lee family for $150,000.

Ten years after that, General Montgomery Meigs, the man who hated Robert E. Lee, also died. He is buried at Arlington.

About a hundred yards from the Lee mansion.

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