Philanthropist David Rubenstein has donated $12.35 million for the repair and refurbishing of Arlington House, the home of General Robert E. Lee and his family from 1831-61. The house in Arlington, Virginia, is now the Robert E. Lee Memorial and part of the National Park Service. The money will renovate and repair the building and grounds, fix damage from the 2011 Virginia earthquake, and restore each room in the house to the way it appeared in 1860. The National Park Service is strapped for cash these days, so Mr. Rubenstein’s gift is most welcome. He also contributed $7.5 million to help fix the Washington Monument after it was damaged in that 2011 earthquake.
Robert E. Lee was living at the house when he resigned his U.S. Army commission on April 20th, 1861. He left for Richmond the same day, but his wife Mary stayed until May 15th. She turned the house over to the Lee’s slaves, who were to take care of the property while the Lees were gone. With its location on high ground overlooking Washington DC, the Union Army crossed the Potomac on May 24th, one day after Virginia voted to secede from the Union, and occupied the area around the house. After the Battle of Bull Run, the house itself was occupied and used as a military headquarters and officers’ residence.
Many of the Union soldiers who stayed at or passed through Arlington House considered Lee a traitor and didn’t care what happened to the house and grounds. One of these Federal officers was Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs. In 1864, the government had Meigs look for a suitable location for a new national cemetery and the quartermaster decided that the grounds of Arlington House would be the ideal location. Meigs felt a national cemetery for the war dead was an appropriate use for an estate owned by the man leading enemy forces against the United States. The location was approved, and the first burials were in May, with many more taking place as the summer wore on and the casualty lists grew. By the end of the war, thousands would be buried in the new cemetery. Meigs wanted to make sure that the house would not be lived in by Lee after the war, so he had some bodies buried near the house, making it undesirable to live in.
Robert E. Lee never returned to Arlington House and moved to Lexington, Virginia, after the war. The cemetery that Meigs created is Arlington National Cemetery. The land that Meigs wanted to restore honor to is today among the most hallowed ground in the nation.