Memorial Day–A Bit of History

Flag Planting at Arlington Cemetary
A soldier from the 3rd US infantry (The Old Guard) laying a flag on a grave in Arlington Cemetery.  The Old Guard lays flags on each grave in the Cemetery to celebrate Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day.

Memorial Day is an American holiday, observed on the last Monday of May, honoring the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Memorial Day 2020 occurs today,  Monday, May 25.

Memorial Day sprang out of remembrances of the millions of Americans who died during the Civil War (1861-1865).   So many Americans died that the first federal cemeteries were established.

The federal government designated Arlington as a national military cemetery in 1864.

It was not an accident that Arlington was designated as the first national cemetery.

Arlington Estate was established by George Washington’s adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, to be a living memorial to the first president. Custis’s daughter, Mary, married U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Robert E. Lee in 1831. When he died, Custis left the estate to his daughter Mary Custis Lee for the duration of her life, and upon her death, her eldest son would inherit the property. Robert E. Lee served as the executor of his father-in-law’s will and never owned the property

After the Lees abandoned the property at the start of the Civil War, the U.S. Army seized Arlington Estate on the morning of May 24, 1861 to defend Washington, D.C. From the property’s heights, rifled artillery could range every federal building in the nation’s capital. The estate was seized not to punish the Custis-Lee family, but rather for its strategic value. Three forts were built on the property during the Civil War: Fort Cass/Rosslyn, Fort Whipple/Fort Myer and Fort McPherson (currently Section 11 of the cemetery). Beginning in June 1863, a large Freedman’s Village, established for freed and escaped slaves, was established in what today are Sections 3, 4, 8, 18, and 20.

On May 13, 1864, the first military burial was conducted for Private William Christman. Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs, Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army, who was responsible for the burial of soldiers, ordered Arlington Estate used for a cemetery.  He wanted to ensure that the Lees would never be able to resume living on the estate. The existing D.C.-area national cemeteries (Soldiers’ Home and Alexandria National Cemeteries) were running out of space — both closed on the day that burials began at Arlington.

Following the death of his mother, in 1873, Lee’s oldest son, Custis, brought suit against the U.S. Government in hopes of gaining compensation for Arlington after its seizure during the Civil War. After a long court battle, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Arlington had been illegally seized and Custis regained title to the property. Knowing that he could not live at Arlington and operate it as a plantation estate, he sold the title back to the U.S. Government for $150,000.

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