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Historical House

The Robert E. Lee memorial is located in his old abode.

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Arlington House sits atop a hill in what is now Arlington National Cemetery.

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Robert E. Lee left Arlington House, his former home, when he resigned from the U.S. Army.

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Mary Lee, Robert E. Lee’s wife, was reluctant to leave her home when war broke out.

<b>IN EARLY MAY</b> of 1861, Mary Randolph Lee still believed she would be able to stay in her home.

<pA few weeks earlier, her husband, Robert E. Lee, had resigned from his post in the U.S. military and moved to Richmond to lead the nascent Confederate Army. Lee begged his wife to join him but she refused, not wanting to abandon her childhood home, which was known as Arlington House.

<p>However, when a cousin of Lee’s informed her that Union troops would be reaching her estate at any moment, Mary Lee was forced to abandon her hopes.

<p>On May 15, 1861, she fled. Nine days later, the Union Army occupied her home.

<p>“I am cut off from all I have ever known and loved in my youth,” she later wrote in a letter. “My dear old Arlington… I do not think I can die in peace until I have seen it once more.”

<p><b>LOCATED ATOP</b> a hill in what is now Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington House was built between 1802 and 1818 by slaves owned by George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington and step-grandson of George Washington.

<p>The house was built not only as a family home for the Custises but also to be a living monument to George Washington. “That was before the Washington Monument was around,” National Park Service spokesperson Dana Dierkes said.

<p>Custis kept a trove of George Washington memorabilia at Arlington House and even re-enacted Revolutionary War battles on the 1,100-acre plantation upon which it was located.

<p>“The house… was really a showcase in many ways,” Emily Weisner, a park ranger at Arlington House, said. “It was like that for much of his existence.”

<p>In 1831, Custis’ only surviving daughter, Mary Randolph, married her childhood friend Robert E. Lee, then a recent West Point graduate, in a ceremony held at Arlington House. The union between these two Arlingtonians set into motion the events that would lead to the abandonment of one of the most prominent properties in American history.

<p><b>WHEN THE CIVIL WAR</b> began at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Lee was greatly conflicted. He had served in the U.S. Army for over three decades but wanted to remain loyal to his home state of Virginia.

<p>After a long, sleepless night of deliberation at Arlington House, Lee made the decision to leave the U.S. Army in the early morning hours of April 20, signing his resignation letter in the master bedroom. Two days later, he left for Richmond.

<p>When, almost exactly four years later, Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox, Va., effectively ending the Civil War, Arlington House was being used as a Union Army base and Lee’s former plantation had become a burial ground.

<p>After the war, Lee and his wife moved to Lexington, Va. where he became the president of what is now Washington & Lee University. He devoted the rest of his life to healing the wounds caused by the war he had just finished waging.

<p>“The South would have continued fighting, but Lee reconciled the country,” Weisner said. “Lee gave his men the inspiration and courage to restart their lives.”

<p><b>ARLINGTON HOUSE</b> now serves as a memorial to Lee and is a part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. In 1920, what was then knows as Alexandria County changed its name to Arlington County in honor of Lee’s former residence.

<p>“He was one of the most prominent people to live in Arlington,” Judy Knudsen, the manager of the Virginia Room at the Arlington Central Library, said. “[Arlington House] is the premiere landmark in Arlington history.”

<p>As for Arlington House’s erstwhile occupants, Robert E. Lee died five years after the end of the war, never having set foot in his former home after those fateful April 1861 days.

<p>Mary Randolph Lee, however, did return to Arlington House a few months before her death in 1873. Too infirm to get out of her carriage, she was greeted by one of her former slaves who presented her with a glass of water.

<p>“I rode out to my dear old home,” she wrote in a letter. “So changed, it seemed but a dream of the past – I could not have realised (sic) it was Arlington but for the few old oaks they had spared and the trees planted by the Genl (sic) and myself which are raising their tall branches to the Heaven which seems to smile on the desecration around them.”