Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Arlington’s own Robert E. Lee is posthumously back in the news. Powers in Richmond are preparing for removal of his statue, 18 months after the Confederate hero’s name was excised from Washington-Liberty High School.

Comes now a proposal via a June 15 letter to the Washington Post to de-Lee our flagship “Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial.”

That mansion built from 1802 – 1818 by George Washington Parke Custis was known by multiple monikers: Mount Washington, Arlington House, the Custis-Lee Mansion and the Lee Mansion. My study of this tortuous history surprised me. The fights over Lee’s legacy were as passionate in the 1920s (when Arlington’s first high school was named) as they are today.
Arlington House, attached to Arlington National Cemetery, was in disrepair when the 1920s dawned.

As noted in a 2013 National Park Service historic registration application, Lee’s reputation had made a comeback — even among northerners. Forget the originator Custis, who lived there 55 years compared with just a few for son-in-law Lee. Congress was intent on restoring the property to honor the southern military tactician as a postwar conciliator. (This is also when a statewide Lee Highway was created, along with a slew of Confederate monuments and a rising Ku Klux Klan.)

Consensus was not easily achieved. Some northerners wanted to convert it into a museum of Union soldiers, some wanted more Custis themes. But the tide was turned by an influential author, Frances Parkinson Keyes, the wife of a senator who strategized with the United Daughters of the Confederacy to devote Arlington House to Lee. In 1925 Congress resolved that the secretary of war be directed to “restore the Lee Mansion in the Arlington National Cemetery to the condition in which it existed immediately prior to the Civil War and to procure, if possible, articles of furniture and equipment which were then in the mansion and in use by the occupants thereof.”

But Charles Moore, secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts, was wary. “There is no real demand from the South that a Lee shrine be established in Arlington Cemetery,” he argued, noting Lee’s memorial at his burial place at Washington and Lee University. Plus, “extreme care must be exercised in preserving [Arlington cemetery’s] art values.”

The association of veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic sent a protest to Congress calling Lee a “traitor.” Sen. Porter Dale, R-Vt., introduced a bill to make “the Custis Mansion” into “a museum in which shall be kept trophies and emblems of the Union Army and Navy of the United States during the Civil War.” The National Society of Dames of the Loyal Legion protested against allowing the UDC to make the site a Lee shrine.

Because of the controversy, renovations money wasn’t appropriated until 1929. Flash forward to 1955, another period of racial strife. Arlington’s Republican congressman Joel Broyhill introduced the resolution that honored Lee’s “high character” and “grandeur of soul.” He officially named the property the Custis-Lee Mansion but established it as a national memorial to Lee. It took new legislation in 1972 to officially demote Custis but compromise with: Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial.

Many don’t realize, says Matt Penrod, retired after 28 years as a park ranger at Arlington House, that the creation of the memorial and full name were to keep it from becoming a Confederate shrine.”

The graffiti gets fewer eyeballs these days with the East Falls Church Metro closed for renovation. But its spray painted slogan “Virginia Is for Lovers — No KKK” gleams from a shed visible from I-66, and seems timely given current national tensions over matters of bigotry.

The lettering painted on the outbuilding in a backyard on N. 19th Road was executed skillfully and anonymously from the public bike path in 2018. The homeowner was as surprised as anyone, telling an ARLNow reporter last September he might have it removed during improvements. Instead, the message stayed, to be newly relevant.