Arlington House: The Mysterious House on the Hill

Arlington House

Confederate General Robert E Lee briefly made Arlington House his home before the Civil War. However, his wife’s father, George Washington Park Custis built the mansion as a memorial to George Washington. For almost 60 years, the estate was home to the Custis and Lee families. Then, of course, during the Civil War, the U.S. government took over the property to serve as a cemetery for U.S. soldiers killed in battle.

Now Arlington National Cemetery surrounds Arlington House, which sits atop a hill overlooking Washington DC. In some ways, the cemetery overshadows the house on the hill, the intention of the cemetery’s designers.

Although best paired with a trip and a tour of Arlington National Cemetery, it is a daytrip destination of its own.

The People They Enslaved

When you visit Arlington House, you’ll learn about Robert E Lee and his family. But you’ll also learn about those he and the Custis family enslaved on the estate.

Between 1802 and the Civil War, first the Custis’ and then the Lees enslaved nearly 100 individuals at Arlington House. As you tour the house, the exhibits discuss the lives of these people. In fact, an important part of the exhibits are the two slave quarters located on the north and south ends of Arlington House. The buildings and the exhibits inside help tell the story of those the Custis’ and Lees enslaved.

The National Park Service interprets the stories of the Syphax, Burke, Parks, and Gray families, presenting a more complete story of life at Arlington. Both exhibits and the National Park Service’s web site discuss archeological finds in the buildings surrounding the mansion. Exploring these illuminate the lives of those the Lee’s enslaved. Ironically, though, the archelogical finds also adds to the mystery surrounding the lives of those enslaved there.

History of the Mansion

George Washington Parke Custis built Arlington House between 1802 and 1818. He envisioned the mansion as a memorial to his adoptive grandfather, George Washington, as well as his own home. He built it to be conspicuous — Custis wanted the huge columned portico to be visible from the city. Custis wanted a fitting memorial to George Washington and a safe place to display his collection of George Washington memorabilia, which he called his “Washington Treasures.”

Custis named his estate and mansion after the village of Arlington, Gloucestershire, England, where his family was originally from.

Built entirely by the labor of those Custis enslaved, Arlington House is one of the earliest Greek Revival structures in the United States. Inspired by Greek temples, it also is one of the earliest mansions to use the huge columns that span the entire two stories of the house.

Custis’ daughter, Mary Custis Lee, inherited a life tenancy to the house and the estate upon her father’s death. The Lees moved into the mansion in 1857.

Arlington House during the Civil War

Lee’s resignation of his U.S. Army commission to join the Confederacy when Virginia seceded from the Union changed his life. It also, ultimately, changed the fate of Arlington House.

Initially in early May 1861, the Virginia Militia occupied the estate, located as it was on high ground overlooking Washington DC. Despite not wanting to leave Arlington House, Mary Lee believed her estate would soon be recaptured by federal soldiers. She was correct. The U.S. Army couldn’t allow enemy troops to continue to hold the high ground above Washington DC and ordered that Arlington and Alexandria VA be cleared of all troops not loyal to the United States.

Before leaving the estate, Mary Lee buried many of her family treasures on the grounds. Then, she fled to her sister’s estate.

The tour of the mansion consists of a 20-minute self-guided tour walks through the South Wing of Arlington House. While passing through Robert E Lee’s office, the family parlors and the center hall, you will view museum exhibits and period furniture and objects associated with the Lees, George Washington, and George Washington Parke Custis.

Know Before You Go

You cannot drive directly to Arlington House. The best way to get to Arlington House is via Arlington National Cemetery either from the Cemetery’s Parking Garage or by the Arlington Cemetery Metro stop. From within the Cemetery, take the Arlington Cemetery Tour trolley, or walk 15-20 minutes from the Arlington National Cemetery Visitor Center Security Access Point up a hill to Arlington House.

Getting there: Via Arlington National Cemetery
Hours: daily except for major holidays, 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Website: Arlington House

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