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Grave Misdeeds

Ruth's picture

Having just seen the cretin in chief desecrate the graves of our heroes buried there by his presence, I take comfort in recalling that it was desecration that the Cemetery was set up to effect.

The original grounds belonged to Mrs. Robert E. Lee, and the Custis-Lee mansion that now is the high point was her home. When Robert E. Lee became the General leading the Southern army in the Civil War, the mansion and grounds were confiscated by the Union. Soldiers were housed there, and later an infirmary set up. In command of the garrison there was a former West Point classmate of Robert E. Lee, who resented his leaving their country and helping in setting up a seceeded nation from its parts. That former classmate, Brig. Gen. Meigs, wanted to make sure that the beloved house would never be able to be occupied by the Robert E. Lee family again. Burying war dead on the grounds insured this end.

After the war, the Supreme Court declared the confiscation illegal and returned it to Custis Lee, the oldest son of the Robert E. Lee family, who in turn sold it back to the U.S. government for $150,000.

These honored dead, being dead, don't mind that they were laid there for revenge on one of this country's great generals, who probably made a bad choice in fighting for the South but did it out of loyalty, not for profit.

Perhaps a purification ceremony could be arranged for the great spirits that were polluted today by evil spirits.

Coincidentally, I roomed with an 'intern' who helped research a guide book to D.C., who passed this tale on to me.

(this post also at )

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Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

Ruth, this is a lovely piece (you knew anything even remotely Civil War related would drag me in, didn't you? :) I was thinking the story of the confiscation of the property was a little more complicated in rationale (something to do with back taxes not being paid?) but on the way to looking this up I ran across something else I found fascinating.

The NPS pamphlet on the Custis-Lee Mansion is excellent. Ownership history, floor plans, pictures, land usage...although somehow I think the word "slave" snuck in only once, in reference to field work. Indoor employees are always "servants." But I quibble.

This piece just jumped out at me:

The grave of Mary Randolph, believed to have been Mrs. Lee's godmother, is a short distance from the north east corner of the mansion, down the Custis walk which here approximates the course of the old carriage driveway. Mrs. Randolph was related to both the Custises and the Lees and was well known in the early part of the nineteenth century as the author of an extremely popular cookbook, The Virginia Housewife. She and her husband, David Meade Randolph, were often at Arlington, the latter being the inventor of a special waterproof stucco used on part of the exterior of the mansion. Mrs. Randolph died in 1828 and was the first person buried at Arlington. The ivy growing on the brick enclosure about her tomb is said to have been planted by Mr. and Mrs. Custis.

"The Virginia Housewife" is still in print. New editions can be had from around ten bucks to an exhorbitant and inexplicable $89. Is that a literary immortality or what?

I have a copy in front of me as I write. I recommend the Dover reprint of the 1860 edition if you can find it, as it has an excellent introduction by culinary historian Jan Bluestein Longone. In honor of the first grave at Arlington, then, I offer the following:


Gather leaves from fragrant roses without bruising, fill a pitcher with them, and cover them with French brandy; next day, pour off the brandy, take out the leaves, and fill the pitcher with fresh ones, and return the brandy; do this till it is strongly impregnated, then bottle it; keep the pitcher closely covered during the process. It is better than distilled rose water for cakes, &c.

As you can imagine a rather large rose garden is required to keep a product like this on hand. Which do doubt explains why rose water, rose brandy and related substances are even rarer in modern cookery books than they were in the old ones. And why they were most commonly used in households which included many...servants.

Ruth's picture
Submitted by Ruth on

Xan, yes, it was for nonpayment of taxes, which she was required to pay in person. Mrs. Lee could not pay in person because she would be 'detained', so forfeited the property. That became the grounds for declaring the seizure illegal.

I didn't get into as much detail as that, because I really didn't think there would be much interest. Just from memory, iirc, the soldiers were first begun to be buried in what had been the kitchen garden, right next to the house. Brig.Gen. Meigs knew Mary Custis Lee could not stand to stay in the house after that. They were pretty well acquainted.

Gen. Lee had been idolized by the young Meigs. He was pro'ly not only bitter, but needed to renounce their former closeness for his career.

I still am looking for some one to do a purification ceremony for Arlington Cemetery. It's such a lovely place.