top of page

Arlington National Cemetery's Strange Twist of Fate

May is the month we honor mothers and soldiers, both underrated occupations. You may be surprised to find a strange link between George Washington and Abraham Lincoln here.

Anyone middle aged or older probably remembers news commentator Paul Harvey’s broadcasts, The Rest of the Story. Those true tales of intrigue and surprise endings made us comment, “Huh. I never knew that!”

The account of Arlington National Cemetery qualifies for an episode on The Rest of the Story.

Arlington is one of the most stirring national memorials in our country. Not only is it the final resting place of dignitaries such as President John F. Kennedy and wife Jacqueline, but also Robert Todd Lincoln, son of President Abraham Lincoln, and Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, daughter-in-law of George Washington.

What is most fascinating is the thread connecting George Washington’s relatives to Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s, which eventually led to an encounter with Abraham Lincoln’s son. It began at Arlington.

John Parke (Jacky) Custis, George Washington’s adopted stepson, purchased the farm where Arlington now lies, as a place to live closer to his parents at Mount Vernon. After Jacky Custis died, his son George Washington Parke Custis inherited the land and called it Mount Washington, in honor of his famous adoptive grandfather. “Wash” as he was called, wanted to create a shrine to the father of our country.

Wash Custis, who later changed the name from Mount Washington to Arlington, built a mansion there and displayed artifacts from Washington’s life.

The plot thickens. George Washington’s grandson, “Wash” Custis had only one surviving child, a daughter, Mary. And she just happened to marry a famous man—Robert E. Lee—who was then a lieutenant, and the son of Washington’s trusted cavalry commander during the Revolutionary War. Robert E. Lee (between military assignments) and Mary and their family lived at Arlington for 30 years

Then the Civil War began. Due to Lee’s ties to George Washington, he was offered command of the Union army. He turned it down. Winfield Scott, General in Chief of the Army, said, “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life, but I feared it would be so.”

As you know, Lee went to Richmond to become commander of the Confederacy or the “Rebels” as they liked to call themselves.

With Lee gone, the United States Army occupied Arlington as a military post, an integral spot for defending our nation’s capital. Then as cemeteries in Washington began filling up, the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, saw Arlington as an ideal burial ground for fallen Union soldiers.

It also was a slap in the face of Lee, a traitor in Stanton’s view, as acres of his farmland were opened for graves of his enemies.

Robert E. Lee never returned to his beloved Arlington, but there was another strange twist of fate. His son, George Washington Custis Lee (a confederate officer known as Custis) had inherited the family farm. When he returned from the war he pursued a lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court and won rights to General Lee’s property. There was a glitch, however; what to do with all those graves?

Fortunately, Lee sold it to the United States government for $150,000. The then-Secretary of War who accepted the deed was-- Robert Todd Lincoln, son of our sixteenth president.

A strange twist of fate secured a most beautiful spot to honor fallen heroes of American wars. As a foreign military leader observed when visiting Arlington, “Now I know why your soldiers fight so hard. You take better care of your dead than we do our living.”

George Washington, Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln—all threads in a curiously-wrought tapestry of history. And now you know the rest of the story.

Taken from

What about you? Anyone you would like to honor for their military service? Feel free to comment below.


bottom of page