by contributor Donna Shor
Photo credit: Neshan H. Naltchayan
Of all the fireworks-watchers last night, the ones who literally got the biggest bang for their buck were the patriotic souls who bought tickets to the Save Arlington House benefit.
Comfortably seated next to the columns of the Custis-Lee mansion that crowns Arlington cemetery just above the eternal flame that marks John Kennedy’s grave, they had an unobstructed, sweeping view of the fireworks as they burst above the lights of the city below.
Ben Jones with wife Alma Viator
Add to that a really good barbecue dinner and a program warmly emceed by The Hon.Ben Jones (the beloved “Cooter” of The Dukes of Hazard), including speakers who broke tradition with the usual Fourth of July speeches by actually saying something. It added up to a great evening for an important cause.
Never mind that detours and blocked roads and bridges made getting to Arlington Cemetery a problem for many, the party that started at 6:30 lasted until 10 pm, as the officials kept the gates open to accommodate the benefit goers, the only public allowed access to the area yesterday evening.
Speakers included site manager Brandon Bies, Dr. Gene Cross, COB of the Arlington House trustees (shown in top photo), state Senator Barbara Favola, Rep.Jim Moran (VA), and Anne Zimmer, great-granddaughter of Robert E. Lee, who was able to give a very personal account of her forebears’ home, which links George Washington, the Custis family and Robert E. Lee.
Rep. Jim Moran
The speakers, in various ways, outlined the historical importance of the site, and the urgent reasons why a benefit was called for.
Rep. Moran spoke of the area’s past, reminding us that Native Americans had an early settlement nearby, according to John Smith’s journals. (It was known as Nameoughquena; but Arlington, as the area is now called, somehow seems to work out better.)
He gave a short history of Arlington House, as the Custis-Lee mansion is once again known. The Lee family originally so named it to commemorate their original family homestead in another part of Virginia, and Arlington county took the name as its own.
The mansion was built in 1802 by George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington’s adopted son, and the only grandson of the president’s wife, Martha Custis Washington. His daughter Mary Anna married a distant cousin of the Custis family, Robert E. Lee, fresh out of West Point.
They lived here three decades, raising seven children on this working plantation with 63 slaves until Lee, a colonel in the U.S. Army, felt he could not fight against Virginians when his state seceded from the Union over issues leading to the Civil War. He wrote his resignation letter in this house and left for the Army of the Confederacy where he became its leader, General Robert E. Lee.
His wife, fleeing the advance of the Union Army, hid as many of George Washington’s treasures as she could and gave the keys and the authority over the mansion to Selina Graves, her trusted personal slave. When Union soldiers occupied the home and began looting the valuables, Selina stood her ground, and they stopped.
Rep. Moran evoked the names of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth in explaining how the grounds became the Freedmen’s Village of 1,500 ex-slaves, freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, but no longer with a place to live.
When the area cemeteries were overwhelmed with the war dead, Union Quartermaster Montgomery C. Meigs recommended that the Lee plantation become a national cemetery. Dislike of Robert E. Lee, considered treasonous by the Union, was so intense that Meigs deliberately buried 26 Union soldiers next Mrs. Lee’s beloved rose garden, so that she would not wish to return.
The Union seized the house on the pretext that although the taxes were properly paid through a relative she, being absent, had not paid them personally. When Mrs. Lee tried to repossess it, the matter went to the Supreme Court, who declared the seizure unconstitutional. The estate was later sold to the U.S. government.
(Interestingly, Robert E. Lee IV, Lee’s great grandson, and Gen. Montgomery Meigs (USA, Ret.) the great-grand-nephew of the vindictive Quartermaster, are both members of the Save Historical Arlington House board of trustees, and General Meigs attended the benefit.)
Arlington House Trustee John Lesinski chaired the event for the Save Historical Arlington House group and both opened and closed the evening thanking guests for their support. He outlined the many areas of the mansion in disrepair, so much so that the interior of the house is threatened. Windows must be replaced, structural work done and lead-based paint removed and the areas resurfaced.
Unlike Monticello and Mount Vernon, Arlington house is not privately owned and federal dollars stretch only so far, though grants can be leveraged by private donations. A $290,000 challenge grant will be awarded by Save America’s Treasures if the matching $290,000 is raised. Last night’s benefit was a step in that direction, and Lesinski stressed the need for private donors to understand the urgency and contribute.