Montgomery Meigs Establishes Our National Cemetery

This week (June 15) in 1864, Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs, who had been appointed Quartermaster General of the Union Army in 1861, established Arlington House, the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, as a cemetery for the Union’s soldiers.  Today Arlington National Cemetery is America’s national military burial ground.

Montgomery Meigs was one of the true unsung heroes of the Civil War.  As Quartermaster General he was charged with ensuring that military supplies — food, clothing, munitions, weapons — were effectively delivered to the Union armies in the field.  It was a huge undertaking, involving more than 130,000 employees, yet Meigs did a first-rate job.  Not only did he establish a transport system that was highly efficient, but he was also scrupulously honest.  By war’s end Meigs’s department had spent nearly half a billion dollars, yet a later congressional audit found not one penny unaccounted for in any contract Meigs authorized.

And then in 1864 Meigs was charged with finding a new site for a military cemetery because — in a war that eventually resulted in 620,000 dead soldiers on both sides — all the nearby Union military cemeteries were full.

Meigs’s gaze soon fell on Arlington House, which the Lee family had evacuated when the war began because it was located in Union-held territory near the federal capital, Washington, D.C.  Although a native of Georgia, one of the first states to join the Confederacy, Meigs was a loyal Unionist who despised all southerners who had chosen secession.  That meant Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s most celebrated soldier, was high on Meigs’s hate list.  So in May of 1864 Meigs ordered that Union soldiers be buried in graves that would eventually surround Lee’s home.   By the time Arlington House was officially designated a military cemetery in June, more than 2,500 soldiers were buried on its grounds.

That number would increase exponentially, and by 1865 it became obvious that regardless of the war’s aftermath, disinterment of that many soldiers was politically (and morally) impossible, meaning Robert E. Lee and his family could never again call Arlington House home — which had been Meigs’s intent all along.  Indeed, although Lee’s eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, later successfully sued the federal government to return Arlington House to the Lee family, he quickly realized they could never again live there, so he sold it back to the government for a paltry $150,000.

As a postscript, in October of 1864, Meigs’s own son John, then a 1st Lieutenant in the Union Army, was killed in battle near Swift Run Gap, Virginia.  John too was subsequently buried in the grounds of Arlington House.  To be specific, he was buried in Mrs. Robert E. Lee’s rose garden.