A 19th-century general has survived a 21st-century battle.
Efforts during the recently concluded session of the U.S. Congress to remove Robert E. Lee’s name from the National Park Service’s Arlington House memorial failed to make much progress. And if it didn’t find success when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, such a proposal is more unlikely now that Republicans control, albeit narrowly, the U.S. House of Representatives.
Both U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-8th) and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) sponsored resolutions to remove the name of Lee from the estate, which Lee had inherited by marrying into the Custis family prior to the Civil War.
Last-minute efforts to include the provision in the whopping spending-reconciliation measure at the very end of the session proved unsuccessful.
It was at Arlington House in 1861 that Lee made the fateful decision to decline President Lincoln’s offer to command U.S. troops, and instead sided with Virginia. At the outbreak of hostilities, federal troops marched from the District of Columbia to seize the property after the Lees had departed. During the war, the first burials in took place in what would become Arlington National Cemetery.
That seizure (ostensibly because the Lees did not pay property tax during the war) later was ruled by the U.S. Supreme Court to be an illegal taking by the government. Lee’s heirs in the late 1800s received the then-massive sum of $175,000 in compensation.
Congress in 1955 marked the 90th anniversary of the end of the Civil War by designating what was then known as the Lee Mansion in Arlington as a permanent memorial to Lee. In the measure, Lee was described as someone “whose name will ever be bright in our history as a great military leader, a great educator, a great American and a truly great man through the simple heritage of his personal traits of high honor, his grandeur of soul [and] his unfailing strength of heart.”
(Fun fact of no relevance to this discussion: The very next law approved by Congress that year allowed live scorpions to be transported in the U.S. mail, so long as they were being used for medical research.)
In 1972, Congress revised the 1955 legislation to formally rename the property “Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial.” And so it shall stay unless a future Congress opts to change it.
In recent years, the National Park Service has attempted to add focus to the enslaved population that lived at Arlington House in the antebellum period.
Until very recent times, Lee was perceived as a man of honor who deserved respect for accepting the Confederacy’s loss and helping, if quietly, to bring the country back together before his death. That view still may predominate across the country, but some progressive activists have pressed to remove honorifics to Confederate leaders. Arlington County officials have joined the fray by removing Lee’s name from a high school (now Washington-Liberty) and highway (now Langston Boulevard).