American History16 Feb 2008 09:11 pm
That most extraordinary of Southern gentlemen, Robert E. Lee, famously chose to give his military services to the Confederacy even though he had opposed secession as a betrayal of the Founding Fathers’ vision. As he put it to a junior officer in 1861,”I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty.” (And what a musket it turned out to be.)
While Lee was a true son of Virigina, of the Westmoreland county Lees, he was a younger son; without a patrimony, he was forced to marry into money in order to live after the aristocratic fashion to which he was accustomed (there are worse fates). He married one Mary Custis, heiress to the great Washington-Custis fortune, and took up residence at her estate, called Arlington House, on the southern banks of the Potomac River. As few as fifteen years prior to the war between the states, Arlington House fell within the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia, and not the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Washington, D.C., often called Federal City in its early days, was an artificial and symbolic capital. At its founding in 1791, it consisted of two counties, one taken from Maryland and one from Virigina (thus straddling North and South), in an area of country personally selected by George Washington, whose Mt. Vernon was nearby. The District, as it was originally intended, formed a ten mile by ten mile “diamond,” with the Capitol at the very center, as is still possible to infer from the map below:
Over the course of DC’s first fifty years, the inhabitants of Virginian Alexandria county grew disenchanted with their inclusion in the District. The actual capital—the city of Washington—was north of the Potomac River as was Georgetown, an entrepôt that had siphoned off most of the river’s shipping business. Additionally, there was the question of slavery—what business there was at the port of Alexandria was mostly related to the slave trade, which faced serious opposition from some quarters in the District (and was eventually abolished within corporation limits following the Great Compromise of 1850).
With the support of the Commonwealth of Virginia—itself eager for two new Congressional representatives—the county of Alexandria petitioned the federal government for retrocession in 1846. The request was granted on June 9; subsequent Southern attempts at territorial reorganization were not met with such unconcerned approval.
And what of General Lee? To his chagrin, he was not able to retire to his confirmedly Virginian estate after the Civil War. During hostilities, the Lincoln administration seized the Custis-Lee lands, and, with no mean poetic justice, designated them as a burial grounds for the Union soldiers felled by Lee’s “musketry.” In our own time, the site continues to serve as a memorial graveyard. We call it Arlington National Cemetery.
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