Arlington House

May 30, 1861

Arlington House at it looked during the Civil War

When Brigadier General Irvin McDowell took command of the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia, he camped at Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. On a hill overlooking the camp sat the stately, columned Arlington House.

Mary Anna Custis Lee

George Washington’s grandson and adopted son George Washington Parke Custis had founded the house and estate, and it had since passed down to Mary Anna Custis Lee, who herself was the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. At the general’s urging, Mary (who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and used a wheelchair) had vacated the house on May 15, but she worried for its safety as Union troops occupied the grounds around it, and, in some cases camped inside it.

She sent a letter of concern to McDowell’s headquarters, and he replied to Mary as soon as he read it.

I had the honor to receive this morning your letter of to-day . . . . With respect to the occupation of Arlington by the United States troops, I beg to say it has been done . . . with every regard to the preservation of the place. I am here temporarily in camp on the grounds, preferring this to sleeping in the house, under the circumstances which the painful state of the country places me with respect to its proprietors. 

I assure you it has been and will be my earnest endeavor to have all things so ordered that on your return you will find things as little disturbed as possible. In this I have the hearty concurrence of the courteous, kind-hearted gentleman in the immediate command of the troops quartered here, and who lives in the lower part of the house to insure its being respected. 

Everything has been done as you desired with respect to your servants, and your wishes, as far as they are known or could be anticipated, have been complied with. When you desire to return, every facility will be given you for so doing.
I trust, madam, you will not consider it an intrusion if I say I have the most sincere sympathy for your distress, and that, as far as is compatible with my duty, I shall always be ready to do whatever may alleviate it.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your most obedient servant,
Irvin McDowell

P. S.-I am informed it was the order of the General-in-Chief [Winfield Scott], if the troops on coming here found the family in the house, that no one should enter it, but that a guard should be placed for its protection.

Brigadier General Irvin McDowell (with goatee, facing left, center) and his staff on the steps of Arlington House, May 1861.
This war, which would consume more than 630,000 lives, still contained many such elements of gentlemanliness, kindness, and respect.

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 2, pp. 655.

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