The History of the Custis-Lee Mansion

Arlington House from a pre-1861 sketch, published in 1875

In 1802, George Washington Parke Custis built a home in Virginia. Throughout the nineteenth century, this home would have more famous inhabitants.

Former First Lady Martha Washington died in 1802. That same year, her grandson– George Washington Parke Custis– put the finishing touches on a mansion that is still located in the Virginia hillside overlooking the new national capital city– Washington, D.C., and the Potomac River. Custis named his home Arlington House, and it was a memorial to America’s first president. Decades later, historical events would lead to Arlington House becoming Arlington National Cemetery, where generations of America’s fallen heroes, military and political, are buried.

The Early Years of Arlington House

After George Washington Parke Custis finished building Arlington House in 1802, the 11,000-acre estate he inherited from his grandmother became the family home. Two years later, Custis married Mary Fitzhugh. Arlington House became a showcase for the late George Washington’s memorabilia, including the former president’s personal papers, portraits, and clothing. This collection of artifacts spanned Washington’s entire life (1732-99).

The Next Generation

Custis’ only child, Mary Anna, married one Robert E. Lee in 1831. Mary Anna inherited her father’s estate when he died twenty-six years later. Mary controlled the property until her own death, when it was given to her eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, according to the terms of the estate’s title agreement.

Fate Intervenes

The U.S. Civil War broke out in 1861. Robert E. Lee left the estate to command Virginia’s military. (Lee would eventually become commander of the entire Confederate Army.) Shortly after Lee left home, federal troops commandeered and seized control of Arlington. The property then became a military installation.

The Fate of Arlington House

After the Civil War, the federal government appropriated the estate as a military cemetery. As for the mansion itself, Union forces saw to it that it was made completely uninhabitable if the Lees ever attempted to reclaim it. Following General Lee’s death, his grandson, G.W. Custis Lee, sued the government for unlawful seizure. The property was eventually returned to the Confederate general’s family after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Custis Lee’s favor. In turn, the government responded to this ruling by buying Arlington from Custis Lee for $150,000. Today, the shell of this mansion is the centerpiece of Arlington National Cemetery. In addition to soldiers, political figures, including slain President John F. Kennedy and his slain brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and President and First Lady William H. and Helen Herron Taft, are interred there. Huge numbers of people visit Arlington National Cemetery every day.


  1. Harris, Bill. The First Ladies Fact Book, p. 12; 388-9. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc., 2005.