Visitors will now get more nuanced view of history at Arlington House plantation

Arlington House, the national memorial to Robert E. Lee. (File photo by Scott McCaffrey)

Virginia lawmakers of a Democratic bent are tag-teaming to remove the name of Robert E. Lee from the National Park Service’s Arlington House.

The plantation home, owned by Lee through his marriage to Mary Anna Custis Lee, has served as the nation’s formal memorial to the Confederate general for the better part of a century, celebrating his military genius as well as Lee’s efforts – which some now question – to foster a sense of reconciliation in the five years between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and his death in 1870.

In 1955, Congress formally added Lee’s name to Arlington House. But a coterie of Democratic legislators wants to rescind the accolade.

“If we are serious about ending racial disparities, we need to stop honoring those who fought to protect slavery,” said U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, who has introduced legislation to remove the name.

On the other side of the Capitol, similar legislation has been proposed by U.S. Reps. Don Beyer, Gerald Connolly, Jennifer Wexton and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.

With the number of legislative days ticking down before Congress abandons Washington to campaign for re-election, there might not be enough time on the calendar to get such a measure through the legislative meat-grinder.

Cynics might wonder if getting it passed is the real goal, anyway.

Beyer, whose 8th District includes Arlington House, said removing the name would serve as “an opportunity to make it clear that we do not revere Confederate leaders” and in a not very veiled reference seemed to tie Lee’s rebellion with one of much more recent vintage.

“Congress should never approve or celebrate violent insurrection against the United States government,” Beyer said.

“Arlington House has a larger history which deserves memorialization and reflection,” he added, “and it is therefore fitting and just that Congress remove the designation of Arlington House as a memorial” to Lee.

It was at Arlington House in 1861 that Lee opted to decline command of federal troops offered him by Abraham Lincoln, instead siding with the nascent Confederacy.

As was the case with many in that era, Lee viewed loyalty to his state as having a higher priority than loyalty to the federal government. (The phrase “United States” was considered plural until the war, but was largely viewed as singular thereafter, acknowledging the indivisible nature of the union that had been forged over the course of four bloody years.)

Lee and his family decamped from Arlington House ahead of Union troops that marched from the District of Columbia to occupy the plantation at the outset of hostilities. In an effort to ensure they never made efforts to reclaim the property, federal officials formally seized it (ostensibly for non-payment of property taxes) and began the first of what would over 150 years become hundreds of thousands of burials at the Arlington National Cemetery.

After Lee’s death, his heirs sued the federal government over the seizure, an action that in the 1880s was deemed illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court. Since returning the estate was by that point unfeasible, the federal government settled with the family for what at the time was a whopping $175,000.

In remarks, Beyer suggested that the general himself might have approved of removing his name from the Park Service site, as “Lee himself opposed erecting Confederate monuments.”

Arlington officials already have exorcised the name of Lee from a high school (now Washington-Liberty) and a roadway (now Langston Boulevard). Some activists are pressing those leaders to change the county’s name, saying “Arlington” was adopted in 1920 as a piece of Lee hagiography.

But unlike the other renamings, that action would require approval of the General Assembly and governor – with a likelihood of close to absolute zero – and probably would cause many inside and outside the county to reprise the perplexed refrain “what is up with those people?” when it comes to Arlington leaders’ unique take on the world.

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