What is Arlington House?

I took some time today to reread some material related to my small project on the challenges of interpreting slavery at Arlington House.  Most of my time was spent with a 2004 report that was done by Kevin Strait as part of a cooperative project between the NPS and the Center for the Study of Public Culture and Public History at George Washington University.  [You can read the report online: (www.cr.nps.gov/crdi/Arlington_House_Survey.pdf)] 

Strait and a small team conducted a series of interviews with NPS staff at Arlington as well as a small survey of visitors on their impressions of how effectively slavery is interpreted at the site.  The findings suggest that there is much that can be improved at the site.  This alone situates Arlington within a broader narrative of the past thirty years that finds museums and historic sites working – and sometimes struggling – to find ways to improve their interpretations of slave life and the complexity of race relations.  As of 2004 tours were self-guided with interpreters situated at key points throughout the house.  The house tour, according to one staff member concentrates almost exclusively to “tell the story of Robert E. Lee.”  Unless the question/issue is raised by a visitor almost nothing is mentioned by the interpreters during the house tour.  A survey of 60 visitors revealed the following:

Question #3: When touring the house did you learn anything about slavery? [Yes: 10] and [No: 50]

Question #4: Did you gain any insight on the relationships between slaves and masters?  Between slaves and slaves? [Yes: 10] and [No: 50]

Question #8: Did you learn anything new about race or slavery during your visit? [Yes: 0] and [No: 60]

The survey can be found on p. 14 of the report.  The slave cabins are accessible along with a few interpretive markers, but there are no regular interpreters on hand to answer questions and tours of slave life are reserved for Black History Month and other special occasions.  This glaring lack of attention to slave life leaves the visitor with a disconnect between the relationship between the slave cabins and Arlington House itself.  I will come back to this later.  Most interesting in this survey are the written responses.  One in particular suggested that Arlington “is sacred ground.  It is a netural place, no race, color, religion should be mentioned here.”  When I first read this report and this comment in particular I wrote it off as just another example of our inability and unwillingness to acknowledge slavery as integral to understanding both Robert E. Lee and the Civil War in general.  No doubt, this is part of the story, but it may have as much to do with the bigger challenge of properly interpreting life at Arlington within the broader environment of a national cemetery.

By 1900 the grounds of Arlington had come to be defined not simply as the former home of Lee, but as sacred space devoted to the nation’s fallen soldiers.  In the twentieth century this identification would only become more deeply embedded in the nation’s collective consciousness and, as a result, relegate Arlington House and its history to a footnote.  Consider the following from the 1892 publication of Historic Arlington by K. Decker and Angus McSween:

Here every year come thousands to pay their quota of the nation’s debt to the dead Men women and children in an endless procession pass through the portals of the national cemetery and stealing from the bustling world in which they move spend moments of silent reverence among the dead No one enters who does not realize more fully than before the heroism of those whose monuments they view and few there are whose patriotic impulses are not quickened and their sentiments ennobled by a contemplation of the scene presented.

The long rows of white headstones and the imposing shafts of marble and granite that stretch away in picturesque order on every hand bring recollections of a scene far different and before the mind passes in review memories of battles fought where glorious deeds but led to death where for the cause they loved these men gave up their lives And as these recollections of the past transform the sleeping dead once more into the living heroes the marble slabs and the inscriptions that they bear change also and from the sterile name and date that mark each stone appears the record of the soldier’s glory. [pp. 8-9]

Decker and McSween sketch this scene as an introduction to the broader history of the home and surrounding landscape, but it seems to me that the vast majority of visitors today enter these sacred grounds to pay their respects to the fallen and to see the “Eternal Flame” at the Kennedy grave site and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  If I am right than most visitors who happen to stop for a tour at Arlington House may know that it is the home of Lee, but because of the surrounding landscape have no context for understanding it as a former plantation site.  In short, most visitors walk the grounds of a cemetery rather than a cemetery that was once a large plantation that served as a Freedmen’s Village as well as a cemetery for fallen Union soldiers.

At the same time we do need to acknowledge the wide gulf in our historical understanding between both G.W.P. Custis and R.E. Lee and their relationship with the institution of slavery – a subject that has been severely distorted for much of the twentieth century.  In Decker and McSween we can see the form it would take through much of the following century.  In reference to the former:

Mr. Custis at this time conducted his estates on a system that was almost like the governing of a small principality. The Arlington estate was his home and upon it he did very little farming for profit. His income he derived from what he called his farms in Westmoreland county. The Arlington estate was simply his private grounds and its cultivation at all was for the purpose of providing for the numerous slaves that he kept about him. In his treatment of his negroes Mr. Custis was as considerate as he was regarding any other class of human beings and the glaring evils of slavery were never apparent upon his property. Each slave had a house apportioned him and a bit of ground the produce of which he owned as securely as if his title to the land he occupied was duly recorded in the records of the county courts.

The slaves were of course compelled to give a good portion of their time to the master’s service but their work was not hard and they were liberally provided for in decrepit old age as well as in sturdy youth. Mr. Custis also respected the domestic relations of the negroes and the separation of mothers from their children and of wives from their husbands was a practice in which he never indulged himself and which he abhorred in others. As a result his slaves were devoted to him. He was not only a kind master but was their friend and delighted as much in joking with them and in making harmless fun of them as he did in the conversations of his neighbors. Active both in mental and physical exercise Mr. Custis’s out door life at Arlington was at once to him a source of pleasurable recreation and of physical health and vigor.

Whatever the truth is about Custis’s treatment of his slaves, the paternalism that was already so predominant in antebellum pro-slavery tracts is clearly discernible.  More importantly, it tells us very little about the men, women, and children who were owned by Custis.  Lee’s own attitudes towards the slaves he would eventually inherit from Custis bear the same markings:

Though opposed to the institution of slavery which he regarded as a moral and political evil he was of the unalterable opinion that the matter was one that under the Constitution the States had the right to regulate for themselves and he denied absolutely the right of the non holding slave States to interfere. He believed the emancipation of the negroes would sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity than from the storm and tempest of fiery controversy. He was too much of a patriot to believe that the country could possibly be disrupted over the question but he saw with feelings of the gravest apprehension that it was as he expressed it rushing rapidly towards the verge of anarchy or civil war.

Again, whatever the truth of these claims happens to be, the narrative fails to help us in any way to better understand the lives of the slaves who made Arlington their home.  On the other hand, the excerpts from Decker and McSween’s Historic Arlington may help us to better understand our visitor who would have park officials say nothing about slavery at Arlington on what he describes as “sacred ground.”  The comment may, in the end, suggest a unique challenge for NPS interpreters at Arlington.  First, they must bring their interpretation more in line with recent scholarship on slavery, the Civil War, and Lee specifically.  We cannot fully understand the home or Lee without a fuller understanding of slave life and the same holds true for understanding slave life at Arlington.  And they must do this in an environment where visitors may not be prepared to consider such controversial topics such as slavery and race after walking through such a solemn space that speaks to what binds us as Americans rather than with what once divided and continues to prove difficult to grapple with as Americans.  This means that NPS officials must work extra hard to bring visitors out of one world and into another if they hope to impress upon them the importance of the home and its complete history.

Fortunately, the history of slave life can easily be integrated into the surrounding grounds given its history as a Freedmen’s Village.  Few people who visit know that an entire section of the cemetery is devoted to former slaves who lived on the grounds well after the war ended.  In that same section are rows of United States Colored Troops, which opens up numerous possibilities to link the history of slave life with the broader history of service and sacrifice, which is so rooted in the surrounding landscape.

I’ve only just begun to think about the various interpretive threads that need to be explored in this essay so your comments are most welcome.

26 comments… add one
  • Matt Penrod Apr 21, 2009 @ 13:53

    Mr Levin,

    I am a ranger/education specialist at Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial.
    I noticed that I am referenced in one of the other postings on your site. (Thank you Laura Lawfer for your kind words.) I wanted to drop this quick message with hope that we could discuss this matter in greater detail either by phone or in person.

    Arlington House is a very challenging site to develop any kind of in depth meaningful interpretation about. There is so much to discuss and visitors have such a short time in which to experience the site before they have to rush off to visit the Kennedy grave sites or the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Mostly visitors walk through on a self guided basis but we offer, and have offered for many years, a wide range of special talks and tours encompassing the broad range of subjects that are important here, including slavery. You make reference to a study that was done by some students from George Washington University in 2004. That study was an educational exercise by a group of students and shouldn’t really be considered an authoritative study. Nonetheless, their work did reflect an honest attempt at examining our interpretive program. The truth is that what we offer and what visitors experience are two separate things. We offer a great deal about slavery at Arlington but the average visitor is in such a hurry that they don’t pursue the opportunities available. Our exhibit in the slave quarters, for instance, is very informative but only a relatively small percentage of people actually go to it despite the fact that it is only twenty feet off the beaten path.

    Beyond our normal operation we offer extensive programs, especially educational programs, regarding slavery that I think would change your mind about what we are doing.

    If you would be interested in discussing this further you can reach me by phone at: 703-235-1530 x 225 or by email at: matthew_penrod@nps.gov

  • Jim Mar 21, 2009 @ 11:08

    I’m not really sure what proportion of the Arlington House tour should be about slavery, but I imagine many have the same limitation. Who decides these issues and how they are interpreted by a less than curious public is debatable. The irony of an estate that used slave labor as well as housed the leader of the Confederacy only to have its grounds become a cemetery for Union dead of both races should not be lost on anyone, and this makes for a great public curiosity.

    Is there something regarding slavery in particular that we should glean from this site over and above another site? I would think that given the limited time a visitor might have to learn about Lee and other significant issues would definitely limit the percentage of time devoted to slavery. For example, just the discussion of politicians or the like seizing times of crisis to enact political revenge such as Montgomery Meigs could take a significant amount of time. The illegal seizure of Arlington House and its properties and its subsequent return to the family is another deserving interest.

    And again when I think of other historic sites where we go to learn about an idividual’s enterprise and associated estate, I’m not necessarily there to learn in detail about the lives of the underlying labor that made their master’s or employer’s fortunes or careers, but maybe this is a special case?

    • Kevin Levin Mar 21, 2009 @ 11:15


      The question for NPS staff at Arlington (IMHO) ought to be to educate the visitor as to the importance of the physical site. R.E. Lee’s life is very important and no one denies that. The visitor ought to walk away with an understanding of how the site functioned/operated and to properly explain this involves an understanding the people who built it and maintained it against their will. Again, many people made Arlington their home and most of them were there against their will. To understand R.E. Lee’s life is, in part, to understand life at Arlington. After all, he lived with all of these people.

  • Bob Pollock Mar 17, 2009 @ 14:51

    I am well aware of the death toll. You said people visit Arlington to learn about Lee.
    If that is true, you cannot learn about Lee without discussing slavery, just as you cannot learn about Grant, Lincoln, Davis, or any other important figure of the time without discussing slavery. Their times and their lives were inextricably linked to the institution. This is particularly true when you are at a site where slaves lived and worked. If you ignore the issue, you have an incomplete picture at best.

  • Jim Mar 17, 2009 @ 6:59

    I would say that the majority of people visiting Arlington are there to see the property and learn about the man who foresook Lincoln and the Federal government in exchange for defending his home and country, Virginia. So, the questions should include “Did you come here to learn about slavery?” I’d wager the results would be Yes: 2 No: 58. And maybe “Should slavery be the major or a major focus here?” Again you’re likely to see Yes:2 No: 58. Of course, most know that if you want to learn more about Lee then you go to Arlington. If you want to learn about slavery, then you could go all over the world.

    Also, George Washington, our first President, lived just down the road in Mt. Vernon. Surely, you asked similar questions there? He was another one of those Constitutionally-legal slaveholders after all.

    Personally, I’d be a little annoyed to have the discordant over-emphasized issue of slavery brought up in every locale and instance as the issue seems forced for some other reason than its true merits.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 17, 2009 @ 8:11


      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I honestly can’t say why most people visit Arlington House, but if I was to I would suggest that they are there because it happens to be on the grounds of the cemetery.

      I am not suggesting that a discussion of slavery should trump all other narratives. The question is how best to interpret the house and surrounding grounds. Well, it was once a functioning plantation so it seems reasonable to want to include enough about slave life that would help the visitor better understand how the home operated.

      That Mount Vernon is down the road or that slavery existed in other places at other times is irrelevant. Again, the question is how to interpret this particular site.

      • Bob Pollock Mar 17, 2009 @ 10:35

        Your comment indicates that you want to perpetuate the idea that Lee should somehow be seperated from the issue and the institution of slavery. We can endlessly debate whether or not the war was fought over slavery, but the end result was that slavery was abolished. Slavery and race relations were intricately tied to the events of the times. Slavery therefore, cannot be seperated from discussions of the war, any more than discussions of Lee and the war can be seperated. Here at U.S. Grant NHS, the childhood home of Grant’s wife, and where Grant farmed for five years prior to the war, slavery was an everyday part of their lives. Slaves lived and worked here just as they did at Arlington. Slavery was a part of Lee’s and Grant’s lives, and had a major influence on them. Why should we ignore these facts?

        • Jim Mar 17, 2009 @ 11:34

          Pollock, the end result was over 600K Americans dead. And Kevin, there is no irrelevance in that laws that apply to Arlington also applied to the rest of VA. I can only imagine that we might hear some spiritual of agricultural toil at every southern historical site open to the public.

          • Kevin Levin Mar 17, 2009 @ 12:11


            Thanks again for the comment. You said: “I can only imagine that we might hear some spiritual of agricultural toil at every southern historical site open to the public.” I am sorry to see that you have such a narrow understanding of what slave life encompassed or how it can help us to better understand those sites where its presence was so central to its existence. You seem to imply that the goal is to soil the legacy of Lee when it is actually quite the opposite. It’s to better understand the man as well as everyone else who made Arlington House their home. What’s wrong with that?

  • Peter Mar 16, 2009 @ 17:24

    If you haven’t already, you will probably want to look at “Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums” by Jennifer Eichstedt and Stephen Small.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 17, 2009 @ 2:44

      Thanks Peter. The title is now on my reading list.

      • Peter Mar 17, 2009 @ 6:48

        I didn’t find the book as terribly insightful; as I recall, the authors went to all manner of historical sites across the south, and surprise surprise, found that slavery wasn’t dealt with. They detected all sorts of euphemisms along the lines of “food was prepared by the servants.” I think there were a few interesting suggestions in it, and it should help place Arlington into the larger context.

  • Bob Pollock Mar 16, 2009 @ 17:13

    I also want to say that Sara Bearrs’ comment above about the time constraints involved at historic sites is a very important point. When I was at Lincoln Home, tours were usually twenty minutes or less, due to the numbers of people visiting. Often visitors themselves only allow short periods of time for their visit. When I was at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, visitors would usually spend twenty or thirty minutes in the Visitor Center before heading out on the tour road.
    It is a daunting challenge to explain the complexities of the Civil War in such short amounts of time, particularly when visitors have their own preconcieved notions of history.
    I had a very gratifying day today. I gave a tour of White Haven to a group of senior citizens. These folks were interested and asked great questions. After the tour, one lady said to me , “I will view Grant differently after having heard your program.” This is the best we, as NPS interpreters, can hope for; that we challenge our visitors to think in new ways and maybe seek additional knowledge after they leave our sites.

  • Bob Pollock Mar 16, 2009 @ 14:33

    Hi Kevin

    You might already be aware of this, but if not, there was a special issue of CRM (Cultural Resource Management) Magazine, a publication of NPS (CRM, Volume 25 Number 4, 2002), which focused specifically on the challenges of interpreting the Civil War. Among the essays is a contribution written by Karen Byrne, who was site historian at Arlington at the time, which addresses the interpretation of slavery there. The special issue was edited by Pam Sanfillipo, site historian here at Ulysses S. Grant NHS. She and Karen Miller, another Ranger here, contributed an essay on interpretation at White Haven, which includes slavery. As a Park Guide, I discuss slavery with visitors to White Haven every day.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 16, 2009 @ 14:35


      Thanks so much for that reference. The next time I am at the UVA Library I will look it up. Sounds like it will be very helpful.

  • Scott Smart Mar 16, 2009 @ 12:41

    I don’t really see why Lee is an important part of Arlington House anyway. Arlington should be mainly about G.W.P. Custis. Is there any interpretation of the Freedman’s Village which operated on the plantation for a period?

    • Kevin Levin Mar 16, 2009 @ 14:04


      I think Lee is a crucial piece of the picture at Arlington if we are to understand the full story of the home and surrounding grounds, especially at the end of the antebellum period and through the middle of the war. You are, of course, correct that Custis is also an important figure if we are to understand the broader narrative.

      If I remember correctly, there is an interpretive panel in one of the slave cabins, but there are no tours that focus specifically on the Freedmen’s Village.

  • Laura Lawfer Mar 16, 2009 @ 10:37

    I took our tour guides from Stratford Hall to Arlington House in January for an educational field trip. I set up a tour for them with (ranger) Matt Penrod, who did a FABULOUS job incorporating the topic of slavery into his discussion of the house and the Lee family. I spent the entire tour hoping that the interpreters were really listening to what he was saying and taking his methods and points to heart. They got a good taste of how to incorporate a well-researched, interesting discussion of slavery into a house tour, and we’re in the throes of actually getting our interpreters to start talking about slavery. This is a long and incredibly difficult process, as most historic sites are finding, but a necessary one.

    Of course, we had a special experience because Arlington House usually has just a self-guided tour, so including interpretation about slavery in brochures, waysides, and house interpretation is a whole separate problem that certainly needs to be addressed. But you can also say that about every historic site (and I do)!

    • Kevin Levin Mar 16, 2009 @ 10:47

      Hi Laura,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment on this topic. You are certainly in the best possible position to comment on the challenges involved in developing new interpretations that do justice to the best research. At some point I am going to have to schedule some time to talk with you about just this topic. I think it is sometimes too easy to overlook or minimize both the financial and physical constraints that make your jobs so difficult.

      • Laura Lawfer Mar 16, 2009 @ 11:20


        I’d love to talk with you more about this topic. While it’s taking more time than I’d like, we’re making inroads to discussing slavery at Stratford Hall one step at a time. Our progress might be relevant for your Arlington House research–or it may not, but perhaps at least of interest to you. Feel free to give me a call anytime!

        • Kevin Levin Mar 16, 2009 @ 11:29

          Thanks for the kind offer, Laura. I couldn’t agree more that your work at Stratford Hall is relevant to my research. Perhaps I will pay you a visit in person over the summer.

  • Sara Bearss Mar 16, 2009 @ 8:04

    From the perspective of visitor education, Arlington may present some unique issues. One summer while I was in college I worked there as an interpreter. The house was the second of three stops that the TourMobile made, and most people simply got out because this was one of the stops. Most visitors had no idea at all what they would be seeing, so the fifteen-minute tour had to be pretty basic. The question I got most often was, “Why is this house built in the middle of a cemetery?” At least once a week at the end of a tour someone would ask, “But why didn’t Lee live at the White House?” (Uh–because he wasn’t president?) And my all-time favorite: “When Lee refused command of the Union army, is that when George Washington took it?”

    • Kevin Levin Mar 17, 2009 @ 2:43


      That’s actually a crucial point to keep in mind given the goal of the Tour Mobile is to offer visitors with glimpses of historic sites and other notable landmarks. Perhaps the TourMobile is a metaphor for the way many Americans embrace their history. Just a thought.

  • James Bartek Mar 16, 2009 @ 5:36

    Hm. Sacred ground. A netural place, where no race, color, religion should be mentioned.

    Sacred for who? Sounds like a veiled rant against “political correctness.” I’m willing to bet that the person who said that was not African-American.

    I’m remember hearing similar grumblings when they finally erected historical markers (in 2003) on the courthouse square here in Lexington, Ky which explained why the adjacent street was quaintly known as “Cheapside.” That fact they were placed less than 15 yards from the John Hunt Morgan monument (erected in 1910 by the UDC) was, I thought, quite appropriate.


    There’s nothing special about the Fayette County Courthouse, so those guys at Arlington have their work cut out for them. It’s clearly a significant part of American civil religion, but historians and the NPS ought to behave more as iconoclasts than high priests, don’t you think? When it comes to cherished historical beliefs, I think the only way to challenge them is to, well, challenge them. Mentioning the USCT graves would be a good starting point.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 17, 2009 @ 2:41

      Thanks for the link. Keep an eye out for a forthcoming book on Kentucky and Civil War memory by Anne Marshall who teaches at Mississippi State. I believe UNC Press is handling the manuscript.

  • Ross B. Mar 15, 2009 @ 17:32

    I visited Arlington house just a few years ago and have to agree with the problem you described for the NPS, concerning the education of the former plantation with the atmosphere and environment of the cemetery. While once, it was a cemetery at the Custis mansion, it’s definitely now become the house at the cemetery. The walk to the house is along paths that demand reflection upon the dead, be it fallen soldiers or fallen presidents. By the time you reach the house at the top of the hill, the mood has certainly been set and as you said, the mind is reflecting on sacrifices for the country, not for topics that demanded those sacrifices.

    If I was going to approach the issue, I’d adopt it from the perspective of beginning with the graves of the soldiers in Mrs. Lee’s rose garden, and explain why they died. This offers a nice segway from the cemetery, the graves, into the topic of slavery at the plantation. Think of it as stepping through a portal appropriately framed by the graves into the world of Arlington before and then, after the war.

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