Legislative History of The Robert E. Lee Memorial

Ford signing a document on the portico of Arlington.
Photograph of President Gerald R. Ford Signing Joint Resolution 23, Restoration of the Citizenship Rights to the Robert E. Lee on the portico of Arlington House.

National Archives

Following the Civil War, Arlington House fell under the administration of the United States Army. The government referred to it as the Custis-Lee Mansion or simply the Lee Mansion to differentiate it from the cemetery that surrounded it. The home became an office for the administration of the cemetery.

As American Civil War veterans began dying off in the early 1900s, around the time of the 50th anniversary of the war, municipal and state governments along with civic groups began erecting memorials and monuments in the northern and southern states. The spirit of reconciliation between the former enemies grew when the U.S. Army permitted the burial of Confederate soldiers at Arlington cemetery.

The 1920s marked a volatile time in United States history. Between the end of Reconstruction and the birth of the modern civil rights movement, known as the Jim Crow era, many African Americans faced discrimination and violence around the country. The mid-1920s marked the height of prominence and violent actions by the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, and in 1925 tens of thousands of KKK members marched down the streets of Washington, DC.

The 1920s also marked many other changes. In 1920, Congress passed the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution which prohibited the manufacture and consumption of alcohol. The country’s large economic boom and would later be referred to as “The Roaring Twenties.” The successful conclusion of World War I in 1918 made clear that the United States was a world superpower. This seemed unlikely just 60 years earlier when Americans killed each other by the tens of thousands in the Civil War. The increasing popularity of the automobile made travel much easier, which along with a growing middle class with disposable income, made tourism extremely popular. Historic sites, such as Colonial Williamsburg and George Washington’s Mount Vernon, became popular destinations as Americans desired to visit sites important to the country’s history.

The area immediately around Arlington, Virginia changed greatly at this time. In 1922, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated directly across the Potomac River from Arlington House. That same year the United States government decided a bridge should stretch across the Potomac River at this location, connecting the Lincoln Memorial to Arlington House and Arlington National Cemetery. The Arlington Memorial Bridge physically and symbolically linked the north and south as a symbol of reunion. A federal parkway was also built during this time to connect the city of Washington, DC to Mount Vernon. Completed in 1932, the original parkway, then known as the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, is the section of the George Washington Memorial Parkway from Arlington Memorial Bridge to Mount Vernon.

In the 1920s, at the urging of Frances Parkinson Keyes, the wife of a New Hampshire Senator, preservationists asked the U.S. Army to turn over Arlington House to the United Daughters of the Confederacy so that they could restore it to honor Robert E. Lee. The Army refused, believing that the United Daughters of the Confederacy would use the house to glorify the mythology of the Lost Cause and Lee’s role in the Confederate States.[1] In 1925, Congress acted to forge a compromise. The house would be restored to honor Lee, but the U.S. government would control it and it would focus on Lee’s efforts to promote peace and reunion after the war. The 68th Congress that passed this legislation was controlled by the Republican Party. The bill passed with unanimous consent and was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge, also a Republican.[2] The legislation read: (cosponsored by Louis Cramton of Michigan (R) and Walton Moore of Virginia (D)) “now honor is accorded Robert E. Lee as one of the great military leaders of history, whose exalted character, noble life, and eminent services are recognized and esteemed, and whose manly attributes of precept and example were compelling factors in cementing the American people in bonds of patriotic devotion and action against common external enemies in the war with Spain and in the World War, thus consummating the hope of a reunited country that would again swell the chorus of the Union.” U.S. Representative Louis Cramton, a Republican from Michigan, whose father had served in the Union Army and fought against Robert E. Lee, declared that “it is unprecedented in history for a nation to have gone through as great a struggle as we did in the Civil War”[3] and then to become “so absolutely reunited.” He felt that “there was no man in the South who did more by his precept and example to help bring about that condition than did Robert E. Lee.”[4]

In 1933, during the Great Depression, many of the War Department’s historic sites were transferred to the National Park Service. Arlington House, the outbuildings and grounds immediately surrounding the home became the charge of the National Park Service.

By 1955, the national civil rights movement began to gain mainstream recognition. The previous year the Supreme Court handed down the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling that declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional. In Virginia, white parents launched a campaign of “Massive Resistance” against integrating schools. This era was also the same time that the United States was emerging from its successful intervention in World War II. At this time, the centennial of the American Civil War neared, and in 1957 Congress established a commission to properly commemorate its 100th anniversary. As the nation prepared to commemorate the centennial, and to mark the 90th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox, the United States Congress formally recognized the restored home (then called the Custis-Lee Mansion) in Arlington National Cemetery as a national memorial to Robert E. Lee because he “. . . attained world renown as a military genius, and after Appomattox fervently devoted himself to peace, to the reuniting of the Nation, and to the advancement of youth education and the welfare and progress of mankind . . .”

Republican Representative Joel Broyhill of Virginia, who introduced the legislation to the House of Representatives, was a staunch segregationist. Broyhill was part of a large group of Southern congressmen and senators that signed onto a “Southern Manifesto” that declared their opposition to integration of public places in the United States the following year in 1956. In the US Senate, the legislation that created the Robert E. Lee Memorial was introduced by Senator Estes Kefauver, one of only three Southern Democrats who refused to sign this segregationist document. The bill was also supported in the US Senate by another Southern Democrat who refused to sign the Southern Manifesto, Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas, who later as president signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The bill establishing Arlington House as a national memorial to Lee passed the Democratically controlled Senate and House unanimously and was signed into law by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Following the Civil War, Robert E. Lee showed his commitment to reunification by taking an Amnesty Oath on October 2, 1865, swearing allegiance to the United States government. The oath, thought to be lost to history, was found in the National Archives in 1970. In 1972, Congress officially authorized the renaming of the Custis-Lee Mansion to Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, further affirming it as a memorial to Robert E. Lee. The name known to both the Custis and Lee families had officially been returned. This action passed unanimously in the Democratically controlled 92nd Congress of the United States and was signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon. Joel Broyhill of Virginia also introduced the renaming legislation, as he wished to differentiate Arlington House from the Lee mansion at Stratford Hall in Virginia.

In 1975, as the country reeled from the Watergate scandal and the conclusion of the Vietnam War, while preparing for the nation’s bicentennial, Congress voted to restore Robert E. Lee’s citizenship as “this entire Nation has long recognized the outstanding virtues of courage, patriotism, and selfless devotion to duty of General R. E. Lee, and has recognized the contribution of General Lee in healing the wounds of the War Between the States.” Senator Harry F. Byrd (I) of Virginia introduced the bill in the Senate, where it passed unanimously in the Democrat controlled United States Senate. The bill then passed the Democrat controlled House of Representatives on a 407-10 vote. Included in the majority vote, were eleven of the sixteen African American representatives, including Shirley Anita Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress. According to the New York Times, the ten dissenters objected more to the fact that there were no protections for Vietnam War draft evaders included and dismissed the bill as “Bicentennial fluff.”[5] Republican President Gerald R. Ford officially posthumously restored Robert E. Lee’s citizenship by signing the bill into law at a ceremony on the portico at Arlington House on August 5, 1975. Before signing the law, President Ford reminded the audience that Lee worked to restore the Union following the bitter war: “Once the war was over, he firmly felt the wounds of the North and South must be bound up. He sought to show by example that the citizens of the South must dedicate their efforts to rebuilding that region of the country as a strong and vital part of the American Union.”[6]

Over the course of fifty years, between 1925 and 1975, the United States government honored Robert E. Lee on at least four separate occasions under four different Congresses and presidents. Each occasion drew overwhelming support – from both Republicans and Democrats, North and South, black and white – to acknowledge Lee’s efforts to reunite the country in the wake of the American Civil War. These occasions also focused on the importance of Arlington House in telling the story of reconciliation and reunion in the United States, culminating with the important symbol of restoring Robert E. Lee’s citizenship on the portico of the house in 1975. Rather than a static monument to the man, Arlington House is a living memorial. It exists as a place of study and contemplation of the meaning of some of the most difficult aspects of American history: military service; sacrifice; citizenship; duty; family; loyalty; slavery; and freedom.

The National Park Service completed a multi-year restoration of the house and slave quarters in 2020, which included artifact conservation, facilities restoration, and installation of new interpretive exhibits. As the stewards of Arlington House, the National Park Service preserves the site as a place that can inspire people of all backgrounds. Park staff are committed to telling stories inclusive of multiple historical perspectives and grounded in current research.

Notes:

Anchor[1] Chornesky, Michael. “Confederate Island upon the Union's "Most Hallowed Ground": The Battle to Interpret Arlington House, 1921-1937.” Washington History. Vol. 27, No. 1 (SPRING 2015), pp. 20-33.

[2] Congressional Record, January 21, 1925.

[3] Restoration of Lee Mansion: Hearing, Sixty-eighth Congress, First Session, May 28, 1924. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1925. 2.

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] “Citizenship is Voted for Robert E. Lee” New York Times, July 23, 1975.

[6] https://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/library/speeches/750473.htm

Last updated: February 1, 2021

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