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Monumental Arlington County, Virginia

Article and photos by Renee S. Gordon

The first documented sighting of the area that is now Arlington is attributed to Captain John Smith who in July of 1608 sailed into the region and took note of a Native American village along the river. In 1610 Captain Argall was refused supplies by the tribe and in response burned and pillaged the village. Though the Indians had lived on this land for at least 13,500-years the Iroquois granted all land south of the Potomac and east of the Blue Ridge Mountains to colonial Virginia in 1722.

In 1699 John Alexander purchased 600-acres and populated the area with tenant farmers. Gerard Alexander constructed Abingdon Plantation in Arlington in 1740. It was home to George Washington’s stepson and the ruins of the mansion are now part of the Reagan International Airport complex. In 1742 another of the earliest colonists, John Ball, acquired 166-acres and erected a log house.

The one-room cabin, the Ball-Sellers House, is home to the Arlington Historical Society. It is the oldest residence in the county and retains its original logs and pegged floorboards and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). In 1749 a portion of Alexander land was used to establish Alexandria. The 26-sq. miles that make up Arlington County were part of Alexandria until 1920 when the areas split and it took the name of the Robert E. Lee plantation.

George Washington in 1791 instituted a survey to establish a 10-mile square Federal District and upon its completion all of Arlington County was included. In 1847 it was determined that all the land was not needed and Alexandria County was retroceded to Virginia. Benjamin Banneker, a freedman, was part of the survey team and performed the astronomical calculations. The 1-ft. sq. sandstone SW 9 Intermediate Boundary Stone at 18th and North Van Buren Streets has been officially designated the Banneker Boundary Stone and is listed on the NRHP.

The Potomac River served as a dividing line between North and South during the Civil War and Arlington County, immediately south of the river, was immediately caught up in the hostilities. The Union marched across the Potomac and occupied Arlington Heights shortly after the South fired on Fort Sumter and Robert E. Lee resigned his commission and agreed to lead Virginia’s Provisional Army. By war’s end more than twenty forts had been constructed in the area to protect Washington. John Custis inherited 1,100-acres of Abingdon Plantation and on his new estate he had a mansion, Mount Washington, built in 1802 using the labor of his more than 200 slaves. The plantation was renamed Arlington and the mansion’s interior was a homage to George Washington, filled with memorabilia and relics. Mary Randolph Custis married Robert E. Lee in 1831 and they spent a significant amount of time there. Mary inherited the entire estate in 1857. In 1861 the Lees left the mansion for the South never to return. Prior to her departure Mrs. Lee gave the responsibility for the care of the home, furnishings and George Washington mementos to Selina Gray, her enslaved housekeeper, personal maid and seamstress. It is through her efforts that many of the heirlooms were saved during the federal occupation of the house. Her daughters were later instrumental in restoring the site by providing valuable information. The estate was confiscated for failure to pay the taxes. The homeowner, in this case Mrs. Lee, did not appear to pay the $92.07 in person as required by law. The US Government then purchased the estate for $ 26,800.

Tours of the mansion include the first and second floor and basement, gardens, museum and house workers slave quarters. The North and South Slave Quarters contain exhibits on Arlington’s enslaved workers’, the Freedman’s Village and Selina Gray. Each building contains three rooms.

Ironically Custis left instructions in his 1857 will that his slaves were to be given $50,00 and freed five years after his death. R. E. Lee, the executor of the estate, freed Arlington’s slaves in 1862 even though the Union was then in control of Arlington and the estate was bankrupt.

During the Civil War many slaves fled the South and made their way to the District of Columbia and the federal government sought to solve the housing problem by establishing the Freedman’s Village Settlement on December 4, 1863.  Freedmen paid $10 a month for rent in the village complex that contained houses, chapels, a hospital and a school and thrived from 1863-88. On Dec. 7, 1887 the villagers were given 90 days to leave. They were also given $75,000 to split among them for improvements to the property.

John and Jack  Kennedy's Graves
John and Jack Kennedy Graves
Quartermaster General of the Army Montgomery Meigs was given the task of locating land for the internment of the growing number of war casualties. He chose Lee’s property because he considered him a traitor and he received permission to establish a cemetery on 200-acres of the Arlington estate. Early graves are near the house to render it uninhabitable should the family wish to return.

James Parks, once an Arlington slave, was the first gravedigger. Upon his death in 1929 he was interred in Section 15 and remains the sole individual buried in Arlington Cemetery who was born on the estate and the first African American with a named grave.

John Kennedy's Eternal Flame
JFK Eternal Flame
Section 27 contains Grave #19, the first burial on May 13, 1864, a Pennsylvania Army Private William Christman. Section 27 also holds the gravesites of 1,500 US Colored Troops and as many as 3,800 former slaves from Freedman’s Village. Their gravestones are denoted by the words “Citizen” or “Civilian.”

Tours of Arlington include the 1873 Old Amphitheater, the Changing of the Guard Ceremony, the Kennedy burial sites and those of other notables such as Joe Louis, Thurgood Marshall, Brig. General Benjamin O. Davis, General Daniel “Chappie” James and Medgar Evers. I highly recommend a guided shuttle tour. The shuttles make three stops and the service begins at 8:30 AM. Tickets can be purchased online.

Arlington National Cemetery will commemorate its 150th anniversary May – June 2014 with a series of special events and activities. Unique guided tours have ben planned and can be booked in advance.

After the Freedman’s Village disbanded several African American neighborhoods and institutions were formed in Arlington. The most notable of these was Arlington View, Hall’s Hill and Nauck. Eighty-five members of the former Old Bell Church founded Mount Olive Baptist Church in 1873. Nauck was originally settled in 1844 by Levi Jones a free black man and the neighborhood grew rapidly after 1878.

Selina Gray’s son Harry purchased 10-acres of land and constructed the first red brick townhouse in the county in 1881. Harry went from life as a slave to being a 40-year employee of the U.S. Patent Office. The house is at 1005 South Quinn Street. Nauck was also the location of the residence of Dr. Charles R. Drew who proved that blood plasma could be separated from whole blood and “banked.” He protested the armed services decision to separate blood by race in banks and after his resignation he became Professor of Surgery at Howard University and the Freedman Hospital’s Chief of Surgery. His home was at 2505 First Street South.

The Women in Military Service for America Memorial is located at the entrance to the cemetery and honors all of the more than 2.5-million women who have served our country. A few of the women commemorated there are Army Sgt. Danyell Wilson, the first African American woman to Guard the Tomb of the Unknowns and Cathay Williams, a former slave who joined the Buffalo Soldiers as William Cathay in 1866. She has the distinction of being the only African American female to serve in the Army before women were legally permitted to enlist. The memorial was dedicated in 1997.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Museum and Visitors Center is open for tours. It focuses on the impact of the illegal drug trade and the US efforts to combat their importation.

Pentagon Memorial Sign
In October 2006 the Air Force Memorial was dedicated to all the past, present and future airmen. The memorial complex showcases a trio of soaring stainless steel spires, 201, 231 and 270-ft. tall, that embody the spirit of flight. Four 8-ft bonze figures represent the Honor Guard, there are two inscription walls and a contemplation wall with an inscribed depiction of the Missing Man Formation, the aerial salute to honor a fallen airman. The site is free and provides spectacular views of the monuments in Washington, DC.

Tours of the Pentagon, the Headquarters of the Department of Defense, are offered with a two-week reservation. Uniformed guides lead you through approximately 1-mile of the 17.5-miles of corridors while narrating and walking backwards. The 6,636,360-sq. ft. building was to have been a temporary wartime measure to consolidate the armed forces to enhance coordination of efforts and communications. Construction began on September 11, 1941 and was completed on January 15, 1943. There are 131 stairways, 19 sets of escalators, 284 restrooms and 7,754 windows each weighing 1,500-lbs.

Pentagon Memorial
Pentagon Memorial
The 583-acre compound is the largest office building in the world. It has three levels above ground and two below. Each corridor is dedicated to relating an aspect of US military history including POW/MIA, General MacArthur, the Coast Guard, Humanitarian Missions, NATO and Soldiers and Signers of the Constitution. The interior 9-11 Memorial is located within the area of the attack.

At 9:37 AM on Sept. 11, 2001 American Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon affecting 20% of the structure and killing 125 people inside the Pentagon and 59 aboard the airplane. The Pentagon Memorial was designed and paid for by the victim’s families and was dedicated on September 11, 2008. Benches are inscribed with the names of the victims in order of their ages from three to 77-years old. Benches oriented toward the building are inscribed with the names of victims who were inside the Pentagon while benches oriented toward the sky were on Flight 77. The site, adjacent to the Pentagon, is free and is handicapped accessible. This is the only memorial in the area that is situated on the actual site where the event occurred.

Arlington County is an ideal base from which to explore The District or a great idea for a stand-alone destination. The county comprises seven urban villages each with its own trendy art scene, eclectic restaurants, shopping opportunities and wide range of accommodations. There are 11 metro stops to ensure that mobility is not a problem and most of the sites are within walking distance.

Plan a vacation that includes all the possibilities Arlington County has to offer. I promise you will run out of time before you run out of things to do.

 Two fantastic tours of the Capital as you have never seen it:

Virtual Personal Tour Washington, DC's National Mall

Virtual Personal Tour of Washington, DC and its monuments during its most colorful season with the cherry blossoms in bloom

Deals in Washington DC: 5% Old Town Trolley Tour. Visit over 15 monuments and attractions. Book now at!

For more info:

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