Saturday, October 3, 2009

Event Slated for Arlington House

Park Service Event Helps Usher In Civil War Commemoration
by SCOTT McCAFFREY, Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 2009

Arlington County’s ( VA ) commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War will unofficially begin on Oct. 10 with an event at Arlington House, the Custis-Lee Mansion.

From 7 to 10 p.m. that night, the National Park Service will present a program detailing John Brown’s Raid, an event that helped to light the fuse for what, less than two years later, would tear the nation apart.

Fergus Bordewich, author of “Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America,” will speak on the life of Brown, an abolitionist who On Oct. 16-18, 1859, led a group that tried to seize control of the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, then in Virginia and now in West Virginia.

Their goal was to spark a slave revolt in Virginia and surrounding areas.

The assault was put down by a detachment of U.S. Marines, who were led by Col. Robert E. Lee. Lee married into the Custis family, which owned the Arlington House plantation where the Oct. 10 program will take place.

After being charged with treason against Virginia, Brown was hanged in December 1859 and several other participants later went to the gallows. But their actions helped to further inflame passions over slavery. The Civil War began in April 1861.

Both the state and county governments have assembled task forces to plan and lead commemorative events related to the Civil War. The Arlington group, appointed by the County Board, has been meeting since early March. Warren Nelson is serving as chairman.

Arlington - which then was known as Alexandria County - had several key roles in Civil War history.

It was from Arlington House that Lee made his decision not to accept command of Union troops, but rather to command Virginia troops that soon would be in rebellion against the federal government.

At the outbreak of hostilities, federal troops marched across Potomac River bridges to occupy the mostly rural county for the duration of the war. Federal officials seized the Arlington House plantation, an action later ruled illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court, and began the first burials at what would become Arlington National Cemetery.

Federal officials also hurriedly constructed a ring of forts in the area, to protect the nation’s capital from attack. Remnants of a number of the forts remain, and the modern-day Fort Myer garrison traces its roots to one of the Civil War forts.

After the war, Lee never returned to Arlington House; his wife, Mary Custis Lee, who had inherited the plantation from her father in 1857, returned once but was too distraught to leave her carriage.

During and after the war, freed slaves were housed at Freedman’s Village for several decades. Several of today’s most prominent African-American Arlington families can trace their lineage back to Arlington House, and efforts are underway to create a museum dedicated to the achievements of local African-Americans both during slavery and after.

By the 20th century, a spirit of reconciliation had taken hold, at least among some. In 1920, Alexandria County was renamed “Arlington” in part to honor Lee, and Arlington House in 1955 was designated by Congress as the nation’s memorial to the general.

Nelson said local commemorative events will run through at least 2015, the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the event that effectively ended the war. But they could run longer, as far out as January 2020, the 150th anniversary of Virginia’s readmittance to the Union.

The Oct. 10 event at Arlington House also will include a series of tours and exhibits exploring radical abolitionism, and a performance by the Victorian Dance Emsemble. Special activities for children will be available.

Because Arlington House is rarely open to the public at night, the event offers a chance to tour the house and view the Washington skyline from a seldom-seen vantage point, National Park Service officials said.

Entry times are available on the half-hour from 7 to 9 p.m., with lectures by Bordewich conducted at 8 and 9 p.m. Reservations are required, and parking will only be available for those with reservations.

For reservations, call (703) 235-1530. For information, see the Web site at