Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial
"Cherish these forest trees,"
Marquis de Lafayette, 1825.
William Howard Russell, a famous 19th century English correspondent, once described the forest before you as "some of the finest woods I have seen in America." Two centuries earlier the area had been a vast wilderness where Doeg and Necostin Indians had hunted and made stone tools. Today this small woodland has been recognized by the Virginia Native Plant Society as one of the best examples of old growth terraced gravel forest remaining in Virginia.
In 1802, this land was settled by George Washington Park Custis. He named his 1,100-acre estate Arlington. One of the most striking natural features of his property was the 600-acre virgin oak forest that nearly surrounded Arlington House. The 19th century historian Benson Lossing described the picturesque landscape: "Behind the mansion is a dark old forest, with patriarchal trees bearing many centennial honors and covering 600 acres of hill and dale."
Mrs. Calvert, a relative of the Custises, had visited Arlington as a child and remembered the ravine before you as a mysterious dell where the children played, saying, "We longed to get beyond these woods, but Fear played nurse to us and enforced the command that we shall not go beyond the dell. It grew deeper and deeper until we seemed lost to the outside world; here we have trees draped with their wild vines, sun flecked shade, ferns, moss, and wild bloom..."
Despite constant debts, Custis adamantly refused to use the woods for commercial purposes. Instead, he chose to keep it as a "park" in the English tradition. "Cherish these forest trees around your mansion," the Marquis De Lafayette cautioned Mrs. Custis in 1825. "Recollect how much easier it is to cut a tree than to make one grow." An avid hunter, Custis often led parties into the woods in search of game. His slaves also hunted and gathered food from the forest.
The slaves at Arlington may have known these woods best. Archaeological evidence reveals that they disposed of household trash and ashes from the house's furnace in the ravine. An icehouse was also located there. Each winter, the slaves would have filled it with large blocks of ice cut from frozen sections of the Potomac River.
The coming of the Civil War would change this idyllic setting for all time. Thousands of Union soldiers occupied Arlington during the war. They cut down much of the forest to build roads and fortifications, to provide firewood and to clear fields of vision and fire for their guns. Even in the midst of war, the soldiers made a conscious effort to save some of the largest, oldest trees around the mansion, including some of the trees here. In June 1864, Arlington Cemetery was created and over 15,000 graves quickly replaced much of the remaining forest.
Edward Dicey, a young cannoneer, described the wartime devastation of Arlington to his mother: "There is nothing to keep up one's spirits... It has been a splendid place, but everything has been destroyed, the magnificent forest has been cut down..."