John Reeves is the author of A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.
The creation of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia occurred almost immediately after one of the worst days of violence and horror in American history.
On May 12, 1864, during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Union troops under Ulysses S. Grant engaged in bloody combat with Confederate forces commanded by Robert E. Lee for almost 24 hours. At the western tip of Lee’s fortifications — forever remembered as the Bloody Angle — the contest was particularly murderous. A reporter for the New York Times wrote, “In this angle of death the dead and wounded rebels lie, this morning, literally in piles — men in the agonies of death groaning beneath the dead bodies of comrades.” The fighting at Lee’s fortifications began at 4:35 a.m. on Thursday, May 12 and finally ended around 3 a.m. on Friday, May 13. Later that Friday, roughly 65 miles away in Arlington, Virginia, the first two Union soldiers would be buried at a new cemetery on the estate where Robert E. Lee and his family had lived prior to the Civil War.
Earlier in the conflict, deceased Union soldiers were buried at the cemetery at the Old Soldiers’ Home, a site three miles north of the White House in Washington, D.C. By May 1864, roughly 8,000 soldiers had been buried at this asylum. President Abraham Lincoln had access to a cottage on the grounds of the Old Soldiers’ Home, and spent considerable time there from 1862 to 1864. On May 13, 1864, however, the cemetery at the Old Soldiers’ Home had reached capacity and “the Secretary of War directed that a new site be selected on Lee’s farm, at Arlington, Va.”
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs previously agreed that Arlington — an 1,100-acre estate situated across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital — would become the New National Military Cemetery, where soldiers who died in Washington area hospitals would be buried in the aftermath of the Wilderness Campaign. A graduate of West Point, Montgomery C. Meigs had worked and socialized with Robert E. Lee before the war. The efficient and talented quartermaster general became a bitter foe of all secessionists once the fighting began, however.