The plan worked, and Lee settled with his family in Lexington, Virginia, having decided not to try to reclaim Arlington House back from the U.S. government. Years later, Lee’s son, George Washington Custis Lee, sued the government for illegally seizing the property. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor, and Lee sold the property back to the government for $150,000.
When Rubenstein agreed to give $12.35 million to the National Park Foundation to restore the mansion in 2014, both he and the Park Service emphasized Arlington House’s original link to George Washington as well as its prominent location next to the national cemetery. Rubenstein is a Washington aficionado, and he previously made substantial donations to refurbish the Washington Monument and his estate at Mount Vernon. “He viewed it as kind of the trifecta,” a person familiar with Rubenstein’s thinking told me, referring to his donation to Arlington House.
As with Rubenstein’s donation to other historical sites, including Thomas Jefferson’s estate at Monticello, a portion of his gift to Arlington House will go toward restoring the slave quarters and enhancing the museum’s focus on the experiences of enslaved people who lived there. “Washington and being able to tell the enslaved people's stories have animated all of his giving, including Arlington House,” said the person familiar with Rubenstein’s thinking.
Rubenstein’s interest may be the Washington connection, but 60 years earlier, Congress had twice explicitly designated the site as a permanent memorial to Lee—first in its establishment in 1955 and then in 1972 when it changed its formal name from the Custis-Lee Mansion to “Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial.”
The 1955 act, a joint resolution, was timed to the 90th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox—or, as Congress more generously described it, “the cessation of hostilities between our States.” The text lauded Lee in glowing terms and linked him to his Union rival, General Ulysses S. Grant, saying they were “two great figures.”
“Whereas one of the two great figures therein involved, one, General Ulysses S. Grant, has been highly honored as President of the United States, but the other, Robert E. Lee, has never been suitably honored by our National Government,” the resolution said. It continued:
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United
States of America in Congress assembled, That the Congress of the
United States, at this anniversary time, does hereby pay honor and
tribute to the everlasting memory of Robert E. Lee, whose name will
ever be bright in our history as a great military leader, a great educator,
a great American, and a truly great man through the simple
heritage of his personal traits of high character, his grandeur of soul,
his unfailing strength of heart.
That glowing description is one with which President Trump seemed to agree when he placed Lee’s memory on equal footing with Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But as the National Park Service appeared to acknowledge with its quiet revision this week, the historical truth is more complicated.