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Admirers of Lee Upset by Cemetery Expansion Plan

July 3, 1995 GMT

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) _ Before Arlington National Cemetery was a burial ground for soldiers and a slain president, Southerners venerated the land as Robert E. Lee’s home, the spot where he cast his lot with the Confederacy.

Lee’s hilltop mansion, Arlington House, is ringed on three sides by row upon row of simple white headstones. And now that the cemetery is running out of ground for new graves, a plan to use a small park behind the house has rankled many Lee admirers, historians and mansion tour guides.

``I think it is most unfortunate and sad,″ said Elizabeth Shearer, a volunteer guide who for 30 years has led school children on educational tours through the mansion.

``It will do away with the beauty of the place. We’re trying to show how people lived in 1861, and you didn’t have all the trees cut down at that time.″

America’s best-known military cemetery was born of Union spite. How better to snub the South than to bury Yankee soldiers on the lawn of Lee’s plantation, reasoned Union Gen. Montgomery Meigs. Meigs and his only son, who was killed in battle in the Shenandoah Valley, are buried there together.

Today 245,000 veterans or their families are buried at the cemetery.

Unless the cemetery acquires more land, it will run out of grave space in 2025. Already family members are buried one coffin atop another.

Veterans could choose other cemeteries, and will have to when Arlington is full, said Arlington superintendent John C. Metzler Jr.

``But there’s only one Arlington,″ he said. ``The inevitable will happen someday. But it is my job to postpone that day as long as possible.″

In February, the Park Service and the Army, which operates the cemetery, signed an agreement that would transfer about 12 acres of the Arlington House grounds to the cemetery. The plan _ which would allow burials to continue for about five more years _ requires environmental studies and Congressional approval.

The Army has promised to conduct an archaeological study before taking the land, and anything of true value, including the oldest trees, would be saved, Metzler said.

That’s of little comfort to Mrs. Shearer. She says too much history would be destroyed for what is only a short-term fix to the Arlington grave shortage.

All that remains of the Arlington House grounds as the Lees knew them is a steep ravine with 200-year-old trees behind the mansion, Mrs. Shearer says.

Arlington House was built in 1817 by George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted grandson of George Washington.

Custis’ granddaughter, Mary Custis, inherited the 1,100-acre estate. After marrying Lee in 1831, the couple lived there for 30 years. Six of their seven children were born there.

Lee once wrote to a cousin that at Arlington House ``my affections and attachments are more strongly placed than at any other place in the world.″

In April 1861, Lee faced a wrenching choice. He knew that if he fought for Virginia and the South, his house would be vulnerable to seizure by federal troops.

``And he knew if he left, he probably would not come back,″ said Frank Cucurullo, a National Park Service historian at Arlington House.

Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17. On April 20, in an upstairs bedroom at Arlington House, Lee wrote a letter resigning his U.S. Army commission.

In a letter to a friend, Mrs. Lee wrote that her husband had ``wept tears of blood over this terrible war, but as a man of honor and as a Virginian, he must follow the destiny of his state.″

Union troops took Arlington House a month later. The Lees, who spent the war years in Richmond, never set foot in it again.

Mrs. Lee was bitter at losing the mansion, but Lee, by all accounts, accepted it philosophically.

Even in his lifetime, the cemetery began to be a symbol of healing rather than division, Metzler said. Confederate dead were reburied there after the war, along with Union soldiers, including 2,111 unknown Union soldiers buried in a common grave.

``Lee’s motto was basically, `Let the past be but the past,‴ said Taylor Sanders, historian at Washington & Lee University, where Lee taught after the war and where he is buried.

``He also believed that although we should look forward, it is history that teaches us to hope.″