Major General McClellan, after he became leader of the Union army, chose for his Washington headquarters the lovely home on the Potomac River called Arlington House. Arlington House had belonged to Confederate army leader General Robert E. Lee.
Robert E. Lee had lived at Arlington House with his wife, Mary, the granddaughter of Martha Washington, wife of President George Washington. Set on high ground on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, the imposing Neoclassical home was visible from much of Washington, D.C.
After Robert E. Lee signed on with the Confederacy, the Lees recognized that their home’s proximity to Washington, D.C., placed both the house and them at risk of Union attack. They packed their belongings and left Arlington House. The Lee family would never return to this home. Union troops occupied the house on May 24, 1861.
Once in Federal hands, the land around Arlington House found several purposes. United States Army major general Montgomery C. Meigs determined that the grounds should serve as a national cemetery for Union dead. The first Union soldier buried at what became Arlington National Cemetery was William Christman of Pennsylvania on May 13, 1864.
The Federal government also made the decision to create a village on the grounds of Arlington for freed slaves. Robert E. Lee had slaves at Arlington. It seemed fitting then that Arlington would provide the site for Freedman’s Village, which was established in 1863. It would grow to house more than one thousand freed slaves—men, women and children. Homes, a school and a hospital were part of the village complex. Some of the inhabitants of Freedman’s Village were former slaves of Robert E. Lee’s.