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The Arlington Cemetery Case: A Court and a Nation Divided




Seventeen years after the Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, his eldest son won a sweeping victory over the federal government in the United States Supreme Court. On December 4, 1882, the Supreme Court upheld a federal trial court's ruling that the United States government's claim of title to Arlington National Cemetery rested on an invalid tax sale. The Justices thus affirmed the lower court's verdict that George Washington Custis Lee (“Custis Lee”), eldest son of Mary and Robert E. Lee, held legal title to Arlington. The Supreme Court also upheld the lower court's decision to permit Custis Lee to bring suit against the government officers who occupied Arlington. On the latter point, the Justices split 5 to 4, with a majority ruling for Custis Lee. The outcome of United States v. Lee, commonly known as the Arlington case, made it clear that the Lee family, and not the United States government, owned Arlington.