The floorboards creaked upstairs as Robert E. Lee paced back and forth. The date was April 19, 1861, and Lee was at his home in northern Virginia grappling with the most difficult decision of his life: Would he serve as Union Chief of Command of U.S. forces under Gen. Winfield Scott or maintain loyalty to his home state of Virginia, which had just voted for secession?
In the early hours of April 20, 1861, Lee sat at the desk in his bedroom and penned a two-line resignation letter to General Scott. He left two days later for Richmond, where he became commander in chief of military and naval forces of Virginia. He would never return to his home in Arlington again.
Months later Lee's family was forced to flee their mansion. Union forces quickly assumed the house and headquartered troops there. The Army Quartermaster even ordered the burial of deceased soldiers in Mrs. Lee's rose garden to punish the family for Lee's decision.
Today some 500,000 visitors a year—more than 3,000 people a day during the summer—visit what is now called Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, in Arlington National Cemetery. The memorial, set aside in 1925, recognizes Lee's dedication to reuniting the country after the Civil War. Lee supported President Andrew Johnson's plan for Reconstruction as well as education for blacks.
"It should be the object of all to … give full scope to reason and to every kindly feeling. By doing this and encouraging our citizens to engage in the duties of life with all their heart and mind, with a determination not to be turned aside by thoughts of the past and fears of the future, our country will not only be restored in material prosperity, but will be advanced in science, in virtue and in religion," Lee wrote in September 1865.
To ensure that people can continue to experience Lee's historic home, in early 2007 all of the furniture was moved out temporarily to install a fire suppression and climate management system. The new system, scheduled for completion in the summer of 2008, will help protect against further damage from humidity and lack of ventilation.