This past month I read Robert M. Poole’s On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery. For the most part I found it an informative read, although here and there small factual mistakes marred the experience. That said, Poole tells the story of Robert and Mary Lee’s attachment to Arlington as well as their decision to abandon it. Many of the Custis/Lee slaves stayed there. Some remained there after they secured their freedom.
In May 1865 William Syphax petitioned Andrew Johnson to secure title to over seventeen acres of land at Arlington. Syphax argued that the land in question had been given to his mother, Maria Syphax, by George Washington Parke Custis, Mary Custis Lee’s father. Maria Syphax had been Custis’s slave; it appears she may have been more than that as well, for Custis arranged for the emancipation of her children in 1826 as well as the eventual emancipation of William Syphax’s father Charles upon Custis’s death in 1857. For Maria Syphax’s mother, Airrianna, one of Martha Washington’s servants, had a relationship with Custis that resulted in Maria’s birth.
A year later Andrew Johnson signed legislation recognizing William Syphax’s right to the land (one of the few cases on record where the seventeen president was involved in giving land to African Americans).
If we are to believe this (and there seems no reason to believe otherwise), Robert E. Lee’s father-in-law had at least one child by an enslaved African American woman, making Mary Custis Lee and Maria Syphax half sisters and Maria Syphax Lee’s half sister-in-law. Nor was the Syphax family the only black family at Arlington that claimed mixed racial heritage, according to Poole.
We might keep the realities of life at Arlington in mind when we examine Robert E. Lee’s views on slavery. No wonder he found the responsibilities foisted upon him by the terms of the Custis will “an unpleasant legacy.”