We have many articles on Arlington in the Civil War. We thank the Arlington Historical Society for providing most of these articles from their quarterly magazine.
Arlington County was the northernmost jurisdiction of the South in the Civil War. And for all practical purposes (and with apologies to Kentucky), it was also really the southernmost point of the North, since it was seized early in the war by the Union Army.
Arlington was the South—the home of the war’s best known officer, Robert E. Lee, commanding general of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. But it was also the North—home for much of the war for the Union Army of the Potomac. That army marched back and forth across Arlington as it trained before marching off to battle—and commonly returning to Arlington soon thereafter. The term "skedaddle" was first used in the United States in 1861 to describe the Union's disorderly retreat from Manassas back home to Arlington.
President Lincoln complained that the Army suffered from "the slows" as it spent so much time in Arlington.
Arlington County was also the land of freedom—the site of Freedman’s Village, one of the first efforts to prepare slaves for their new lives as free citizens of the republic. And communities of free African—Americans rapidly put down roots in Arlington even while the war raged.
Militarily, Arlington saw no battles at all. But it was the site of 22 of the 68 defensive forts that ringed the capital to protect it from the long-expected Confederate assault and that were linked by a highway cut through the county and known then and now as Military Road.
Socially, Arlington was sandwiched between North and South; it was a little bit of each and much of neither. It voted for secession. It was the first piece of secessionist territory taken back by the North—seized only hours after Virginia voted to secede. And it’s most famous resident led the forces of the South. It was a bit of a jumble.
It was a different era then, one hard for 21st Century Americans to relate to. Many of the young men who responded to Lincoln’s call didn’t know left from right—literally. Their drill sergeant would tie some hay to one boot and some straw to the other and then call out marching cadence: "Hayfoot, strawfoot...." In modern America, how many of us know the difference between hay and straw?
It was a different era then. In the 1860 census, Arlington had just 1,500 residents, including 184 slaves. Now it is home 210,000 free Americans.
Almost every Arlingtonian of today who steps outside their front door is standing on land that some northern regiment tramped across while learning the basics of military service, that artillery horses pounded across as the men learned how to operate cannon and caisson. Where today there are neatly-cropped lawns and asphalt—paved roads, 150 years ago there were campfires burning while young men talked of home, debated about the war and worried how they would react when they first heard the guns boom.
Thousands of them remain here today, buried beneath the green Potomac hillside on which Arlington Cemetery was laid out as their final resting place.
Let us not forget, it was a bloody war. Afterward, 38 Arlingtonians applied to Richmond for a Confederate pension. Six of the applicants were veterans; 32 were widows—an 84 percent death rate.