Interview with Park Ranger Matt Penrod

Matt Penrod is a National Park Service ranger and education programs manager at Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE caught up with Matt at Arlington House, the home of Robert E. Lee and his family for 30 years before Union forces occupied the home during the Civil War and turned its grounds into a national cemetery.

Arlington House
The Robert E. Lee Memorial

My name is Matt Penrod. I'm a park ranger here at Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial. My main job here is to interpret the history of the site.

When history is presented in a very bland fashion, it really doesn't provoke a lot of interest. And I think one of the things I've learned in twenty years -- I've seen a lot, I've been through a lot of various managers of the site, different philosophies, different attitudes about how the history should be presented, how we should examine it. And when I first started here, it was more of an old school style. For instance, we would talk about slavery but we would, you know, we would talk about it in maybe softer tones. We wouldn't do it in a way that might make Robert E. Lee look bad, that was the idea. And that's evolved. To the point, over the past several years, we've become completely open and honest of all aspects of it. With the idea that Lee was not a perfect person. But he was a human being caught up in extremely difficult circumstances. And, so there are aspects of his life that are maybe less savory, or less positive in people's minds, or should be. But that's important to examine, and people really want to know that, and so the more you present it the more they ask about it.

Arlington House as a Lesson in History

This house was built here by the step-grandson of George Washington, beginning in 1802. The intention of the house was to be monumental, to honor George Washington. And it was filled with things from Mount Vernon, so it was like a shrine of a museum, one of the very first ever built in the history of this country. So it had a fame that was associated with it. And many visitors over the years would come here to learn more about Washington and be inspired by that, including Presidents of the United States, vice presidents, Congressmen, Senators, and so on. And prior to the Civil War you could say that was Arlington's great fame, its importance in American history.

Most visitors when they come to Arlington House, don't necessarily come specifically to visit Arlington House. They're visiting the national cemetery. They're visiting the Kennedy gravesite, the tomb of the unknowns, and often are surprised to find that all this was once the home of Robert E. Lee and his family. And then, to learn more of the history of it. It's one of the more exciting elements of the job too, because you get a sense, there's always a sense of discovery among visitors and so it's fun to sort of surprise them in a certain way. 

From Arlington House to Arlington Cemetery

The Civil War was a tremendous culture shock because so many men were being taken away from their loved ones and their lives obliterated on the battlefields. And their family members never had that chance of saying goodbye. Or in a sense never having a sense of what happened to the remains of their loved ones. And so the U.S. government took on that responsibility, and its believed to be the first time in world history that a national government took on such an enormous responsibility of ensuring that every single man who died in the service of that country would be given a proper burial and their grave to be cared for eternally.

Before the Civil War began there was no such thing as a national cemetery. There'd never been a need for one. And as a result of the war, over 70 national cemeteries were created, during the war and immediately afterwards. And that wasn't even to hold all the dead. It was primarily for the Union dead. Not even to hold the Confederate dead. So it didn't serve the purpose of burying all the Americans that were killed, so you really get a sense of the enormity of that war.

By the spring of 1864, with General Grant's campaign against Lee, the nature of the war changed. In 1864, arguably, was the worst war in American history, or the worst year in American history, as the war took a very ugly turn. It was now total war. A war of annihilation. You saw an upsurge in atrocities throughout the nation, as African Americans were killed, prisoners being murdered, prisoners dying in the camps. Civilians suffering at a greater rate. And just the warfare between the armies here in the east here in Virginia between Grant's army and Lee's army was horrific. And this area of Washington was flooded with wounded and dying soldiers. And it was a crisis that the government needed to deal with.

The Congress needs to create a new national cemetery, so they are going to give the army authority to do that. But where is it going to go? And General Montgomery Meigs, the Quartermaster General of the Army, decided Arlington would be the best place. Now, there are many factors to this. As I mentioned, this is one of the more misunderstood aspects of it. Its long been held that the single reason why Arlington cemetery was created was to get revenge against Lee, to punish him, to spite him. That's not completely untrue, but it's an exaggeration. Like most myths, it's an exaggerated truth. And in this case, there are many factors. The fact that the army had just seized the property, or taken ownership of it; they could do what they wanted. The fact that they had already buried several hundred people here, it made sense. It would save the government money; it was the most expedient way of doing this. But at the same time, it was impossible to ignore the opportunity to the U.S. government had, that General Meigs had, that this was a way of forever holding Robert E. Lee accountable for the deaths of these soldiers.

It was well known at the beginning of the war that Lee had been offered command of Federal troops and turned it down. And when he became the South's greatest general, leading his armies to victories, and of course causing the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers. Americans, even at that time, were thinking about that decision he made and contemplating what it meant. And how it affected their lives.

And so putting this national cemetery around General Lee's home, was in their minds, a way in which their loved ones would find justice. When you look at the political nature of these national cemeteries -- and there was a political nature to it -- many of the North wanted to use them to remind the world, really, of what the South had done to this nation.

The Lee's Reaction to Arlington Cemetery

It became more personal, though, I think when the cemetery was created. Because Lee was definitely being singled out. Of all the national cemeteries that were created during the Civil War, they were mostly created near battlefield sites, usually around existing cemeteries, like Gettysburg is a famous example. Or near hospital sites, that sort of thing. But to actually surround someone's home, in a deliberate way of preventing that man from ever returning here, was definitely more personal.

Mrs. Lee really never got over it. She was furious at the U.S. government. To the day she died, she was angry and bitter about this. And perhaps she had good reason to. But she came to view this national cemetery as in a sense a permanent invasion of her home. And after the war she wanted to actually get the property back and remove the cemetery. And live here again. And she tried to. It was shot down, in Congress, but she tried. And during that period she was asked by a relative what she would do with the cemetery if she could live here again. And she said very plainly that she would dig up all the bodies and throw them in the river, that was how she felt about it.

Lee's Contradictions

I think one of the most important places that's somewhat off the beaten path for most visitors is the historic slave quarters right behind the house.

We know that the Custis family had a longstanding antipathy toward slavery. They had very strong mixed feelings considering slavery to be wrong, to be immoral and to be in many ways un-American. But George Washington Parke Custis continued to own slaves to the day he died. Now, he put it in his will that they would all be freed after his death, and it seems very likely that Robert E. Lee believed in doing the right thing and freeing them as quickly as he could, but the Civil War came and they were still slaves. And yet Robert E. Lee carried out the terms of the will, during the war, while serving as a Confederate general.

It's easy to oversimplify history and to characterize the last years of Robert E. Lee's life as being very noble, self-sacrificing, that he cared so deeply for the healing of his country that he devoted those last years to it. But again, it is one of those things that you can exaggerate, and you realize the difficulties Lee faced after the war. Personally, struggling with loss, with the devastation of the war. His role in it. A war that he didn't want. Um, just the loss of life troubled him for the remainder of his days. And to stand here and look out over the graves of these Civil War dead, you get a sense, a way of contemplating that. And yet, Lee did transcend that to a large degree. He did promote a concept of reunion that did take hold in the South. He wanted Southerners to give up their dreams of independence, to believe in this nation again. And so even though he struggled with these emotions and sometimes personally, you could say regretted, the loss of the war. Definitely regretted his -- the dreams of Southern independence were lost forever. But -- nonetheless he didn't allow that to poison the public message, in a sense, he tried to convey. And so it did a lot of good for this country, there is no question about that.

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  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • Arthur Vining Davis Foundations
  • NEH