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Spring was always magnificent at Arlington, and the spring of 1861 promised to be the most glorious ever. Standing on the great portico of the mansion, framed by its eight massive columns, a small woman in traveling clothes scanned the acres of rolling lawn between the house and the Potomac River, which flowed lazily through the verdant landscape from north to south in the middle distance. Ripples etched with shimmers of light glowed golden in the dawn. A soft breeze carried the rich fragrance of roses from the garden.
Looking beyond the river, Mary's deep brown eyes came to rest on Washington City, its buildings of sandstone and limestone and marble silhouetted against the rising sun, ruddy with the morning. The place had its detractors. Some said the political maneuvering there was as foul as the swamp it was built on, a waterlogged marsh that still muddied the boots of patrician statesmen from more civilized places like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.
But Mary had never thought-could never have thought-such a thing about that imposing and important place, which she had watched take shape over a lifetime from the portico high on the opposite bank of the Potomac. The city was namedafter George Washington, Mary's paternal great-grandfather by marriage. Mary's father had grown up at Mount Vernon. He had idolized Washington and had built Arlington, and the portico where Mary now stood, as a monument to him.
Mary saw another monument to Washington as she looked eastward. Even unfinished, the spare marble obelisk dominated the city. Begun in a burst of patriotic fervor in 1848, the Washington Monument had been abandoned six years later. Lack of funds and political squabbling among the sponsoring groups had left the stone column less than a third complete. Contemplating the unfinished memorial, Mary saw in it a metaphor for the world around her: plans halted, allies at odds, the future in doubt.
Servants passed back and forth between the open door behind her and a wagon in the drive, gingerly adding bundles and odd pieces of furniture to the growing heap of household goods. Mary had lived in many places and was used to moving. The wife of an army officer could expect to do that. But Arlington had always been home.
Mary's earliest memories were of this hillside, this view, this heady spring atmosphere infused with the smell of damp earth and flowers and apple trees in bloom. Her parents had begun the garden beside the house before she was born, and from the time she could hold a hoe, she had worked there, cultivating camellias, hyacinths, honeysuckle, gardenias, lilies, morning glory, dogwood, and roses.
Especially roses. For years, Mary and her many correspondents had sent seeds, cuttings, and pressed blossoms back and forth to one another. She herself had planted many of the roses, right up to the time her crippled hands could no longer grip a spade.
There was another garden in the back of the house, a large kitchen plot brimming with herbs and vegetables; stretching out of sight to the north, west, and south there were fields of corn, wheat, tobacco, and pasture. Nearby were fisheries and vast stands of timber.
Just over a rise in the lawn to the south, Mary could see the canopy of oak trees that covered the graves of her parents.
Inside, in Arlington's dining room, Mary had entertained presidents, generals, and foreign dignitaries-even the great Marquis de Lafayette. In the parlor she had refused one suitor and accepted another. And under the triple archway between the dining room and the parlor she had exchanged wedding vows with a young army lieutenant. Six of their seven children had been born upstairs.
Leaving this place was unimaginable. Yet here Mary stood in her bonnet and dark traveling dress, leaning on her crutch as she waited to be helped into her coach, not knowing how or when she would return.
Were the decision hers alone to make, she would stay at Arlington despite the ominous events of the past few weeks. But remaining only added to her husband's burdens. A month earlier it had seemed inconceivable that Virginia would secede. Now it had happened. Even so, here on her peaceful wooded hillside high above Washington, Mary could not believe that war and danger were so close.
Although the bustle and clatter of the city below had been replaced by "a deathlike stillness," to Mary the country had never seemed more beautiful-"perfectly radiant," she wrote her husband in early May. "The yellow jessamine is in full bloom & perfuming the air." From his vantage point in Richmond, however, his perspective was dramatically different. "I am glad to hear that you are at peace and enjoying the sweet weather and beautiful flowers," he wrote. But, "You had better complete your arrangements and retire further from the scene of war."
Mary had continued to delay her departure. Fact and fiction were so entangled in Washington City and Richmond that she scarcely knew what to believe. She did not want to pack up and leave as long as there was any chance of a settlement between the federal government and the seceding states.
In another letter on May 13, her husband made plain the chilling reality: "Do not put faith in rumors of adjustment. I see no prospect for it. It cannot be while passions on both sides are so infuriated. Make your plans for several years of war." But Mary had still refused to leave, even though the Washington press was lashing out at her husband and urging the federal government to seize Arlington.
Neither her husband's letters nor the incendiary newspaper coverage had spurred Mary to action. What finally convinced her to leave was the urgent plea of her young second cousin, who burst into her room one sunny afternoon and announced breathlessly, "Union troops are on their way. They're coming to take the house and property. They're going to fortify Arlington Heights to protect the capital. You've got to get out-quick."
The ironies could scarcely have been lost on Mary. Throughout her life, Arlington had been a constant reminder of General Washington's greatness. The very walls before her had been built to honor the namesake of the city across the river where Union troops were now encamped. The bed in her daughters' room upstairs was the one in which Washington had drawn his last breath. There were roses from Mount Vernon growing in the garden outside. Mary had spent her entire life steeped in his legend, and her husband all but worshiped his memory. Anyone who knew him knew that. Now the country Washington had led to independence was unmaking itself. Now she was a threat to his army. Suddenly she had become the enemy.
Bowing to the inevitable at last, Mary had hurriedly crated her most valuable belongings and sent them to safety. Mercifully, there was a reprieve; her cousin returned the next day to report that the movement of Union troops had been delayed. The additional time allowed Mary to plan an orderly withdrawal. She sent two large wooden chests containing family silver, her husband's personal papers, Washington's letters, and other family documents by rail to Richmond.
Mary's aunt had invited her and the children to come to Ravensworth, the ancestral home of Mary's mother, and to bring anything she wanted to safeguard. On May 8, two of Mary's daughters had left for Ravensworth with wagons full of paintings, household furnishings, food, wine, and the family piano. Another daughter was visiting one of her brothers and his family at White House, the family plantation on the Pamunkey River. The two youngest children were away at school. That left only her oldest son to help Mary make the final preparations to leave.
Mary did not doubt that her homelessness would be temporary. Thinking she would be away from Arlington for only a matter of weeks, she left precious but cumbersome Washington memorabilia in the attic. Among them was Washington's campaign tent, folded, rolled, and stored in two large canvas sacks. Mary could not count the number of times her father had pitched that worn red canvas shelter for one of his celebrations. The tent and its happy memories stayed behind with the harpsichord that Washington had ordered from Europe, the blue damask curtains from Mount Vernon, an enormous wrought iron lantern that hung in the Mount Vernon portico, fine imported carpets, and more.
Other valuables were buried in the garden. Winter curtains and rugs that normally went into storage that time of year were rolled and packed away with extra care. Books were locked in closets, and Washington's china was crated and secured in the cellar.
Mary walked slowly back to the house and stepped inside the cool, wide hall that ran the length of it. To her right was the parlor where she had been married almost thirty years earlier. Across the hall to the left was a large, comfortable room where she had spent much of her time on the days she was able to come down the stairs from her bedroom.
This was the one room in the house that she and her husband had built to suit their own taste. Her father had designed it as a ballroom but never had the inclination or the money to finish it, so for years it was used to store treasures from Mount Vernon. Expecting her husband to retire soon, Mary had been pleased when he added marble fireplaces and other homey touches. How long would it be before the two of them sat before that cheerful fire again? she wondered.
From the spacious parlor, Mary walked down the hall and out through the conservatory to her large, meticulously tended flower garden. Her bedroom windows looked out on its luxuriant tracts of blossoms, vines, borders, and ground cover. Her children had had plots of their own there, and Mary's love for it had brought her outdoors to surround herself with its color and heady fragrance even when she had to be pushed in her rolling chair. As a young girl she had dug in the dark rich alluvial earth alongside her mother, and her children had dug the same dirt with her.
As she expected to be gone only a short time, Mary instructed the family's slaves to carry on as usual. According to the terms of her father's will, written years before, they were all to be freed in 1862, only a few months from now. Surely she would be back to help them make the transition. Though she thought it would be difficult, she was eager for all of them to have a fair chance to build a new life in freedom, and she felt a responsibility to do her part.
Mary handed her keys to her personal maid, whose mother had served at Mount Vernon. She was now responsible for safeguarding the household effects, while the overseer was charged with protecting the house and grounds. They bid one another a heartfelt farewell.
Mary turned toward the waiting carriage but then paused and walked haltingly back into the garden. There, as she had so often before, she bent over to cut her favorite flower. Of all those that grew on the estate, this was her favorite: the moss rose, fresh, fragrant, perfect, misted with morning dew-the rose of Arlington.
With her son's help, Mary settled stiffly into her coach and took a last look around. On the one side, she saw Arlington's majestic colonnade; on the other, the city of Washington lying in the distance. The sun was up, hovering a little south of a dark, spidery shape arching into the distant sky-the iron framework of a soaring new Capitol dome.
The coachman snapped his reins, the wheels turned, and Mary began the ten-mile trip to Ravensworth. As the house dropped from view behind her, she already longed for one more look-just one more-at those columns, those roses, and those two quiet graves under their gently swaying oaks.
Excerpted from LADY of Arlington by JOHN PERRY Copyright © 2001 by John Perry
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.