The emergency lane closures announced last month on the Arlington Memorial Bridge did not stop politicians from racing to turn the Potomac River span into a symbol of the need for more infrastructure investment.
The debate over the symbolism of the site continues a tradition that began long before the nine arches of the bridge spanned the Potomac on an axis between the Lincoln Memorial on the Washington side and Arlington House on the Virginia side.
For decades before the Civil War, the name Arlington evoked memories of George Washington because the first president’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis, built the showy columned mansion atop the Arlington Heights. Though Custis lobbied for a bridge between his estate and the city of Washington, credit for the idea traditionally goes to President Andrew Jackson, thanks to a famous speech Daniel Webster delivered at the U.S. Capitol on July 4, 1851.
“Before us is the broad and beautiful river, separating two of the original thirteen states, and which a late president, a man of determined purpose and inflexible will, but patriotic heart, desired to span with arches of ever-enduring granite, symbolical of the firmly cemented union of the North and the South,” Webster said.
Jackson’s vision acquired new urgency in 1861, when Virginia seceded and turned the Potomac into a dividing line between the Union and Confederacy. Virginia claimed the loyalty of Custis’s son-in-law, the talented soldier Robert E. Lee, who made the fateful decision to resign from the U.S. Army while residing at Arlington House. Union soldiers soon after seized the estate and eventually converted it to a cemetery.
In the years after the war, there were different unsuccessful proposals to build the bridge as a monument to the Union’s two greatest heroes: Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and President Abraham Lincoln. But an Armistice Day traffic jam that delayed President Warren G. Harding from making the trip to Arlington National Cemetery in 1921 solidified support for a bridge. Advocates today can take heart in knowing that congestion over the Potomac has eased Washington gridlock before.
When construction on the bridge finally began in 1926, the design resembled the structure Jackson had envisioned: a granite bridge binding the banks of the river that had separated North and South. That stated symbolism did not deter other interpretations. One newspaper criticized the name Memorial Bridge as “meaningless.” Since the bridge would run on an axis between the recently completed Lincoln Memorial and the mansion where Lee had once lived, the paper proposed it should honor those two “colossal figures” instead.
Meanwhile, a movement in the Senate to erect a statue of Grant on one end of the bridge and a statue of Lee on the other came to a halt when Ulysses S. Grant III, the Union general’s grandson and the executive officer of the Arlington Memorial Bridge Commission, expressed his desire to keep the structure “impersonal” as a way to honor all who served in uniform. But the timing of the official opening in 1932, around the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth, convinced some that the bridge was just the latest memorial to a man with many.
The Arlington Memorial Bridge has inspired generations of imaginations because it connects so many different points and people from America’s past. The force of history weighs on its arches. So does the weight of more than 60,000 vehicles per day, a burden experts fear its corroded steel beams can no longer bear.
That these structural problems should come to a crisis during the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War seems fitting for a bridge that has never shied from symbolism. There could be no better way to commemorate the anniversary of the Union’s triumph than to reinforce the bridge that binds North and South.
The writer is author of “The Man Who Would Not Be Washington: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War and His Decision That Changed American History.”
Read more about this issue: