The sym­bol­ism of the Me­mo­rial Bridge

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - 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.”

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 sonin-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 bet­ter­way to com­mem­o­rate the an­niver­sary of the Union’s tri­umph than to re­in­force the bridge that binds North and South.

ABOVE: LI­BRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHO­TO­GRAPHS DI­VI­SION, THEODOR HORYDCZAK COL­LEC­TION; TOP: MARK WIL­SON/GETTY IM­AGES

The­Memo­rial Bridge un­der con­struc­tion (above) in the 1920s and in­May (top).

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