Arlington History

Arlington County's name comes from Arlington National Cemetery, whose own name had derived from that of Confederate General Robert E. Lee's former home, Arlington House. The District of Columbia moved to its present location in 1801 and divided into the county of Washington, the east side of the Potomac, and the county of Alexandria, the west side of the Potomac. Alexandria County contained a rural area, an urbanized town and a port. Alexandria's economy stagnated As the U.S. government could not establish any federal offices in the County, and as the economically important Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O Canal) on the north side of the Potomac River favored Georgetown. This stagnation worsened as some of Georgetown's residents opposed federal efforts to maintain the Alexandria Canal, which connected the C&O Canal in Georgetown to Alexandria's port. Further, as they were residents of the District of Columbia, Alexandria's citizens had no representation in Congress and could not vote in federal elections. In addition, Alexandria had become a port and market for the slave trade. As there was increasing talk of abolishing slavery in the nation's capital, some Alexandrians feared that the local economy would suffer if the federal government abolished slavery in the District of Columbia. Simultaneously, there arose in Virginia an active abolitionist movement that created a division on the question of slavery in Virginia's General Assembly (Later, during the Civil War, Virginia's division on the slavery issue contributed to the formation of the state of West Virginia by its most anti-slavery counties). Pro-slavery Virginians recognized that Alexandria County could provide two new representatives who favored slavery in the General Assembly if the County joined the Commonwealth. As a result, a movement grew to separate Alexandria County from the District of Columbia. After a referendum, the county's residents petitioned the U.S. Congress and the Virginia legislature to permit the County to return to Virginia. The area was retroceded to Virginia on July 9, 1846. In 1852, the independent City of Alexandria was incorporated from a portion of Alexandria County. This created an ambiguity, as two separate legal entities had similar names. Alexandria County eventually renamed itself in 1920 to Arlington County.

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