Arlington National Cemetery is this country's most scared shrine. This article tells its history
For many people, the name Arlington National Cemetery brings to mind precise rows of white crosses on expansive green lawns. For others the first thought is to the Tomb of the Unknowns, or the grave of President John F. Kennedy. A few might consider Arlington House the cemetery’s most prominent feature. Arlington is all of these things and more.
It is rich in history. It is also a record of wars, political intrigue, and most of all reverence for more than 200,000 men and women who served their country in one capacity or another.
Many famous persons are interred at Arlington: presidents Kennedy and Taft. Two Chief Justices of the Supreme Court: Taft and Earl Warren. Other well-known persons laid to rest in Arlington include John Foster Dulles, Robert Kennedy, Robert Todd Lincoln, Admiral Peary and Walter Reed. Sixteen astronauts have been interred there including Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Roger Chafee, who were killed in a launch pad fire at Cape Canaveral, January 27, 1967.
Thousands of less famous veterans are at Arlington. Most are in marked graves. Arlington’s most famous sepulcher, however, is the white marble sarcophagus known as the Tomb of the Unknowns. It holds the remains of three men whose names we don’t know. They were killed in combat during World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.
“Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God” is chiseled on the tomb. The word “soldier,” technically, is inaccurate because no one knows in which branch of the armed forces each served.
Until 1998, there was also an “Unknown” from the Vietnam War. But one family, after lengthy investigation suspected the remains might be those of their son. The remains were exhumed, and DNA obtained from some bones was analyzed. It was learned the remains were those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie. His remains were removed from the Tomb of the Unknowns, and he was laid to rest in a marked grave at Jackson Barracks National Cemetery near St. Louis, Mo., on July 11, 1998 Officials at Arlington have stated no other Vietnam era veteran will be buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns.
THE ORIGIN OF THE TOMB OF THE UNKNOWNS
A tribute to the unknown dead of war originated with Francois Simon, of Rennes, France. One of his sons was killed and another gravely wounded during World War I. He felt a need to honor those killed in battle who couldn’t be identified.
His idea was to created a prominent grave bearing two words, “A Soldier,” and two dates, “1914—19--.” For those who lost a loved one in war, and whose remains were never identified, such a tomb could bring them solace, he reckoned. They could stand at the tomb and hope that his remains might be in there.
The French parliament approved the plan in 1919. On November 11, 1920, below the Arc de Triomphe, the French buried their Unknown Soldier.
The idea bridged the Atlantic. In the United States the first Unknown Soldier, a casualty of the First World War, came to Arlington in 1921, from his original burial site in France. The anonymous hero received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, plus the highest military decorations of Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Rumania, Czechoslovakia and Poland.
The three men buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns are esteemed as are no others are at Arlington. Sentries from the 3rd U.S. Infantry, traditionally know as the “Old Guard,” patrol the tomb every hour of every day no matter whether it is blazing hot and humid, or snow is falling and the temperature is below zero. A guard, all of them are volunteers, is always on watch. Every hour in winter and every half-hour in summer months, the guard is changed.
Some people have described the guards as “parade ground soldiers,” but that’s because the public only sees them during the day in their dress uniforms. After dark, the dress uniforms are put away, guards don regular uniforms, and it becomes a true guard post. As bizarre as it might seem, the tomb was defaced, once, in 1926 and that is why it so guarded today.
Even the graves of Presidents Taft and Kennedy aren’t so honored.
The President of the United States lays a wreath at the tomb of the Unknowns Each Memorial Day. Each year, however, more than 2000 other wreath presentations are made. American Legion and VFW posts, girl scouts, students, labor unions and others make pilgrimages to Arlington to honor the fallen heroes. Each wreath stands alone by the tomb for a period of time. And each time a wreath is set in place, one of the Old Guard helps place it, and a bugler plays “Taps.”
THE ARLINGTON ESTATE
The property encompassing Arlington National Cemetery belonged originally to George Washington Parke Custis—the adopted grandson of George and Martha Washington. He planned to name his property Mount Washington in honor of the first president, but he was persuaded to name it Arlington in recognition of the family’s ancestral estate in the tidewater region of Virginia.
When he died in 1857, his daughter, Mary Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee, inherited the 1100-acre estate. They had been married in the main hall of Arlington House.
When Lee accepted command of the Confederate Army in 1861, he probably wondered if he would ever return to Arlington. He didn’t. The Union Army took possession of the estate, and by May 1861 the property had become a hospital and fort for the defense of Washington D.C.
The United States government officially confiscated the land in 1862, when Congress levied a tax of $92.07 against the property. Friends of the Lees tried to pay the tax bill, but their payment wasn’t accepted because taxes had to be paid in person by the owner—which, of course, wasn’t going to happen.
In June 1864, Quartermaster of the Army, Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs, recommended to Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, that Arlington become a National Cemetery. Initially, 200 acres around the Arlington mansion were planned as a burial ground.
In 1876, George Washington Custis Lee, the rightful heir to the estate sued the U.S. Government for confiscating his land. He won his lawsuit and the government had to buy the cemetery land from him for the $150-thousand he demanded.
Without doubt, the Tomb of the Unknowns is the most poignant of sights at Arlington. But the most compelling is Arlington House. Built by Custis, the house is easy to see from Washington D.C. The house is 140-feet across the front, and it has a distinctive, eight column, Classical-Revival portico. George Hadfield, Custis’s architect, designed it and it was as much political statement as it was dwelling.
Custis disliked Thomas Jefferson and his politics. Thus, he built Arlington House not so much in a style he liked, but in a style Jefferson hated. The house sits high on a hill in Arlington, and overlooked what to many in the 1800s had become Jefferson City. Everyone in D.C., including Jefferson, couldn’t help but notice Arlington House staring down on the U.S. Capitol.
Though there are more than 200,000 graves in Arlington, two draw visitors of all ages and nationalities. President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert, are buried near one another on a hill overlooking Washington.
As dramatic as the president’s tomb is, Bobby’s is simple—just a plain white cross and headstone marks it. An eternal flame and precisely positioned granite slabs secure JFK’s resting place. Buried with the president are his widow Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and their two children who died in infancy.
From in front of his tomb, the Washington Monument can be seen. On the low wall enclosing the gravesite are famous Kennedy quotations. About nine months before his assassination, he visited Arlington. Entranced by it, Kennedy probably felt strengthened, uplifted, moved by the sense of energy there—as are millions of other visitors. So it’s no wonder he said, almost prophetically: “I could stay here forever.”
THE FIRST BURIAL
On May 13, 1864 Private William Christman, a 20-year old member of the Company G., 67th Pennsylvania Infantry became the first military person buried at Arlington. James Parks, a former slave at the Arlington Estate, dug the first graves at Arlington. He is also buried there.
For most of cemetery’s existence, any veteran could be buried there, but no longer. Due to the space limitations (it’s estimated the cemetery will be full by 2021), certain criteria have to be met before burial is permitted. Congressional Medal of Honor winners, and others with high military decorations, retired officers, and active military are some of the few who can still be entombed there.
Exceptions are made in extraordinary circumstances. In September 2002 the unidentified remains of those killed in the 9/11/01 terrorist attack on the Pentagon were buried there. The ceremony wasn’t a memorial service, but rather “a group burial for victims not identified,” said Col. Jody Davis, a spokeswoman for the Military District of Washington. A national memorial stone has also been installed to honor those killed in the Pentagon and aboard American Airlines Flight 77.
Charles Barnard, writing about Arlington National Cemetery in Smithsonian Magazine, noted: “It will not sadden a visitor as much as it will uplift. It will be good for any citizen, a spiritually cleansing retreat.”
And he is right. There’s no feeling of depression, or heavy sadness at Arlington. Rather there’s a sense of energy, admiration and pride. A knowing that while those in Arlington are dead, they haven’t been forgotten, and our debt of gratitude to them hasn’t passed away.