Arlington National Cemetery History

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  • The first image that pops up in the heads of many upon hearing the words ‘Arlington National Cemetery’ is that of seemingly endless rows of chalk white headstones on rolling, green northern Virginia real estate. One may even be reminded of it on television or social media whenever Memorial Day or Veterans Day comes around every year. It stirs up a complex range of emotions from sorrow and pride to reverence and grace. Of the many landmarks, memorials, museums, and attractions in the Washington DC area, you won’t find more history and more uplifting, powerful stories than you would upon the hallowed grounds of this national treasure.


    At the outset, this land was not reserved for its current purpose. It was the site of what would become Arlington House back in the year 1802. This estate was the property of the adopted son of George Washington, a man named George Washington Parke Custis. Parke Custis would eventually bequeath the property to his daughter which enabled her to live there indefinitely on the condition that she never sell it. His daughter, Mary Custis, was the wife of the U.S. Army officer Robert E. Lee and when Virginia eventually broke from the Union, he became the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and allowed Confederate soldiers to use Arlington House as an outpost with a high ground that gave them a great military advantage over the Union capital during the Civil War.

    Fearing for her life, Mary buried her most valuable possessions on the property grounds and fled to live with her sister elsewhere in the state. Her instinct to leave proved prudent as the estate was later seized by Union Army regulars. Due to the large death toll of soldiers who perished in battle in and around Washington DC, the two cemeteries where war dead were traditionally buried became full to capacity. As a result, Congress passed legislation allowing the federal government to purchase land for the purposes of a national cemetery. It was the shrewd thinking of Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs that proposed the grounds of Arlington House as the new national cemetery.

    Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial at Arlington CemeteryNot only was the site ideal because its elevation protected it from flooding, but it served to further weaken the Confederate cause while emboldening the North by sending a strong message by denying Robert E. Lee of its use.

    The first burial took place at Arlington in 1864. There were, however, legal wranglings that later took place with the government of the United States and the natural heirs of the property resulting in a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling that returned Arlington House back to Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee’s granddaughter, on the grounds that it was illegally confiscated. Once in her possession, the land was later sold back to the government for $150,000 in 1883. Over the years, as the United States entered several wars, the cemetery underwent a massive expansion to the hundreds of acres it occupies today.


    Arlington National Cemetery Section 27After the emancipation, freed slaves were granted land by the government on the estate which came to be known as Freedman’s Village. They subsisted by raising crops and lived there during and after the Civil War. There are 3,800 former slaves buried there on a plot of land known as Section 27. The headstones are designated with the words ‘civilian’ or ‘citizen.’

    Members of the United States Colored Troops (USTC) were also buried in Section 27. The 175 regiments of the USCT made up roughly 10% of the Union Army and after the Civil War came to an end, these soldiers fought in the Indian Wars of the American West. Despite all the contributions and sacrifices of African-American soldiers up through the Second World War, Arlington National Cemetery remained segregated until 1948.


    Gravesite surrounded by beautiful treesSeveral years after the conclusion of the Civil War in 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine exploded off the coast of Cuba, an act of hostility from a foreign power that precipitated the outset of the Spanish-American War. The 10-week long ordeal cost 968 American lives lost to combat along with another 5,000 due to disease. In 1900, The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America voted to erect a memorial to honor the dead from that war at Arlington. Later in 1902, the monument was unveiled and dedicated. This marked the first time that a national memorial was posted by a society of women.

    The All-Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, led by Theodore Roosevelt, also known as the Rough Riders, gained fame for their charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. In 1906, a society was formed on their behalf that successfully lobbied to have a memorial for that group of soldiers erected the following year.

    In 1913, construction began on the Maine Mast Memorial. The base of the mausoleum was designed to replicate a battleship gun turret. The mast itself pierces the top of this structure and becomes, in effect, the second story of this construct. It was completed in 1915.

    While they do qualify for in-ground burial at Arlington, U.S. Presidents are not guaranteed a place on the grounds in the event of their death. Those eligible to be buried there include active duty military and retired reservists, recipients of the military’s highest honors, and former Prisoners of War (POWs.) The only U.S. Presidents buried at Arlington National Cemetery are John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft.


    The day before the scheduled state funeral for her husband was to commence, Jaqueline Kennedy and newly minted President Lyndon B. Johnson were both in the Capitol rotunda with the fallen president’s body lying in state. In a random burst of inspiration, Jackie, as Mrs. Kennedy was often called, came up with the idea of an eternal flame. Partly inspired by a state visit she attended in Paris of the flame that burned at the memorial to the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe and partly because of her and her husband’s fascination with the musical Camelot, she wanted a symbol that would endure and symbolize her husband’s commitment to his country.

    John F. Kennedy GraveU.S. Army engineer Colonel Clayton B. Lyle got a phone call at his house exactly two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. It was from his boss stating that an eternal flame had to be operational at Kennedy’s gravesite by 8 am the following morning. Colonel Lyle’s experiences were in constructing bridges, radar stations, and buildings but he was never entrusted to build a memorial and for such an important and mourned figure.

    He, and a team he cobbled together at the very last minute, toiled for 30 hours straight to build a base for the flame to emerge from but they still had to find propane on a day most businesses were closed. When they finally got their hands on some, the challenge then was to run a line from the top of a hill down to the burial site and hope that when Jackie Kennedy completed her eulogy and applied fire to the torch, it would actually light in a timely fashion. As fortune would have it, it did. The makeshift eternal flame was later re-built and accompanied President Kennedy’s body to his final resting place, just a few feet away from where he was originally buried in Arlington National Cemetery in 1967. The move was made to create a safer, more easily accessible area to accommodate the gravesite’s millions of visitors.


    In 1898, President William McKinley announced that the federal government would begin tending the gravesites of Confederate soldiers as their sacrifice was seen as a symbol of American valor during wartime. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson formally dedicated the Confederate Memorial at Arlington. Several hundred Confederate dead were disinterred and re-buried in their own section near the memorial. It was dedicated in the spirit of reconciliation and the hope for a more united future wherein our nation’s wounds can finally heal. To this day, U.S. presidents traditionally send a wreath to be placed at the memorial every Memorial Day.


    Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier WreathsCongress approved the burial of an unidentified serviceman from WWI to take place at Arlington National Cemetery. A highly decorated Sergeant named Edward F. Younger was asked to select the remains of one of four identical caskets. The chosen unknown was transported to the U.S. with the intention of placing them in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Prior to this, the body lay in state in the Capitol rotunda. On November 11, 1921, Veterans Day, President Warren G. Harding presided over the interment ceremony. At the time, there were discussions to create a superstructure over the tomb and, years later in 1932, Congress approved the funds to go ahead with the project and build the engraved, marble monument we see today.

    In 1958, unknown soldiers from WWII and the Korean War were interred on either side of the original soldier who was buried there from WWI. Since 1948, this sacred ground has been protected 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, under any and all weather conditions without fail by members of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, also known as the Old Guard. It is the oldest active duty regiment in the U.S. Army and those who aspire to become tomb guards must pass a series of rigorous tests over many months where less than 20% of applicants make the cut. Every hour on the hour, a highly choreographed, solemn and powerful changing of the guard occurs as one soldier relieves the other of their post. This ritualized and charged moment is one of the most riveting spectacles you can witness in Arlington National Cemetery and Washington DC.


    Arlington National Cemetery Wreaths Across AmericaThe hallowed grounds of this place continue to resonate with a special power that attracts over three million visitors a year. There are over 400,000 buried here to date with some 25-30 funerals taking place every day.

    Every year in December, National Wreaths Across America Day takes place here as well as in over a thousand other national cemeteries in each of the 50 states. Tens of thousands of volunteers mobilize all over the country in a show of honor and respect for our fallen veterans by laying wreaths at the foot of almost a million headstones.

    A ride with Arlington National Cemetery Tours is essential to capture the full breadth of this place. As the official and only tour operator authorized to give guided tours of the cemetery grounds, your tour runs on a continuous loop for up to an hour and makes between 7 and 10 stops, depending on the day of the week you visit. Highlights include the gravesite of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), General John J. Pershing, and the Arlington House.