Overlooking the nation’s capital from its serene 624-acre hilltop perch, Arlington National Cemetery is located on the resplendent west bank of the Potomac River. The hallowed ground serves as the final resting place for numerous presidents, Supreme Court justices, astronauts and other public servants, including more than 400,000 military personnel, veterans and their immediate families. This national landmark is the country’s largest and most important military cemetery. Still an active burial ground, it conducts over 25 funerals each weekday. The cemetery, Arlington Memorial Bridge, the Hemicycle and Arlington House make up the Arlington National Cemetery Historic District that was added to the National Historic Register in 2014.
History of an Honored Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery occupies land once owned by George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted grandson of Martha and George Washington. He built the Arlington House as a memorial to the nation’s first president. In 1857, the property was bequeathed to his daughter Mary Anna Randolph Custis who had married Robert E. Lee 26 years earlier. With the secession of Virginia from the Union, the family evacuated the property. Federal troops incorporated the land into their defensive fortifications around Washington. Part of the property was used as a Freedman’s Village where former slaves received assistance after their liberation.
As the number of casualties climbed during the Civil War, the federal government needed additional cemetery space to inter the dead. To meet this demand, 200 acres of the plantation was set aside as a cemetery. In May 1864, Private William Christman was the first military casualty to be buried in the newly created graveyard. The following month, the War Department designated the space as a national cemetery. After the war, George Washington Custis Lee sued the federal government for return of the land, which he argued had been seized illegally. In 1882, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor and the federal government paid Lee $150,000 for the property, which is equivalent to $3.2 million in 2016. Further along the landmark’s timeline, President Herbert Hoover oversaw the first Memorial Day ceremony on May 30, 1929.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
In 1921, Congress approved the burial of one unknown serviceman killed during World War I in the plaza of the newly built Memorial Amphitheater. To ensure that the choice was truly random amongst the options, four service members were exhumed from four separate cemeteries in France. Army Sergeant Edward Younger, a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, was selected to pick one of the four identical caskets. He placed a spray of white roses on the third casket from the left. While the chosen soldier was transported back from France on the USS Olympia, the others were reburied in the Meuse Argonne Cemetery. The unknown remains were interred beneath a three-tiered, marble tomb. President Harding presided over the interment ceremony on Veterans Day that same year.
The Yule marble memorial sarcophagus was completed in 1932 with the addition of the 79-ton superstructure on top of the original tomb. Because of imperfections, the painstaking process of creating the seven marble blocks for the sarcophagus required several quarrying attempts and lasted a year. The marble came from the same quarry used for the Lincoln Memorial. The four-tiered tomb consists of a base, a sub-base, a cap and a die, which is the largest of the blocks. The facade of the superstructure is adorned with various engravings. The north and south panels have three wreaths, the east panel depicts Greek mythological figures that symbolize peace, victory and valor and the west panel is inscribed with the epitaph that the American soldier is “known only to God.” The engravings were created by the Piccirilli Brothers who also carved the statue of Abraham Lincoln inside the Lincoln Memorial.
The famed landmark is also home to graves for unknown soldiers from World War II and Korea. Medal of Honor recipient Hospital Corpsman First Class William Charette performed the task of selecting one of two caskets that contained the remains of a soldier killed in Europe and another one killed in the Pacific. The chosen remains were sent to Arlington, while the remains of the other were buried at sea. As well the remains of four soldiers killed in Korea were disinterred from Hawaii’s National Cemetery of the Pacific. Army Master Sergeant Ned Lyle selected the casket to be placed in Arlington. Before being interred beneath the tomb, the remains laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda. President Eisenhower presided over a Memorial Day ceremony in 1958 during which the World War II and Korean War remains were interred next to their World War I comrade in arms.
Medal of Honor recipient Marine Corps Sergeant Major Allan Kellogg, Jr. selected the remains that would represent those killed during the Vietnam War. The grave is empty because later DNA testing identified the remains as Air Force First Lieutenant Michael Blassie. Blassie’s family exhumed his remains and reinterred them in the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Because the use of DNA essentially ensures that every fallen service member will be identified in the future, there may never be another unknown soldier. As a result, the crypt is now also used to honor those members of the armed forces who are listed as missing in action.
Other Points of Interest
Arlington National Cemetery contains several well-known burial sites and memorials, including the resting places of President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline as well as his brothers Robert and Edward. Other notable sites include Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, boxing legend Joe Louis and Audie Murphy, the most highly decorated soldier from World War II. Charles L’Enfant, who designed the city of Washington, D.C., several Tuskegee airmen and the seven Space Shuttle Challenger astronauts are also interred here.
The official tour includes a stop at Arlington House, a Greek Revival-style mansion set on a hill overlooking the Potomac River. The permanent memorial to Robert E. Lee is appointed with period furnishings from the early 19th century. Completed in 1921 from Imperial Danby marble, the Memorial Amphitheater hosts state funerals and other special events during the year. The Temple of Fame, the Civil War Unknowns Monument and the Spanish-American War Nurses Memorial and several other large monuments and memorials are dispersed throughout the park. The Women in Military Service for America Memorial is adjacent to the park’s ceremonial entrance.
Events and Holidays
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded 24 hours a day by members of a special detail from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). The sentinel does not wear any rank insignia, which ensures that the guard is junior in rank to whoever is buried in the tomb. A Changing of the Guard Ceremony takes place every half-hour from April 1 to September 30 when the park is open. The guard is changed every hour from October 1 to March 31. The symbolic guard change is conducted in accordance with Army regulations.
The two major holidays formally observed at Arlington National Cemetery are Memorial Day and Veterans Day. On these two occasions, the president of the United States or another high-ranking dignitary will lay a memorial wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Just before Memorial Day, members of the Old Guard adorn the cemetery with over a quarter of a million small American flags. One flag is placed at each headstone as well as the bottom of each niche row. Known as “Flags In,” the decades-old ceremony is accomplished in four hours.
Each branch of the military service holds several memorial services and other events in the amphitheater throughout the year that are open to the public.
Best Times to Visit
The best times to visit Arlington are during the March to May and September to November foliage seasons. The blooms of spring and the changing fall colors provide a dramatic backdrop to the marble and granite markers, monuments and memorials. Many people prefer to visit during the spring and fall because temperatures during these seasons are mild and there tends to be fewer crowds. Summer months are sultry and warm, and winter months are cold and snowy.
Planning Your Trip
When planning your visit, remember to bring comfortable walking shoes and sunscreen. For hydration, keep in mind bottled water is the only refreshment allowed inside the cemetery. Expect to spend at least two to three hours exploring the graves and notable points of interest. Restrooms, a bookstore and drinking fountains are available at the Visitor’s Center.
Although Arlington National Cemetery is a beautiful setting for leisurely outdoor walks, it is still an active cemetery with funerals taking place on a regular basis. As a result, visitors are asked to remain respectful at all times in light of the somber nature of the memorial park. Silence is requested in some portions of the cemetery and visitors must also be silent and standing during the Changing of the Guard Ceremony.
Reaching the Cemetery
The best way to reach Arlington National Cemetery is aboard the Old Town Trolley. Ideal for history buffs and those who enjoy touring the city of Washington, D.C., the trolley will transport you to the city’s most popular attractions and points of interest. When you’ve reached trolley stop #10, take a designated shuttle to stop #11 and begin your journey to the cemetery.
Via public transportation, the best way to access the cemetery is to exit the Arlington Cemetery stop on the Metrorail Blue Line. You can also reach this hallowed ground from Washington, D.C. by crossing the Arlington Memorial Bridge. The entrance to the burial ground is off George Washington Parkway, but driving is not permitted inside the park.
Touring the Grounds
Once you have arrived at the Visitor Center, you can sign up for an Arlington National Cemetery Tour that gives you the opportunity to honor and remember our nation’s fallen heroes. Running in a 45 to 60 minute continuous loop, the tour makes seven stops during the week and 10 stops on weekends. Stops include the gravesite of President John F. Kennedy with its eternal flame, the Iwo Jima Memorial and Arlington House as well as the Memorial Amphitheater and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Check out this interactive Arlington map to find all of the most popular sites within the cemetery.
You can hop off the trolley, spend additional time walking around Arlington House, attend the changing of the guard ceremony or view a particular memorial. When you are ready, you can hop aboard the next trolley and resume the tour. Along the way you’ll travel through history while paying respect to America’s fallen heroes. The tour conductor provides insight into the cemetery’s history, famous graves and significant memorials and monuments. The respectful and educational guided tour will enable you to see more of the cemetery than you would on foot.
Learn about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier