Arlington National Cemetery, alive with history in new book

By Craig Wilson, USA TODAY
12 November 2009

It has been called the “saddest acre in America.” The graves here in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery are fresh, many decorated with autumnal mums and pumpkins.

Family and friends wander among the clean white headstones, often sitting down in the new grass to spend time with loved ones killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Robert Poole has seen the tableau played out dozens of times. As author of the new book On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery (Walker, 352 pp., $28), published in time for Veterans Day, Poole spent the past few years wandering Arlington's 624 acres, from Section 60's new graves in the cemetery's flat and remote south end, to the first military grave (year: 1864), perched on a hillside to the far north.

“It's easy to get lost here,” says Poole, 60, a former executive editor at National Geographic. “There are all kinds of nooks and crannies. But I just wandered. I did a lot of that. You get your best stuff that way.”

Arlington remains America's premier military cemetery, a reassuring and iconic piece of land that gives comfort to the families left behind, people like Thya Merz of Brooklyn, whose son Julian Brennan was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan Jan. 24. He was 25.

She “knew right away” where he'd be buried.

“His grandfather is buried here,” Merz said while visiting her son's grave recently, a large round button bearing the young Marine's face pinned to her coat. “He always said his grandfather inspired him to be a better man.” (His grandfather, James Brennan, a Marine who fought in World War II, is buried in Section 66, just across the road from Section 60.)

Shannon Brennan, the late Marine's sister who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, says Arlington is special because “you connect with other families here. We all need some time for quiet reflection.”

‘Every one has a story'

Arlington National Cemetery has been a place of quiet reflection for almost 150 years. It now has nearly 4 million visitors annually and 300,000 “residents,” as Poole calls them. “And every last one of them has a story.”

Poole's book tells the stories of many of those buried in 70 sections across these rolling hills just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. On Hallowed Ground is part history lesson, part tourist guide, part mystery novel.

And though it was a four-year project, Poole says his book “just scratches the surface” – from the cemetery's Civil War beginnings in the 1860s to today's tourist must-see, the Changing of the Guard.

As is tradition on Veterans Day, President Obama is expected to lay a wreath this morning on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The solemnity of today's ceremony is a far cry from the political maneuverings of the cemetery's early years. To discourage the Custis-Lee family from returning to the family plantation that became the cemetery, for instance, Yankee officers were buried near Confederate General Robert E. Lee's mansion, which still sits atop the cemetery grounds.

The rest is history. Rich history.

Two presidents are buried here – John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft – along with eight Supreme Court justices and more than a handful of famous names: Abner DoubledayAudie MurphyGlenn Miller and boxer Joe Louis, to name just a few.

But Pierre L'Enfant has the best view, at the top of the hill in front of Lee's mansion, overlooking the capital city he helped design.

L'Enfant designed the city across the river, but it was Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect of New York's Central Park, who gave Arlington its signature look – crisp white headstones that appear to go on for miles.

“He thought it should be simple, uncluttered,” Poole says, wandering among the headstones.

But Poole notes that the “studiously” simple look disappears on occasion. Breaking rank, high-ranking officers often have prime real estate with pretentious, large headstones. One notable exception: famed World War I General John “Black Jack” Pershing, who has a “simple white government-issue tombstone available to any private” and is buried among his enlisted men. (Among the cemetery's early “residents” are 3,800 slaves who have only “Citizen” or “Civilian” chiseled on their modest markers.)

Poole says his book is “like any story. You see patterns.”

He wrote it chronologically, by war. The largest group of soldiers at Arlington are from the Civil War, followed closely by World War II veterans.

Poole says most visitors to Arlington make a point to see only three things: JFK's grave, the Custis-Lee Mansion (now called Arlington House) and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He finds that “regrettable.”

It takes time to understand the cemetery, he says. Years even – from Union Private William Christman's grave in the lower cemetery, the first military burial at Arlington, to Section 64, where victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the nearby Pentagon are buried.

Poole knows he is treading on sacred ground, and he pays proper respect as he tours the hillsides on foot. He wears a coat and tie. He is also known to upright tipped-over flowers left at some headstones.

Remembrances shared

What's left at gravesites at Arlington has become the subject of debate, especially in Section 60, where everything from teddy bears to family photos and the random can of beer has appeared.

John Metzler Jr., 62, the cemetery's superintendent for almost 19 years, says that although the cemetery has strict regulations, he has made a conscious decision to “allow a little bit more freedom” in Section 60.

“It's a difficult time and an emotional place,” he says, although “some people have taken it a little bit far.”

About 6,000 new graves are dug at Arlington every year. But with the ongoing expansion projects on 70 acres, burials should continue until 2060, says Metzler, who grew up on the cemetery grounds. (His father was also the superintendent for 21 years.)

“Space is a constant concern,” Poole says.

President Kennedy's burial 46 years ago this month spurred so much interest in Arlington that stricter burial requirements had to be instituted.

Still, there are often as many as 27 burials a day, five days a week. Caissons drawn by black or gray horses and bearing a flag-draped casket are common scenes, as tourists stand still with bowed heads as they pass.

“People understand it's a special place, a place of dignity,” Metzler says.

“It's like choreographing a play,” says Poole, who says every funeral procession moves him. “They try to make each one special, each one individual, and they succeed. It's not a ‘funeral factory,' as Ted Sorensen called it,” referring to the volume of burials every day.

Sorensen was a Kennedy adviser, but it was Kennedy's secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, who suggested the murdered president be buried at Arlington. (His brother, Senator Edward Kennedy, who died in August, is buried near the president and their brother Robert.)

Although the Kennedy graves are a prime tourist destination, Section 60 has its fair share of visitors, too.

Marine Sergeant William Cahir was on foot patrol when he was shot and killed in Afghanistan on August 13, 2009. He was 40. His sister, Kathryn Cahir of Austin, was visiting his grave the other day.

“He had expressed the wish to be buried here, and his wife followed his wishes,” says Cahir, whose widowed sister-in-law is expecting twin girls in December.

“They live nearby and will be able to visit their dad regularly,” she says.

“It's a good thing.”


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