Amateur historians saving cemetery’s history


Strolling through Arlington National Cemetery, you’ll likely see Warren Miller with his camera. He’s somewhat of a fixture here. Like the many squirrels hoarding acorns for the future, Miller moves about the grounds trying to capture for posterity images of a continuously transforming cemetery.

In the Capital’s National Archives, retired Lieutenant Colonel Will Horn seeks history’s marginal notes by peeling page-by-page through millions of yellowed papers in dusty boxes. He is driven by the possibility he might discover a discarded document that could alter or expound on myths surrounding the places and people in Arlington, the last repose for America’s heroes.

These two amateur historians have for the last nine years compiled, created, preserved and organized the cemetery’s past and present life. The duo attacks from different angles, but with the same reverence for detail. Miller photographs how the cemetery is evolving, while Horn saves its past trivia from the storage bins of neglect.

“It’s always a new Arlington. My work is never ending,” said Miller, who’s snapped over 20,000 photos. Horn has in turn labeled and stored the digital images chronologically in a computer database.

Miller and Horn intend to publish a coffee-table book with images and a narrative about the cemetery, possibly within a year. Other historians have already used some of Miller’s photos in their books.

For his part, Horn spends hours sifting through documents and photos at the National Archives, Library of Congress, the cemetery’s historical office and local libraries. He boasts a photo compilation of every president between 1901 and 2000 who laid a wreath in the cemetery, except for one. Maybe Miller will snap one of President George W. Bush to complete the collection. It’s this sort of methodical organizing of the facts and the photos which professional historians drool over.

Horn hopes to soon publish his research notes — a compendium of historical asides which professional historians and academics require to footnote and formulate their theories.

Miller and Horn’s devotion to the cemetery’s details comes not because they take history so seriously, but because they take it quite personally.

“I come from a military family that dates back to the French and Indian War. My mother and my father are both buried here, two rows behind Audie Murphy,” said Horn. “As a child I lived on South Post Fort Myer, which is now part of the cemetery. So, in a sense, I grew up in the cemetery. “

Miller lived in Ballston as a child, and like Horn, has a particular interest in the conflict that sparked the creation of Arlington National Cemetery — the nation’s Civil War.

Both can rifle through encyclopedic minds about the names engraved on granite and marble. And both see more than “stones and bones” when they look out over the grave markers.

“Even growing up, I never saw it as a cemetery. I saw it more as a shrine. That hasn’t changed,” Horn said.

“Arlington Cemetery will always be an active, growing cemetery. Every generation has its war, its heroes and its veterans. This place will always be special,” added Miller.

The cemetery staff and the Military District of Washington are supportive of the two’s work, granting them easy access to the cemetery. In return, the cemetery gets “a lot of grief” and an occasional token, such as “that,” Horn said with a smile, nodding toward framed parchment on the wall. The duo recently gave the cemetery’s staff an artist’s rendering of a document discovered in their research. The document, a tracing on sheepskin, shows engineering designs for a pruning tool meant for use in the cemetery. The design was submitted to the cemetery by Gen. Montgomery Meigs, the Union’s quartermaster general who was “singularly responsible for the creation of the cemetery,” said Miller.

The design is evidence Meigs took great interest in the day-to-day operation of the cemetery even after his tenure.

Horn has uncovered plenty of notes, memos and letters that implode historical typecasts and create breathing human beings.

“If I live long enough, I’ll write a book,” promised Horn.

Whether their effort culminates in publishing deals is secondary: the work continues for the sake of posterity.

“What we want to do is create a body of work that we’ll leave for the historical office. Maybe it’ll be enough reason for someone to see it and pick up where we left off,” said Miller.


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