A slow cadence of drumbeat counterpoints the mournful notes of trumpets and horns as a unit of the 3rd U.S. Infantry, Old Guard, escorts a horse-drawn caisson along a tree lined road in Arlington National Cemetery. At the burial site the casket is drawn from the caisson in three precise movements, held a moment at caisson-level, then lowered and carried to the grave site.
The flag is lifted from the coffin and held taut by the escort during the rifle volleys and the playing of Taps. As the band plays two choruses of “America the Beautiful” the flag is folded into a crisp, blue triangle with four stars showing. The officer in charge of the cortege hands the flag to the next of kin saying, “This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation, as a token of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one.”
An average of fifteen burials a day take place at Arlington National Cemetery. Since 1864, when the first coffin was interred, more than 200,000 burials have taken place in the more than 600 acres of land devoted to America's honored dead: privates and generals, astronauts and presidents, civilians with military service or relationships are ranked in row upon row in the manicured lawns. By the year 2021 the cemetery will be full and the burial ground that began as an act of vengeance will be designated a national shrine.
Origin of the name “Arlington”
Arlington National Cemetery is part of a tract of land with a history of ownership dating to 1669. In that year the royal governor of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley, awarded a grant of 6,000 acres to Captain Robert Howsing in recognition of Howsing's bringing settlers from England to the colony aboard his ship. Howsing apparently preferred the life of a seaman to that of landowner, however, and sold the tract to John Alexander in exchange for six hogsheads of tobacco.
In 1778, the 1,100 acre tract which today contains the Fort Meyer Military Reservation and Arlington Cemetery was purchased by John Parke Custis who was Martha Washington's son by her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. John Custis was an aide-de-camp to General George Washington and died in the battle of Yorktown in 1781. Two of his four children, George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor Parke Custis, were adopted by George and Martha Washington following his death. It was young George who brought the name “Arlington” to the property.
George Custis inherited Martha Washington's property upon her death in 1802 and came into possession of his step-grandfather's memorabilia. In 1804, he built a Greek Revival-style house on the Custis estate overlooking the Potomac River to store the memorabilia and named it Arlington House; “Arlington” comes from the name of the original Custis estate on the Virginia coast, granted to the family by the Earl of Arlington.
Two of the leading families of this nation's history were linked by Mary Ann Randolph Custis, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis and Mary Fitzhugh. In 1831, Mary Custis married Lieutenant Robert E. Lee thus joining the Washington and Lee families as well as setting the stage for the appropriation of land which once belonged to George Washington (through marriage) for use as a national burial ground.
The Union Seizes Arlington in Lieu of $92.07 in Taxes
George Washington Parke Custis adhered to the English tradition of leaving his property to surviving generations of the family. At his death in 1857 General and Mrs. Robert E. Lee were given a “life tenancy” to the Arlington property and were in turn obligated to pass the land on to their son, George Washington Custis Lee who was to follow the tradition of inheritance with his successors. The Civil War and a Union Army general named Meigs were destined to break the chain, however.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, General Winfield Scott offered General Robert E. Lee command of the Army of the Potomac; Lee refused, citing the neutrality of his home state of Virginia, and intended to stay out of the divisive war. On April 20, 1861 Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army vowing he would take up arms again only in defense of the state of Virginia.
Lee took his family and their heirlooms (including the Washington collection) to the relative safety of another Virginia estate they owned, putting distance between themselves and the Union Army a short distance across the Potomac. When the Virginia legislature voted to join the Confederacy after refusing to help the Union attack their southern neighbors, Lee honored his vow to protect his state by accepting command of the Confederate forces.
In 1862, the Union government seized Arlington House by authority of the “Act for the Collection of Direct Taxes in the Insurrectionary Districts within the United States” and held it against payment of $92.07 in taxes, plus penalties. The government insisted the taxes be paid in person by a member of the Lee family, either the General or Mrs. Lee. Because crossing the”line” between North and South would mean capture and detainment for the duration of the war, the Lees had no choice but to allow the tax commissioners to give the property to the government for “war, military, charitable and educational purposes.”
Instrumental in the confiscation of Arlington House was a man who had harbored a strong jealousy for Robert E. Lee for a number of years and wanted to punish him for joining the Confederacy. Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs, quartermaster general of the army, was assigned to find more burial sites for the mounting number of war dead. Knowing burials on the Lee estate would forever prevent General Lee and his family regaining possession, he chose Arlington. On May 13, 1864, Private William Christman of Company G, 67th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry became the first person to be buried in the cemetery.
Private Christman was soon joined by thousands of other Union soldiers who had died in the military hospitals of Washington and Alexandria, fallen on the battlefields of Virginia, as well as others from cemeteries in Maryland and the District of Columbia. A large vault containing the bodies of 2,111 unidentified Union soldiers was erected in the rose garden within a few yards of Arlington House. With the end of the war, many of the Confederate soldiers who had died as prisoners of war in area hospitals were moved from Arlington to be reinterred in their home states leaving only 409. More than 16,000 Union casualties had been buried in the cemetery.
Law Sides with Lee: U.S. Must Pay for Arlington
Robert E. Lee died in 1870 and was buried in the chapel of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. With Mrs. Lee's death three years later, George Washington Custis Lee inherited the Arlington House and estate. Using his grandfather's will as a claim on the property, the former major general of the Confederacy filed suit to regain ownership. After five long years of litigation, and continued burials on the site, the Supreme Court ruled in Lee's favor; the federal government was trespassing and was ordered to leave. Faced with the tremendous, if not impossible, task of removing the dead and restoring the house and grounds to their former elegance, the government acceded to Lee's demand for $150,000 in exchange for title to the estate. On March 3, 1883 Congress appropriated the funds and on March 31 the deed was signed. As a sign of national healing, Arlington House was later dedicated to Robert E. Lee's memory.
Arlington National Cemetery has become the honored place of burial for veterans of every war and conflict in American history. Soldiers from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 were reinterred in Arlington. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson dedicated a special memorial to the Confederate dead of the Civil War, and the 409 Southern dead still interred in the cemetery were reburied around it. In 1910 the mast from the battleship Maine was brought to the cemetery and erected as a memorial to the 229 men whose deaths were one of the causes of the Spanish-American War.
Two foreign heroes of World War II were laid to rest at the base of the Battleship Maine Memorial. Manual Quezon, first president of the Philippines, died in 1944 and was entombed at Arlington until the end of the war. Ignace Jan Paderewski, premier of Poland at the beginning of the war, died in 1941 and will remain at the cemetery (officially, lying in state) until Poland is declared free again.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is perhaps the most famous of the many monuments in Arlington National Cemetery. In 1921 four caskets containing the unidentified remains of four American soldiers killed during World War One were brought from four different French cemeteries to the City Hall at Chalons-sur-Marne, France. Sergeant Edward Younger, a wounded veteran of that war, walked around the caskets three times then placed a bouquet of white roses on one of them. After being honored by the French with that country's highest award for valor, the flag-draped coffin was brought to the United States and buried at Arlington on November 11, 1921. The sarcophagus of white marble was dedicated in 1932 with the famous inscription:
“Here Rests in
Known but to God”
Monuments to the unknown dead of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam have joined the original tomb as a focal point for honoring those who gave their lives for our country. Each Memorial Day, the President of the United States places a wreath in front of the Tomb of the Unknowns; a tradition which began with Woodrow Wilson and continues to this day. More than 2,000 wreaths are placed at the tomb every year by various groups and individuals on the average of one every thirty minutes in good weather.
The 3rd U.S. Infantry, Old Guard, in addition to conducting about 30% of the burial ceremonies at Arlington, is charged with guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns. Twenty-four hours a day, in all weather, a member of the elite Tomb Guard marches twenty-one slow paces in one direction, pauses for twenty-one seconds (symbolic of the twenty-one gun salute), shifts his bayoneted rifle to the shoulder away from the tomb and begins his march in the opposite direction. The guard is relieved after one hour (one-half hour in summer) in a silent, solemn ritual conducted by an officer. The Tomb Guards train for two years and serve an average of eighteen months before being transferred to other duties.
Fort Meyer is an active military guard post. In 1926, before the Guard was protecting the site, vandals defaced the monument. Following that incident, the fort was activated and soldiers began patrolling the grounds at night in regular uniforms, in addition to posting the guard in dress uniform at the Tomb.
Over four million people visit Arlington National Cemetery each year. A large portion of that number take advantage of the forty-minute bus tour which winds its way around the fifteen miles of roads making various stops, always taking care to avoid funeral processions. Three stops are mandatory, however; the Kennedy grave sites, the Tomb of the Unknowns and Arlington House where the history of the nation's most revered cemetery began.
Read our general and most popular articles
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard