Military honors salute those served

The haunting notes of taps wafting over a solemn group of mourners and the reverent folding of the American flag for the next of kin are the two basic ways the nation formally honors the passing of those who have served the country.

Many people also have seen on television or in person the horse-drawn artillery caisson carrying a flag-draped casket, the riderless horse with riding boots backward in the stirrups and raised rifles firing in a final salute.

These and other elements make up the “military honors” bestowed on fallen military and high government officials at their final resting place, whether in Arlington National Cemetery or other cemeteries across the country, according to interviews and information from multiple sources including the U.S. Army Military District of Washington.


The melancholy call of taps, sounded on a bugle or trumpet, was written during the Civil War when the Union Army's then-Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield wanted to replace the more formal and colorless “Tattoo” that signaled lights out and go to sleep at day's end.

While in camp at Harrison's Landing, Virginia, in July 1862, Butterfield penned the call on the back of an envelope and worked out the notes with his brigade bugler.

The call, officially adopted by the U.S. Army in 1864, became known as taps because it was often tapped out on a drum when a bugler was not available.

The use of taps at a military funeral developed that year when a unit occupying an advanced, concealed position buried one of its soldiers.

Because it was unsafe to fire the customary three rifle volleys over the grave, the unit commander decided that taps was the most appropriate substitute ceremony.

The custom quickly spread through the Army of the Potomac and official orders later confirmed it.

Caparisoned Horse

The solemn walk of a fully saddled riderless horse with the riding boots reversed in the stirrups is a military honor dating back to antiquity.

The caparisoned — ornamentally covered — horse symbolizes the ancient custom of sacrificing a horse at a warrior's burial and that the warrior had fallen and would not ride again.

In the time of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, the Mongols and Tartars believed the sacrificed horse's spirit followed its master and served him in the afterworld.

Tradition allows a caparisoned horse to follow the casket of an Army or Marine Corps officer with the rank of colonel or above and of a U.S. president in funeral processions.

Firing Party

The firing of rifle volleys over the grave as part of rendering military funeral honors is rooted as far back as the Roman Empire, when casting dirt three times on a coffin was part of the burial ritual.

The practice evolved into the custom of calling a truce during early battles with firearms to remove the dead and wounded from the field.

One army would fire a volley to signal its side had completed its work and were ready to resume combat. The second army would fire a volley to show it was finished, and the first army would fire a volley to acknowledge that combat could begin.

The military honors volleys — seven riflemen firing three volleys — is not the same as the 21-gun national salute rendered in honor of a national flag, the chief of state of a foreign nation or a president.

The Caisson

Using a horse-drawn artillery caisson to carry a flag-draped casket of fallen military officers, top non-commissioned officers and high civilian leaders evolved from its use as a makeshift ambulance to carry dead and wounded off battlefields.

That developed into the tradition of a caisson carrying the coffin as a military honor, but Arlington National Cemetery is the only national cemetery that still uses it.

The cemetery's black caissons, built in 1918, originally were used to pull 75 mm cannons and were equipped with ammunition chests, spare wheels and tools.

Six horses pull the caisson and although all are saddled, only the three on the left have riders. In the early days of horse-drawn artillery, the other three would have carried provisions and feed. Alongside the team, a seventh horse carries the section leader.

Folded Flag

Part of the full military honors ritual at funerals is the draping of the casket with the flag and its presentation to the next of kin following the service.

The Army officially adopted the tradition in 1918 as a sign of the nation's gratitude for the deceased's service, but the custom dates back more than two centuries when flags covered the dead as they were carried from the battlefield on horse-drawn artillery caissons.

The tradition of folding the flag in a triangular fashion is symbolic of the tri-corner hat worn by Revolutionary War soldiers.

The folding is done in a ceremonial way with reverence and care taken to ensure no wrinkles blemish the flag. At the end, the flag is cradled to the chest to straighten any errant folds or wrinkles before being presented to the next of kin.

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery began during the Civil War when the federal government confiscated the 1,100-acre estate and home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, for failure to pay $92.07 in taxes.

An earthen fort was built on the estate and Lee's home, Arlington House, was taken over as the headquarters for Washington's defense, said Tom Sherlock, the cemetery historian.

In 1864, the mansion and 200 acres immediately surrounding it were designated a military cemetery.

The Lee family contested the federal government's confiscation in the 1870s and won its case in the 1880s.

“But at that time, there were many burials on the ground and it would have been impractical to remove them,” Sherlock said. “They settled for the market value of the estate, which at that time was $150,000.”

Since then, more than 300,000 of the nation's veterans from the American Revolution through Iraq have been interred in the cemetery's 624 acres. Only Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, New York, has more graves with almost 330,000.

Arlington conducts an average of 27 to 30 burials a day with just more than 6,600 funerals in 2006.

The most visited sites in Arlington are the Tomb of the Unknowns, which contains unknown soldiers from World War I, World War II and the Korean War, and the grave of President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated November 22, 1963, and buried three days later.

“About 4.5 million visitors each year will visit each of those locations,” Sherlock said.

President William Howard Taft, who served from 1908 to 1912, is the only other president buried in Arlington.

Other notables include Audie Murphy, the nation's most-decorated soldier in World War II; Joe Louis, who held the Heavyweight Champion of the World title longer than any other boxer, and Captain Maximiliano Luna, the only Mexican American officer in Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War.

The Old Guard

With impeccable dress uniforms, solemn demeanors and precise movements, the soldiers of The Old Guard present military honors at Army funerals in Arlington National Cemetery.

Rain, sleet, snow or blazing hot and humid days, they roll the caissons, carry the caskets, fold the flags and fire the rifle volleys over the graves in final tribute to the nation's military veterans and high government officials.

“We get to go out and render final honors to those people who served around the world,” said Army Sgt. Justin Shaw, who commands a seven-member rifle firing team. “We put our best foot forward for those people and those families. It's a good feeling to be able to go out and do that.”

But the soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment — its official name — also remain true to their role as infantrymen by providing security for the Washington, D.C., area during national emergencies, such as the September 11 terrorist attacks, and civil disturbances.

The unit has 50 campaign streamers spanning history from the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers to World II and Vietnam service to current deployments in the Horn of Africa.

Then-Major General Winfield Scott gave the unit its name during a victory parade at Mexico City in 1847 for its performance in the Mexican War.

Today, soldiers of the Old Guard are most visible to the public as they perform their duties as the Army's official ceremonial unit and escort to the president.

All the men and women in the regiment are volunteers from within the Army and have to meet strict selection requirements that include minimum height, fitness and general military appearance.

Once selected, they go through a three-week program to learn the details of uniform preparation, marching and other things needed to do their jobs

Those can cover everything from being a member of the casket escort team, which handles the coffin and performs the flag folding ceremony to riding the horses that pull the caisson used to carry the coffin to the grave.

How do they manage to do everything with such precision?

“It requires a lot of practice and a lot of patience and a lot of experience,” Shaw said. “They get it ingrained in their minds so that they don't really think about it. They just do it.”

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