To visit Arlington National Cemetery is to know these United States more deeply. It is a place of remembrance and a microcosm of American history.
Beneath the shade of firs, maples, oaks and many other trees, the necropolis gently sprawls across 624 acres. The site is in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. Journalist Nicholas Proffit characterized the numerous memorials and gravestones as “gardens of stone” in his novel of the same name. Proffit served as a member of the Army’s Old Guard who carry out ceremonial duties at the cemetery.
The cross-section of American society buried at Arlington is immense.
Consider a few of the names of well-known Americans. Abner Doubleday, credited with founding baseball, fired the first shot in defense of Fort Sumter against the Confederate attack. World War II hero Audie Murphy single-handedly fought a company of Germans. It is the burial site of assassinated President John F. Kennedy.
Also important are the names of less well-known men and women. Ira Hayes, a Native American, was one of the six Marines who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. Henry Johnson, an African-American, fought in World War I and was the first American soldier to receive the Croix de Guerre, France’s greatest military honor. In 2015, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantly fending off an attack despite suffering more than 20 wounds. Maj. Marie Rossi-Cayton died in a helicopter crash in support of Operation Desert Storm. Her grave stone states: “First Female Combat Commander to Fly in Battle.”
The list goes on and on and with every headstone and memorial, a story worth knowing. To see it in person is weighty and breathtaking.
During the Civil War, the federal government occupied Arlington Heights, which included a plantation called Arlington House. The plantation was the property of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary Anna Custis, a distant relative of George Washington. The couple vacated the plantation with the onset of the war in 1861. On the grounds, the government constructed forts to protect the capital and a Freedman’s Village, as a place to help slaves transition into a freer, but not equal, society.
The toll of the Civil War was costly, and the government needed a place to accommodate graves for the growing number of men killed in battle. War Department officials identified Lee’s estate as a suitable location for a cemetery, with the first burials taking place in 1864. It was also a political move to deny the land to the Confederacy’s foremost commander and his family. The government was able to purchase the land at auction for $26,800, because the Lee family failed to pay an outstanding tax bill of some $92. Later, in 1882, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Lee family relative who sued the government for improperly seizing the estate. George Washington Custis Lee then sold the property, which by this date contained numerous graves of soldiers, to the federal government for $150,000.
Both white and black troops lost in wars are buried at Arlington, but the spaces were segregated until 1948, reflecting the dominant racial attitudes of past eras. The government created a separate section for the burial of U.S. Colored Troops, the official government designation for African-American soldiers in the Civil War. The practice of separating white from black in burial continued for 82 years until President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the military.
With its origins as a Civil War cemetery, Confederate soldiers are buried at Arlington, too. Following the Civil War, the government denied families of these men the right to decorate the graves. In 1901, however, Confederate graves were formally recognized. Also honored was Gen. Robert E. Lee whose strategies resulted in hundreds of thousands of Union casualties. Arlington House was first dedicated as a memorial to Lee in 1925. Twenty years later, it was dedicated as a permanent national memorial and is the only national memorial to honor a Confederate leader.
Many wars and conflicts followed, such as the Spanish American War, World War I, and World War II. A memorial for the men killed on the USS Maine in Havana Harbor contains the ship’s mast, which can be seen on the map below. Its destruction was blamed on Spain and led to the Spanish-American War. In the thick of so many graves of our heroes, one finds headstones of Gen. John J. Pershing and Col. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington. Pershing commanded the American forces and helped to defeat the Kaiser during World War I. Boyington was a Marine Corps fighter ace in World War II and the subject of the 1970s television series “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”
The government expanded the cemetery on different occasions to accommodate the graves and inurnments of those killed in modern wars and conflicts. The headstones identify places from around the globe, such as Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, among others. These are a testament to the dangerous missions our military personnel may face overseas. Among them lies Army Capt. Maria Inés Ortiz who lost her life in Baghdad in 2007. Ortiz, born to Puerto Rican parents, was the first U.S. Army nurse to die in combat since the Vietnam War.
Perhaps a greater tragedy than death in war is the fact of unidentifiable remains. As a measure to acknowledge the unknown killed in war, Congress approved the building of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the plaza of the new Memorial Amphitheater in 1921. Lying beneath the massive marble sarcophagus is an unidentified soldier from World War I. Inscribed on the west panel is the epitaph: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” West of the World War I Unknown are the crypts of Unknowns from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
The Army is responsible for the Arlington’s upkeep and maintenance. It has posted online an interactive map that allows the public to research graves, Medal of Honor recipients, monuments, and memorial trees. A common question about Arlington National Cemetery concerns who may be buried there. The Army defines those who are eligible: “Soldiers who die while on active duty, retired members of the Armed Forces, and certain Veterans and Family members are eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.” The complete criteria is available here.
If one decides to go, know that Arlington National Cemetery is not a tourist attraction. It is a place that deserves veneration and in return offers a unique education about this land for those who take it in with quiet respect.