Being after midnight now I’m late to the party here, I know. But better late than never, right?
Overlooking the nation’s capital from its serene 624-acre hilltop perch, Arlington National Cemetery is located on the resplendent west bank of the Potomac River. The hallowed ground serves as the final resting place for numerous presidents, Supreme Court justices, astronauts and other public servants, including more than 400,000 military personnel, veterans and their immediate families. This national landmark is the country’s largest and most important military cemetery. Still an active burial ground, it conducts over 25 funerals each weekday. The cemetery, Arlington Memorial Bridge, the Hemicycle and Arlington House make up the Arlington National Cemetery Historic District that was added to the National Historic Register in 2014.
Arlington National Cemetery occupies land once owned by George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted grandson of Martha and George Washington. He built the Arlington House as a memorial to the nation’s first president. In 1857, the property was bequeathed to his daughter Mary Anna Randolph Custis who had married Robert E. Lee 26 years earlier. With the secession of Virginia from the Union, the family evacuated the property. Federal troops incorporated the land into their defensive fortifications around Washington. Part of the property was used as a Freedman’s Village where former slaves received assistance after their liberation.
As the number of casualties climbed during the Civil War, the federal government needed additional cemetery space to inter the dead. To meet this demand, 200 acres of the plantation was set aside as a cemetery. In May 1864, Private William Christman was the first military casualty to be buried in the newly created graveyard. The following month, the War Department designated the space as a national cemetery. After the war, George Washington Custis Lee sued the federal government for return of the land, which he argued had been seized illegally. In 1882, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor and the federal government paid Lee $150,000 for the property, which is equivalent to $3.2 million in 2016. Further along the landmark’s timeline, President Herbert Hoover oversaw the first Memorial Day ceremony on May 30, 1929.
Despite the many distinguished and revered war heroes and two former U.S. Presidents buried there, there is nowhere within the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery that is more frequented by visitors than The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Located on a hill on high ground at almost the perfect geographic center of the cemetery, the tomb exemplifies valor and honor by remembering those who died committing brave and selfless acts with no one to bear witness to them. What is it about this place that so intrigues the many who visit it every year? What’s the story behind it and what does it take to become one of the select few to stand watch over it?
The idea of the tomb itself was initially inspired by the multitudes of unknown dead that had amassed by the end of World War I (WWI). It was in Great Britain, however, where the idea of honoring these forgotten warriors first took root in 1920. The following year, a burial ceremony was planned in the United States for an American unknown who died in Europe during the First World War. On Memorial Day, 1921, four unknowns were exhumed from an American cemetery in France. The four were placed in identical caskets and placed before a highly decorated WWI veteran tasked with selecting one of the caskets for burial in Arlington National Cemetery. That person was U.S. Army Sergeant Edward F. Younger.
After the ceremonial selection was made, the body was to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda until midnight on November 10, 1921. On the following day, Armistice Day, the casket was placed in a caisson and transported to Arlington National Cemetery. During the procession, the casket was escorted by members of the military, President Warren G. Harding, Vice President Coolidge, Chief Justice Taft, and the remaining justices of the Supreme Court. Members of the Cabinet, Senate, and House along with several hand-picked Generals were also on hand to witness the presenting of the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross to the unknown dead. Also honored were unknowns each from Great Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, and Romania which marked the only time these medals were issued to foreign combatants.
I was casting about for some way that would be a departure from the usual form to note Veteran’s Day all this week when I ran across an article mentioning this year being the centennial anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which immediately set the bells in my head to clanging. The linked/excerpted piece above is chock-full of interesting facts and history, at least some of which you’re almost guaranteed not to already know. Highly, highly recommended.
Although it’s certainly true that the nation they served has on occasion failed to live up to its solemn duty to be worthy of their service—perhaps never more so than we’re doing right now, alas—that shaming failure in no way, shape, or form besmirches the nobility and worth of said service, nor of those who freely offer it. My humblest and most sincere gratitude to all those who served, always.