150 Years of Burials at Arlington

A history of the Virginia cemetery where 400,000 U.S. servicemen are interred

One hundred fifty years ago, Arlington’s first grave was tilled and hollowed, the first soldier was laid down, and the first headstone was planted. Private William Henry Christman of Monroe County, Pennsylvania was 20 years old on March 25, 1864 when he volunteered with the 67th Regiment in the Union Army. He was described in his enlistment papers as having sandy hair and gray eyes with a scar on the left side of his neck. On April 22, less than a month after enlisting and being sent to training camp, Christman contracted measles and was brought to the Lincoln General Hospital located on Capitol Hill in Washington. By early May, he was dead. On May 13, 1864, Christman made history as the first soldier buried at the new Arlington Cemetery.

Americans have many hallowed grounds, but Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place for over 400,000 service members, veterans, and their families, has long been among the most sacred. Covering more than 600 rolling acres of green Virginian grass, Arlington is the only national cemetery in the country that inters servicemen from every war in U.S. history, from the Revolution to contemporary wars in the Middle East. This year marks the 150th anniversary of burials at Arlington, and over the years, the cemetery has amassed many time-honored traditions, sacred places, and little known facts.

Although it was the bloodiest conflict in American history, two-thirds of Civil War deaths came not from wounds, but from diseases such as tuberculosis, scurvy, dysentery, typhoid fever, and measles. “The Civil War was fought in the very last years of the medical middle ages,” wrote George Washington Adams, author of the book Doctors in the Blue: the Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War. Crowded battlefields and encampments made the outbreak of disease inevitable and death counts were exacerbated by the absence of antiseptics and modern medicine. Graveyards that were meant to handle combat dead now also had to account for the unexpected influx of disease casualties. As the toll began to rise and local internment capacity became overwhelmed, cemeteries like Arlington became a necessity.

Before it was used to inter America’s war dead, the grounds of Arlington Cemetery comprised the 1,100-acre estate of George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted son of George Washington. Custis left the land to his only surviving daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, who married Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate Army. At the start of the war, Lee and his family were forced to flee from Arlington House. Federal troops occupied it soon after to benefit from the home’s strategic vantage point atop the lofty Virginian hills.

During the Civil War years, the Custis-Lee estate was used for myriad purposes, one of which was the building of Freedman’s Village in 1863. As its name suggests, Freedman’s Village was an expansive camp and community for former slaves, featuring churches, a hospital, a mess hall, and several schools. As the war raged on, existing facilities proved insufficient and the government sought more places to bury the growing number of fallen soldiers. Because of its high topographical position and low likelihood of flooding, the old Custis-Lee estate seemed like a good place to excavate and so Arlington National Cemetery was born. The estate remained in the custody of the War Department well past the Civil War’s conclusion, but not without a great fight from the family. After a tremendous amount of legal maneuvering, the federal government bought the estate in 1883 from Mary and Robert Lee’s son, Custis Lee, for $150,000.

Today, Arlington House, with its colossal columns and beautiful views, is still standing on the edge of a hill overlooking the capital. Guests can see a model of Freedman’s Village inside—the original village was shut down in 1900—and visit the nearby gravesite of Pierre L’Enfant, the architect who designed the crisscrossed avenues and roundabouts of Washington, D.C. under the direction of George Washington.

Washington himself is not buried at Arlington, but two presidents have been laid to rest at the cemetery: John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, along with William H. Taft and his wife, Nellie. Kennedy’s Eternal Flame remains one of the most-visited memorials on the grounds. Though his grave is overshadowed by the flame’s popularity, Taft garnered many accomplishments in his own life: He was the only person to serve as both president and chief justice of the United States. When spring comes and the ephemeral blooms of the cherry blossoms begin to emerge, think of Nellie Taft: She was influential in orchestrating the delivery of the Japanese cherry blossom trees to the D.C. Tidal Basin.

Resting in fields near these two presidents and their first ladies are servicemen and women from every war in the history of the United States, their headstones shaded by the canopies of over 8,000 trees. Soldiers killed in the Revolutionary War were brought from a neighboring cemetery to Arlington in 1892, as were those killed in the War of 1812. That’s what makes the cemetery unique among national memorials: It’s a comprehensive representation of American military history, filled with stories of courage and service.

One of these is the story of James R. Tanner. Tanner was a Union Army officer who lost both legs at the Second Battle of Bull Run. Because of his handicap, he became a government stenographer and recorded extensive evidence in the investigation of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. He is buried a few yards away from the cemetery’s old amphitheater, which was renamed the James Tanner Amphitheater in his honor this May.

The cemetery itself is divided into seventy sections, each with its own honored history. Section 27, where William Henry Christman is buried, is one of the oldest plots at Arlington National Cemetery; over 4,000 slaves from the days of Freedman’s Village also rest there. Section 60, one of the newest plots, is the resting place for soldiers who fought in the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Unlike those interred in many of the gravesites at Arlington, soldiers in Section 60 leave behind living widows, children, and family members who are still facing their losses. It is a part of Arlington National Cemetery that exhibits great love, pride, and sorrow.

Though the majority of the 400,000 Americans buried at the cemetery were active-duty service members, Arlington also contains a diverse representation of American life that transcends the military. Adolphus W. Greely, a founding member of the National Geographic Society, won the Medal of Honor at ninety-one years old and rests today in Section 1. The seven astronauts who died aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 are buried in Section 46, near the Amphitheater. A memorial also stands for the Space Shuttle Columbia crew who perished upon atmospheric re-entry in 2003. Marguerite Higgins, a war correspondent who became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, is buried in Section 2. A commitment to national service is the common thread that binds them all together.

Around thirty funeral services take place at Arlington National Cemetery every day. Saturdays are thankfully slower, when there’s typically only six to eight. As the large number of regular burials continues to consume space at Arlington, the question of future availability looms. The Millennium Project attempts to address this by adding twenty-seven additional acres to the northern edge of the cemetery, along with 30,000 new burial sites. The first interment there is expected to occur in the summer of 2019. Though the project is controversial, due to the expansion’s planned decimation of many historic trees and stream damage, the addition will ensure the continuation of military funerals in this solemn place—until the next stretch of land must be developed, that is.

One of the most-visited sites at the cemetery is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which houses the remains of anonymous soldiers from Korea and both world wars. It serves as a memorial to American service members who are lost, but not forgotten. The tomb is guarded around the clock 365 days a year by the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as “The Old Guard,” which is the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the army, serving since 1784. These guards follow a strict routine: They march twenty-one steps down a black mat behind the tomb, turn east, then north for twenty-one seconds each, then take twenty-one steps back down the mat. The number of steps echoes the twenty-one-gun salute, an honor typically reserved for heads of state.

That reverence is a common theme at Arlington. The cemetery is a tribute to America and the people who have transformed it over the course of its history. Each grave has a name and each has a story to tell. The fields of white headstones—some new, others cracking, greying, sagging with age—stand as a reminder of those stories and the loyalty and dedication that drove the lives beneath them.

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