This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

On Nov. 11, 1921, three years after the First World War ended, the nation held a funeral for an unknown slain soldier to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Before the burial at Arlington, the casket of the unknown soldier was shown in the Capitol Rotunda, where 200,000 mourners came to pay their respects. It was just one year after President Wilson had first commemorated Nov. 11 as Armistice Day, now known as Veterans Day.

The Washington Post kept record of the Capitol viewing:

Scarcely one in that throng whose eyes did not dim and whose head did not bow in prayer as he passed this new shrine of patriotism. Women predominated in the line, and after a brief pause before the casket, they would sob and pass hurriedly away.

Perhaps the casket contained the body of her boy, and it is possible that the mother of the Unknown did pass his bier, but she will never know. And so everyone who passed thought "it might have been my son, it might have been my brother, it might have been my sweetheart, it might have been my buddie."

The crowd of people overwhelmed the Capitol guards. The line of mourners wound "snakelike around both sides of the Capitol," and at the viewing's end, the entire floor of the Rotunda was covered with flowers.

On Nov. 11, the casket was brought to Arlington from the Capitol in a funeral march. The Post covered the ceremony with the decadent language of a newspaper acknowledging that it was, indeed, the first draft of history. 

When the pale-gold tints of the morning colored the eastern sky, reflected in shafts of pearl on the cloud-capitalized dome of the great building, the dome under which he had spent his last night before going to his final rest, khaki-clothed comrades assembled and patiently awaited the hour when their ranked should move forward in escort to a caisson covered with black and drawn by black horses, the last westward ride of the American....

That scene ... from the time when the procession moved from the eastern plaze of the Capitol until taps was sounded at Arlington, belong to moments that will never return. 

Hundreds of thousands watched the funeral procession as it moved along Pennsylvania Avenue. In beautiful words, the reporter summed up the sentiment:

A funeral? Yes and no. It was a funeral in the sense that a nation had gathered, in the spirit and in flesh, to bury its honored dead. It was not a funeral in the light that there were sobs or shuddering or sorrow of the heartrending kind: for those along the way knew that the fame of the man who then passed could never die: that the unknown shall be known so long as the nation itself lasts, even so long as the irreverent and relentless fingers of time trace their etchings on the works of mankind.

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This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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