Deeply rooted in our national culture is Arlington National Cemetery. There doesn't a day goes by that we don’t hear about it or see it in some form. The cemetery is the resting place of the heroic, the famous, the not so famous and those who never sought greatness but hold a place of honor because they died in the service of their country.
Arlington came to the forefront because of one man, Robert E. Lee. After turning down Lincoln for command of the Union Army, Lee became somewhat a pariah in the hearts and minds of Americans. Specifically Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs who decided to make the home of his former West Point Academy Superintendent (1852–1855, Meigs graduated in 1836) uninhabitable if he ever came back.
Ok…a bit of urban legend…it’s said there is a faint image of Lee on the back of Lincoln’s head in the Lincoln Memorial. It’s said it was a vague tribute by sculptor Daniel Chester French to Lee, with Lee looking back in the direction of Arlington House across the river from the Memorial. I was there..I didn’t see it but many say they do.
Officers began to be buried just outside the perimeter of the Arlington House in 1864 (Private William Christman, 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, was the first person to be buried on the grounds of the estate). One of the first memorials he established was a massive memorial right in the middle of Mrs. Lees rose garden containing the bones of 2,111 unknown soldiers from Bull Run and the Rappahannock retreat in 1866. The back-story is that Lee never really owned the property. It was actually the ancestral home of his wife Mary Anna Custis. Stranger still is that Lee is a distant relative of George Washington by marriage.
You see, George was married to Mary Custis. They raised John Parke Custis (adopted by George) from Mary’s first marriage. He had a son, George Washington Parke Custis who originally built the home, begun in 1804, originally known as Mount Washington, in honor of his adopted grandfather, George. When it was complete in 1818, Custis loaded it up with, what was at the time, the best collection of Washington memorabilia including many of his important papers and clothing. It was subsequently changed to the Arlington House and after Custis’ only child, Mary Anna married her childhood friend (and distant cousin) Robert Lee they took up residence in her ancestral home and it became the Custis-Lee mansion in 1831.
Lee’s decision not to fight for the Union started a whole series of events, which led to the home being seized by the Federal Government in 1864. Following ratification of the secession of Virginia from the Union into the Confederacy in 1861, about 10,000 Federal troops crossed the Potomac and occupied the 11,000-acre property. It was so big, they were able to create two military installations, Fort Whipple (now Fort Myer) and Fort McPherson (now cemetery Section 11). The property had one of the most commanding and strategic views of the Capitol and surrounding approaches.
Next, to put the nail in the coffin (sorry for the pun), the Federal Government levied a property tax on all seized properties of people with allegiance to the Confederacy. For the Arlington House it was $92.07. The law required the landowner to pay in person. Mary Anna chose not to pay in person but through a representative. Because of this, Congress seized the land and the family had to move to another family home in Lexington, Virginia. She made one last visit in 1873 and was so distraught over the condition of the property (the military had used the interior for storage) she returned to Lexington and died five months later.
As is typical whenever the Government overreaches, in 1882, the Supreme Court declared the tax unconstitutional and the United States Federal Government a trespasser on the Arlington grounds and ordered the lands returned to the Lee family. With over 10,000 gravesites already there, George Washington Custis Lee (I think that makes him a great-great grandson of George) sold the land back to the U.S. Government for $150,000.
The home is currently under major renovation. It wasn’t turned over to the National Park Service until 1955. The main structure is a Greek revival style mansion. The exterior is brick covered with stucco with a faux finish, which makes it look like marble and sandstone. The imposing portico is 60 feet across by 25 feet deep, featuring 8 massive Doric columns, 6 of them on the front. Each column is 23 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter at the bottom, tapering at the top. Even the pillars are covered in stucco, a finish popular in the 19th century.
Out in front of the mansion is the burial site for the original architect of the Capitol, Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Even though he was fired for not completing his contract, certain members of Congress felt he needed to be remembered and given a place of honor above “his” city.
But I digress, the cemetery awaits. Something you don’t realize until you get there is that….Arlington is on a big steep hill. Arlington House is on the top of the hill. So if you choose to walk, bring a hat and lots of stuff to drink.
What struck me were the sheer numbers of people walking the grounds. Bus loads of kids and adults come pouring through the entrance every day. More than 4 million visit every year. Among the throngs, you see a sea of the neon colored shirts of all those church and school groups who have been chasing you around town. Every color of the rainbow is represented undulating up and down the service roads throughout the cemetery.
We did the tourist thing and sought out the significant deceased. There was the John Kennedy eternal flame with both brothers at the base of the hill. Interestingly both Ted and Robert chose rather austere, simple white crosses.
Ok…the real reason I wanted to go to Arlington was for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I know, you’ve probably seen it in movies or the news a million times but you really haven’t. Standing in the reviewing stands as they celebrate a flower presentation or changing of the guard are moving moments that don’t translate well on a flat screen. Just watching and listening to the steel taps of the guard’s shoes clacking across the expanse of marble in front of the Tomb 21 times in each direction, in the complete silence formed by those around you is, at once, awe inspiring and humbling.
Originally, a civilian guard was posted at the Tomb in 1925 but was replaced by a military guard in 1926. Guarding 24 hours a day/365 days a year began in 1937 by a special platoon within the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment known as the “Old Guard”. You can watch as the guards exquisitely move along the “mat” or the rusty paths of guards who have walked before them. Guards never wear their rank insignia so they never outrank the deceased they walk for.
While we were there, a wreath ceremony was conducted by the Lady of the Lake School (sorry, didn’t get where the school is). These wreath ceremonies go on continuously throughout the day and we saw two. I thought it was cool seeing the kids showing their respect and being involved in the wreath presentation. Here we see the next wreath preparing to be presented.
We made the trek back to the main entrance and had an opportunity to view an exhibit to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars called "The Lost Heroes Art Quilt" honoring America's fallen heroes in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has been on national tour since December 2009 when it was unveiled in Washington, DC. For the first year of its journey, the Quilt was physically carried by Gold Star Families from place to place, often at considerable expense. When more and more requests to display the Quilt were received, expanding the travel circuit across the whole United States, FedEx Freight and Southwest Airlines stepped up to provide generous support with free shipping.
Each photo depicts a fallen service member when they were a child. There is one member from each state represented in the quilt without rank in the uniform of their particular service. Around each photo are key words taken from loved ones describing that member’s life. A very moving display considering the proposition that at the time of the photos, no one would have imagined them taking the paths they took or their lives ending so soon.