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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served
Arlington National Cemetery, the most famous cemetery in the country, is the final resting place for many of our nation’s greatest heroes, including more than 300,000 veterans of every American conflict, from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan. Since its founding in 1866, Arlington National Cemetery has provided a solemn place to reflect upon the sacrifices made by the men and women of the United States Armed Forces in the name of our country.
The cemetery property is on the former grounds of Arlington House, the mansion of George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted grandson of President George Washington, and his wife, Mary Lee Fitzhugh. Custis selected English architect George Hadfield to design his mansion atop a hill overlooking Washington. Custis built the house in stages, first the north wing in 1802, the south wing in 1804, and finally the central section connecting the two in 1818. In 1831, the couple’s only child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, married a childhood friend and distant cousin, Robert E. Lee, at Arlington House. Mary and George Custis lived at Arlington until their deaths in 1853 and 1857, respectively, passing the property on to Mary Anna. Although Robert E. Lee never owned the property, he and Mary Anna lived there until 1861 when Virginia seceded from the Union and Lee took command of the Virginia State Military while Mary Anna took safety elsewhere. Lee never returned to Arlington House.
In 1864, the Federal Government repossessed the property over a failure to pay taxes and put it up for auction where a tax commissioner purchased the property for government, military, charitable, and educational purposes. Lee’s son, Custis Lee, sued over the confiscation of the property, and in 1882, the Supreme Court ordered the land returned to the Lee family. The following year Congress purchased the property outright.
On June 15, 1864, the Arlington House property and 200 acres of surrounding land were designated as a military cemetery as Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs wanted to ensure that Lee could not return to the site. The first burial at Arlington National Cemetery was that of Private William Henry Christman of Pennsylvania, who lies in Section 27, Lot 19.
Section 27 contains the remains of more than 3,800 former slaves who resided in the Freedman’s Village on the cemetery grounds. Freed slaves were allowed to farm on this land from 1863 to 1883, and those who died while residing in the village were buried here.
Confederates were originally buried in several different sections of the cemetery using headstones that were the same as those used to mark the graves of civilians. Beginning in 1898, former Confederates led an effort to identify and mark Confederate burials. Legislation in 1900 appropriated funds to reinter over 250 Confederates, who were already buried in Arlington Cemetery and others from the National Soldiers Home National Cemetery, to a section of Arlington National Cemetery. The legislation required that a "proper headstone" be used for the reinterments. The headstone that was selected is approximately the same size as the Union headstones but with a pointed top to differentiate the Confederate burials. This pointed headstone became the standard headstone for Confederates throughout the National Cemetery System.
The largest structure within the cemetery is the Memorial Amphitheater, located on Memorial Drive, near the center of the grounds. Dedicated on May 15, 1920, the amphitheater is used for three major ceremonies each year, the services on Easter, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day. The amphitheater is enclosed by a white marble oval colonnade, topped with a frieze inscribed with the names of 44 battles from the Revolutionary War through the Spanish-American War. The names of 14 U.S. Army Generals and 14 U.S. Navy Admirals are inscribed on panels flanking the stage. Inscribed above the west entrance is a quote from the Roman poet, Horace, which reads “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” meaning, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
Adjacent to the amphitheater is the Tomb of the Unknowns, a burial vault containing the remains of three unidentified service members, one each from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. A white marble sarcophagus sits atop the vaults facing Washington, and is inscribed with three Greek allegorical figures representing Peace, Victory, and Valor. The Unknown Soldier of World War I was interred in the tomb on Armistice Day in 1921 after lying in state beneath the Capitol dome after the arrival of his remains from France. The Unknown Soldiers of World War II and the Korean War were buried on May 30, 1958, after lying in state and each receiving the Medal of Honor. The Unknown Soldier of the Vietnam War, interred and presented with the Medal of Honor in 1984, was subsequently identified as Air Force 1st Lieutenant Michael J. Blassie. In 1998, Lieutenant Blassie’s remains were disinterred from the Tomb of the Unknowns and reinterred near his family’s home in St. Louis. Since then the Vietnam vault has remained vacant. The tomb is guarded continuously by the 3rd U.S. Infantry, the oldest active duty infantry unit in the Army, also known as "The Old Guard." The Old Guard is the Army's official ceremonial unit and escort to the president, and it provides security for Washington in times of national emergency or civil disturbance.
Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 360 recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, given for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
Former presidents William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy are buried in Section 30 and near Section 5, respectively. Also buried at Arlington National Cemetery are five five-star officers: Admiral William D. Leahy, General George C. Marshall, General Henry F. Arnold, Admiral William F. Halsey, and General Omar N. Bradley. Other notable burials include Pierre Charles L’Enfant, Revolutionary War veteran and planner of the new capital city of Washington; Robert Edwin Peary, famed North Pole explorer; 12 Supreme Court justices, including 4 Chief Justices; and 19 astronauts.