Located in Arlington, Virginia, Arlington National Cemetery is the second-largest national burial ground in the United States in terms of the number of people who are buried there. (The first, being Calverton National Cemetery.) More than 300,000 people buried on the green, rolling hills. Nearly 7,000 funerals are conducted in a single year at Arlington National Cemetery. An average of 28 funerals are held in a day, excluding weekends.
On June 15, 1864, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton declared Arlington Mansion (Custis-Lee Mansion) and its surrounding grounds, approximately 200 acres, a national military cemetery– They took General Robert E. Lee’s estate as a way to extract retribution from the Confederate General.
Arlington Mansion was constructed by the adopted grandson of President George Washington– George Washington Parke Custis. It was intended as a living memorial to the country’s first president. The building was designed in a Greek revival style by architect George Hadfield, and it took sixteen years to build the mansion (1802-1818). When George Washington Parke Custis passed away in 1857, he was buried on the property (Section 13, at map grid N-30), and Custis’ daughter, Mary Ana Randolph Custis was made steward of the property until her death, when the title would pass to her eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee.
Mary Anna Randolph Custis had married Robert E. Lee on June 30, 1831. (Lee would later become a general for the Confederate army during the American Civil War.) After his father-in-law died, Lee served as executor of the estate and custodian of the property. Though he and his wife lived at Arlington House until 1861, when Virginia seceded from the Union, they never owned Arlington House.
On April 20, 1861, Robert E. Lee resigned his commission from the U.S. Army. He left Arlington House on April 22. The rest of his family left the mansion that May. The property, overlooking Washington D.C., was a strategic position during the war and was occupied by Union troops within days of their departure. Military installations including Fort Whipple (Fort Myer) and Fort McPherson (Section 11) were established around the 1,100 acre estate.
The federal government confiscated the property claiming the taxes against Arlington estate were not paid in person by Mrs. Lee, the title holder of the property at that time. The estate was placed on the public market on January 11, 1864, where it was purchased by a tax commissioner for “government use, for war, military, charitable and educational purposes.”
On June 15, 1864, Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs, appropriated the estate grounds for use as a military cemetery with the intent to drive the Lee family from their property. His first orders to this end called for the interment of 26 Union officers outside the front door of Arlington House. Another of the first grave site on the property was a stone and masonry burial vault 20-feet by 10-feet was erected in the rose garden. The inscription on the vault dedicates the grave to unknown Union soldiers who were involved in the campaign at Bull Run. It reads as follows:
BENEATH THIS STONE
REPOSE THE BONES OF TWO THOUSAND ONE HUNDRED AND ELEVEN UNKNOWN SOLDIERS
GATHERED AFTER THE WAR
FROM THE FIELDS OF BULL RUN, AND THE ROUTE TO THE RAPPAHANNOCK.
THEIR REMAINS COULD NOT BE IDENTIFIED, BUT THEIR NAMES AND DEATHS ARE
RECORDED IN THE ARCHIVES OF THEIR COUNTRY AND ITS GRATEFUL CITIZENS.
HONOR THEM AS OF THEIR NOBLE ARMY OF MARTYRS. MAY THEY REST IN PEACE!
SEPTEMBER A.D. 1866
General Meigs and his family were later buried on the property– Robert E. Lee nor his wife ever attempted to recover the property. After General Lee died in October 1870, his son, George Washington Custis Lee, put forth a claim that the land was illegally confiscated. In 1882, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the property had been confiscated without due process or just compensation. Ownership of the property, mansion, and thousands of wartime graves was returned to the Lee family. On March 3, 1883, George Washington Custis Lee then sold the property for $150,000 to the U.S. government.
In 1933, after being used as an administrative building for the national cemetery, Arlington House was transferred to the National Park Service. In 1955, it was designated a memorial to Robert E. Lee by the U.S. Congress. In 1966, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Over the years, the building has been subject to the elements and efforts to preserve and restore the house have been undertaken.
To make a donation to help preserve Arlington House visit http://arlingtonhouse.org
THE TOMB OF THE UNKNOWNS
Aside from Arlington House, Arlington Cemetery’s most notable attraction is the Tomb of the Unknowns. The seven slabs of Yule marble for the tomb were quarried in Colorado for the price of $48,000. The total weight of the marble is 79 tons. The Tomb of the Unknowns was presented to the public on April 9, 1932.
The Tomb of the Unknowns is guarded by soldiers in the 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard). It’s a special volunteer regiment, but the honor to join is earned by handful of soldiers. Only 20% of applicants are chosen for training and a mere fraction of those chosen for training actually make it through the training. Guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns is a special military honor. Soldiers who do pass the training guard the tomb in shifts, and they make certain it’s guarded 24 hours a day for each of the 365 days a year.
There are currently three unknown servicemen, interred in the Tomb of the Unknowns. Each soldier is from a different war and they represent all of the unknown soldiers who fought and died in that war.
* The Unknown Soldier of World War I was laid to rest in the Tomb of the Unknowns on November 11, 1921. President Harding presided over the ceremony.
* On May 30, 1958, the Unknown Soldier of World War II was interred in the tomb. President Eisenhower presided.
* The Soldier of the Korean Conflict (the US never officially declared war on Korea, so the term “conflict” is used) was entombed on May 30, 1958. President Eisenhower presided and Vice President Nixon acted as next of kin.
* The remains of a fourth Unknown Soldier of the Vietnam Conflict was interred on May 28, 1984, during the Reagan administration. However, this soldier’s remains were disinterred on May 14, 1998 after the body was identified as the remains of Air Force 1st Lieutenant Michael J. Blassie. After being identified, Blassie’s remains were moved to his home in Saint Louis, Missouri. The tomb for the Unknowns of the Vietnam Conflict will remain vacant.
JOHN F. KENNEDY ETERNAL FLAME
On the hillside just below Arlington House is where you’ll find the final resting place of United States President John F. Kennedy (JFK). He is one of only two U.S. Presidents buried at Arlington National Cemetery. (The other is President William Howard Taft.) After his assassination on November 22, 1963, it was thought that Kennedy would be buried in Brookline, Massachusetts at the Kennedy family plot in Holyhood Cemetery, but First Lady Jacqueline decided to have him buried at Arlington National Cemetery because, “He belongs to the people.”
A location at Arlington was set aside and a 20-foot by 30-foot area complete with a gas-line setup for an Eternal Flame was installed in preparation for the funeral. President John Kennedy was interred on November 25, 1963. At the funeral, his widow lit the eternal flame. The grave was originally surrounded by a white picket fence, but the location was visited by so many tourists that cemetery officials and members of the Kennedy family decided that a more suitable site be constructed. Construction to improve the Kennedy grave site began in 1965. It was completed on July 20, 1967. President Kennedy and his two deceased children (moved to the site shortly after the President was originally buried) were temporarily relocated and, later, they were quietly re-interred at the renovated grave site.
Cape Cod granite stones pave the grave site now. A 5-foot diameter granite stone circumscribes the Eternal Flame , which acts as a headstone for the former President. The burner was specially designed with a constantly flashing electric spark near the gas nozzle, so the flame will always stay lit in rain, wind, or shine.
Normally, the JFK grave site isn’t surrounded by news casters and cameras. Sadly, on July 16, 199, John F. Kennedy, Jr. died in a plane crash. The aircraft he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near Martha’s Vineyard. That weekend, there were hundreds upon thousands of tourists visiting the former President’s grave to honor his son.
If you ever make it out to Arlington National Cemetery, it’s quite a peaceful place. The historic value is rich and wonderful. Despite the numerous visitors to the cemetery each day, it maintains an atmosphere of reverence to the brave men and women who served their country.