A handsome 1,100-acre parcel, crowned by Arlington House, perched majestically on an undulating hilltop overlooking the historic Potomac River, is the apt site for Arlington National Cemetery, that American locus of selfless heroism and sacrifice.
At present, there are more than 200,000 gravesites in Arlington National, which is one of 100 national cemeteries in the United States, but only one of two administered by the U.S. Army. As the population of the cemetery has grown, so has interest in visiting the cemetery, not only by family members, but from the rising tide of patriotism in the U.S., spurred by the galvanizing effect of September 11, 2001.
Each May 30, the "official" Memorial Day, small American flags grace each gravesite in a tribute to those fallen in battle, in the cause of freedom and independence. The traditional day of remembrance of one of the most revered days of the year was originally established as May 30. As society, in general, has clamored for three-day holidays, Memorial Day is now observed by most people on the last Monday in May. Arlington National Cemetery maintains its traditional observance on May 30.
Although hours vary, the Arlington cemetery is open year round with "Taps" being played at dusk by the bugler of Company B.
A brief history
The now-internationally known tract of land was not originally intended to be a cemetery. George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted grandson of George Washington and maternal grandmother, Martha Washington, built Arlington House as a memorial to the nation's first president. He had inherited the plot from his father at the age of three.
Construction on the Greek revival-style mansion was accomplished in three parts, starting with the north wing, which was finished in 1802 and served as the Custis family household. In all, it took Custis 16 years to complete, including eight massive columns five feet in diameter, which comprised the exterior portico.
The Custis's only surviving child, a daughter Mary Ann Custis, married Robert E. Lee, a childhood friend and distant cousin, in 1831. They used Arlington House as their residence, although Robert was away on military business much of the time. Mary had a life interest in the estate, after which it was to pass to her eldest son, G.W. Custis Lee.
The Lees were forced to abandon their home in 1861, when the Civil War broke out, and lost it to the government for unpaid taxes. The area was turned into a cemetery, as suggested by Union Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs.
After the war, a suit was filed that reached the United States Supreme Court. In 1882, it was ruled that the property belonged to G.W. Custis Lee. The matter was settled by paying him an indemnity of $150,000.
The first military burial was that of Private William Henry Christman on May 13, 1864.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was established in 1921 on the Arlington grounds, to honor a fallen soldier of World War I. An unidentified casualty was exhumed from a French grave and brought back to the United States to be reinterred on his home soil. The idea was to allow every family, who had had no word about the fate of their son or father, to think that this could be him. The inscription reads, "Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God."
This was repeated after World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, with the gravesite's name changed to the Tomb of the Unknowns. The body of the victim in the Vietnam War has been subsequently identified with the help of modern DNA processing equipment. The crypt is empty and now inscribed with the words: "In memory and keeping faith with American servicemen still missing."
Better-known occupants in ANC
It is not just the rich and famous that are interred here. In fact, most are known only to family and friends. There are, however, a number of names most Americans would find familiar. They include, in alphabetical order:
General "Hap" Arnold architect of America's Air Force
Colonel "Pappy" Boyington "Flying Tigers" ace
General Omar Bradley the "soldiers' general" of World War II
William Jennings Bryan orator/prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial
Admiral Richard Byrd arctic and antarctic explorer
"Pete" Conrad astronaut, third man to walk on the moon
General Jimmy Doolittle ace pilot/leader of the "Doolittle Raid" on Tokyo
General Abner Doubleday Union Civil War general falsely credited with inventing baseball
Medgar Evers civil rights leader
Virgil "Gus" Grissom astronaut, died in a fire aboard Apollo I spacecraft
Admiral William "Bull" Halsey World War II naval warrior and leader
Dashiell Hammett author, The Maltese Falcon/served in both world wars
Robert Peary with Mathew Henson reached the North Pole
Oliver Wendell Holmes Supreme Court Justice
Juliet Hopkins "Florence Nightingale" of the South during Civil War
John F. Kennedy President of the United States/assassinated November 1963
Charles L'Enfant designed the layout for Washington, D.C.
Joe Louis the "Brown Bomber," heavyweight boxing champion
General George Marshall architect of the Marshall Plan
Thurgood Marshall first black justice on the Supreme Court
Glenn Miller Big Band director
General Montgomery Meigs
Audie Murphy Congressional Medal of Honor honoree/later a Hollywood star
James Parks former slave, dug the first graves in Arlington National
Admiral Robert Peary co-discovered North Pole
General John "Black Jack" Pershing
John Wesley Powell first to explore the Grand Canyon
Walter Reed discovered cure for Yellow Fever
Albert Sabin developed an oral polio vaccine
General Philip Sheridan ruthless Civil War warrior on the Union side
William Howard Taft President of the United States/Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
The 612-acre site also contains the Confederate Monument, the remains of the seven Challenger space shuttle crewmembers, and nearly 8,000 unknowns, most of whom were from the Civil War. In addition, more than 60 foreign nationals, some of whom died of natural causes while prisoners of the U.S. military, are buried here.
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