Arlington National Cemetery is a United States military cemetery in Arlington County, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., that has become the final resting place of approximately 400,000 veterans (and their eligible dependents) from many of our nation’s conflicts, beginning with the Civil War, as well as reinterred dead from earlier wars. The U.S. Department of the Army, a component of the Department of Defense, controls the cemetery. The Cemetery, along with Arlington House, Memorial Drive, the Hemicycle, and Arlington Memorial Bridge, form the Arlington National Cemetery Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in April 2014.
George Washington Parke Custis created Arlington Estate to be a living memorial to the first president. He was the grandson of Martha Washington and step-grandson and adopted son of George Washington. When he reached the age of 21, he inherited a very large fortune, which included a plantation that is now Arlington, from his late father John Parke Custis. He built the Greek Revival mansion (1803-1818) as a shrine to George Washington. Here he preserved and displayed many of our first president’s belongings.
Mary, the daughter of George Custis, married U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Robert E. Lee in 1831. George left the estate to her for the duration of her life, and then, upon her death, the property would be inherited by her oldest son. The Lees abandoned the property at the start of the Civil War and the U.S. Army seized Arlington Estate on May 24, 1861 to defend Washington, D.C. Every federal building in the nation’s capital was within rifle range from the heights of the land, giving it great strategic value. It was also selected in part to ensure that Lee, now a Confederate General, would never again be able to return to his home.
During the Civil War, three forts were built on the property: Fort Cass/Rosslyn, Fort Whipple/Fort Myer, and Fort McPherson. In 1863, Freedman’s Village was established for freed and escaped slaves. After the Civil War, the property was deemed to have been illegally confiscated by the U.S. Supreme Court and was ordered returned to Lee’s heirs. After regaining Arlington, Custis Lee immediately sold the property back to the federal government.
The very first military burial was conducted on May 13, 1864 for Private William Chrisman. General Montgomery Meigs, the Quartermaster General who was responsible for the burial of soldiers, ordered Arlington Estate to be used for a cemetery because the existing D.C. national cemeteries (Soldiers Home and Alexandria National Cemetery) were running out of space – and both were closed on that day. On June 15, 1864, by order of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Arlington officially became a national cemetery. The original size of the cemetery was only five acres, which has now grown to over 639 acres.
Being buried at a national cemetery was not always considered an honor, but it ensured family members who could not afford to bring a service member home that they would be given a proper burial. During the Civil War there were high casualty rates and large numbers of unknowns were originally buried along marching routes or battlefields.
In 1862, the system of national cemeteries was established to ensure the proper burial of all service members. Many unknown remains were recovered in the years following the Civil War, and the remains of 2,111 Union and Confederate soldiers are buried beneath the Tomb of the Civil War Unknowns. There are no exact numbers, but it is estimated that half of the Civil War dead were never identified.
The first official “Decoration Day” was held at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868. It was later renamed Memorial Day. This event transformed Arlington from just being a national cemetery to being the premier national cemetery. In 1873, an amphitheater was constructed to hold official ceremonies. In the late 1870s, high-ranking veterans began requesting burial at Arlington. In 1899, the government began repatriating service members who died overseas in the Spanish-American War. In 1900, as our nation was trying to reconcile after the Civil War, Congress authorized a section for Confederate soldiers.
On November 11, 1921, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated with the interment of the Unknown from World War 1. Unknown soldiers from later wars were added in 1958 and 1984. The Tomb is the most iconic memorial in the cemetery, and continues to be a powerful symbol of service, sacrifice, mourning, and memory. Surprisingly, there are only two presidents buried in Arlington – President William Howard Taft was buried there in 1930, and then President John F. Kennedy was laid to rest there November 25, 1963. The number of requests to be buried there grew exponentially after the televised state funeral of President Kennedy.
Our friends Robert and Denise Errthum had the honor this year of taking wreaths to Arlington for Wreaths Across America. This was Robert’s fifth year hauling wreaths, and he was very excited about this first trip to Arlington. I got to meet up with them while they were on their way to Maine to load the wreaths they would be delivering to Arlington. Thanks to Robert and Denise for sharing pictures of the experience.
Robert has had his Peterbilt truck and trailer wrapped with a military theme that promotes Wreaths Across America and the non-profit organization he and Denise started called 18 Wheels of Hope. The organization provides support to several charities and assists in offsetting costs for families that have incurred financial hardships from illnesses, injuries, or death. Denise went to Arlington for an 8th grade class trip and it was very emotional since many of her family have served.
James “JD” Walker of Minden, IL drives for Gully Transportation out of Quincy, IL. This year was his third trip to Arlington and, this year, he had the honor of being the only truck, in what would normally have been a convoy of 13 had it not been for COVID-19, to enter the cemetery through the front gate. Making four stops along the route, he then got to come in the front gate, while the other 12 trucks came in the back gate, just like he had done on his two prior trips to Arlington.
JD’s Western Star has a wrap on it, as well, and the truck’s name is Unsung Heroes. JD is a veteran himself. The Golden Warrior on the side of his truck is in memory of his son, Jeffrey D. Walker, who he lost on Mother’s Day, May 14, 2007. When I asked JD about the first time he went to Arlington he told me, “It was a very humbling and somber experience being in the place of so many who gave all for our country.”
National Wreaths Across America Day was December 19, 2020. On this day, as the organization does each year in December, their mission to Remember, Honor and Teach is carried out by coordinating wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, and more than 2,100 additional locations, in all 50 U.S. states, at sea and abroad.
I would like to thank Robert and Denise, as well as JD Walker, for their participation in this annual event that honors our unsung heroes. And please remember, while visiting any of these sacred locations, be mindful that all the national cemeteries are hallowed ground, and be respectful to the fallen service members and their families.