ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY America’s Shrine to those who honorably served our Nation
Arlington National Cemetery encompasses land that once belonged to George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington and adopted son of George Washington. He later willed his estate to his only surviving child Mary Anna, who was married to Robert E. Lee. When the Lee’s vacated the land in 1861 due to the onset of the Civil War, federal troops occupied the property as a camp and headquarters. Eventually, the government confiscated the estate and as the number of Civil War dead began outpacing space in local cemeteries, the property was turned into a burial ground.
The first burial was interred on May 13, 1864 for Private William Christman. By the war’s end, thousands of service men and former slaves were buried there. Today Arlington is a national shrine to those who have served this country, and for their families. There are dead from every military conflict in American history. The cemetery still receives interments regularly, usually 27 to 30 services are conducted each week. We witnessed two while we were visiting. Us, along with other visitors to Arlington stood respectfully, quietly at a distance and watched as the horse drawn carriage and military band marched past.
Arlington has its share of memorials too, and not just war or battle memorials. A guide pointed out a tall conical monument to the people who lost their lives in the terrorist attack on Pan Am Flight 103. We visited three identical head stones, all in a row that were dedicated to the lives lost from the Space Shuttle Challenger, the Iran Rescue Mission, and the Space Shuttle Columbia. Some of the memorials are living trees. A plaque identifies them as the Beirut Barracks Memorial, the Gold Star Mothers Memorial, WWI Memorial Tree, and other wars.
We determined we would visit the sites we most wanted to see before venturing out to explore other parts of the cemetery on our own and on foot. At the visitors center we purchased tickets to ride the tram to selected sites, those being the grave site of President John F. Kennedy, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Arlington House. It’s an on and off tram so you may spend as much time as you’d like at each stop. Trams rotate through about every 20 minutes.
At JFK ‘s grave is the Eternal Flame that was lit by his wife Jacqueline (Jackie) at his internment. She is laid out beside him as are two of their children. The graves of two brothers are nearby, those of Senators Robert and Edward. Looking up the hill from the grave site stands Arlington House, like a sentinel with its flag at half staff. Below is beautiful view of the Washington Monument.
Next we visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Memorial Amphitheater. The chimes were beginning to sound as we made our way around the amphitheater to the Unknowns sarcophagus. As the eleventh and final chime faded away, a lone soldier exited from the amphitheater onto the walkway. The changing of the guard ceremony was underway. The audience hushed out of reverence and respect. The experience was an emotionally moving one and we both felt honored to have witnessed it.
Don taped the ceremony for me to share..
After the ceremony we entered into the rotunda to learn how each of the unknowns were selected. Even inside the quiet reverence continued. A packed room and you could have heard a pin drop. In October 1921, the Army received orders to select an unknown soldier from those interred in France in WWI. They exhumed one unidentified body from each of the four American cemeteries in France. They were placed in identical caskets and taken to the city hall in Chalons-Marne for a selection ceremony. A sergeant was given the honor of selecting the unknown by placing a spray of white roses on the casket. The Army then reinterred the others in a cemetery in France.
The Vietnam Unknown was selected by a sergeant in a ceremony at Pearl Harbor. In May 1998, the remains were exhumed to undergo DNA testing. The remains were eventually identified as those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie who had been shot down near An Loc in 1972. Lt. Blassie was then reburied in St. Louis, Missouri. The crypt that contained the Vietnam Unknown remains vacant.
The Korean War and WWII Unknowns were buried together in one crypt. Candidates for the WWII Unknown were disinterred from cemeteries in Europe and the Pacific. One from each theater of operations. A Navy Hospital Corpsman chose a single coffin from the candidates. The Korean War unknown was selected from four candidates disinterred from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. A Master Sergeant was designated to select the Korean unknown in a special ceremony held at Arlington.
From here we walked to the three marble monuments memorializing the crew of the space shuttle Columbia, the members of the armed forces who died in an attempt to rescue American hostages held in Iran, and in remembrance of the Challenger crew. . I also wanted to visit the Korean War Memorial Bench in honor of my father who served in Korea. Then we boarded the tram again to our third and final stop, Arlington House.
The vistas from the front of Arlington House was one of the reasons George Washington Parke Custis chose this site on which to build his grand home. The huge columns on the front portico were erected as a memorial to Washington, the man he loved and respected. Originally, Custis wanted to name his home Mount Washington but family members persuaded him to name it Arlington House after the Custis family’s homestead. Upon his death and that of his wife, Mary Lee Fitzhugh, both were buried not far from the house.
The Tomb of the Unknown Civil War dead is within walking distance of Arlington House. The inscription on the tomb reads,
“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 death are
Recorded in the archives of their country and it’s grateful citizens
Honor them as their noble army of martyrs may rest in peace.”
September A.D. 1866
Also close to the house is Mrs. Lee’s rose garden where the bodies of 22 soldiers lie buried. They were interred here as an insult to Robert E. Lee.
Arlington National Cemetery is truly a National treasure and one that every American Patriot should see. It will touch your heart, your emotions, your soul.
Here’s lookin’ at you kid………….