Arlington National Cemetery: 'The history of our nation'

Arlington National Cemetery – established during the Civil War on property owned by Confederate General Robert E. Lee – holds the remains of American soldiers from every US war.

Cliff Owen/AP
Army Col. Matthew Rasmussen visits the grave of Army Staff Sgt. Richard Tieman at Arlington National Cemetery. Sgt. Tieman died May 18, 2010, in Kabul, Afghanistan of wounds suffered in a suicide car bombing.

Back in 1868, “Decoration Day” events in Washington, D.C. to honor the lost soldiers of a country recovering mightily from the Civil War were very well attended. 

The flow of Americans coming to pay their respects at the national cemetery was “staggering,” says Stephen Carney, Arlington National Cemetery historian. By 1870, over 25,000 visitors streamed into town, more than the population of the nation’s capital itself – a flow that created huge traffic jams.

Mourners came to pay tribute to the dead of the North and the South as the burial grounds were fast becoming a symbol of national reconciliation. 

But the cemetery – which marks its 150th anniversary this month – was not conceived in that same fence-mending spirit.

Brig. Gen. Montgomery Meigs, who was serving as the quartermaster general for the Union Forces, attended West Point with Gen. Robert E. Lee, and had worked closely with him throughout their military careers.

When Lee resigned his commission in the Union Army, to take charge of the Confederates, Meigs was “incensed,” Dr. Carney says. 

Like Lee, Gen. Meigs was a Virginian, but he believed the oath to the United States outweighed any allegiances to his state. “He does not have a very good view of southern-born Army officers who resign their commission and go to serve in the Confederate Army,” Carney adds. “He felt betrayed.”

And that sense of betrayal seems to have impelled Meigs to take punitive action. The US government had seized the Lee mansion, on a high, strategic point overlooking the city. From that ridge, which was then known as Arlington Heights, troops with rifled artillery could have targeted any federal building in the District of Columbia, including the White House, Carney notes.

The government seized it through a war tax placed on property owners in areas in rebellion against the United States. The tax placed on Lee Manor was $92, which would have been several thousand dollars today – not out of range for a wealthy family like the Lees. 

And so Mary Custis Lee “made a good-faith effort” to pay that tax, sending an emissary to deliver the money. But he was turned away, since one of the provisions of that property tax was that it had to be delivered in person.

The government was well aware that it would have been “quite dangerous” for many in areas of rebellion to make the trip to Washington to pay the tax, particularly the wife of the commander of Confederate forces. And so the government took possession of the land.

By spring of 1864, as the war wounded were flowing back into Washington, the cemeteries in nearby Alexandria, Va., and Georgetown were filling up. 

As quartermaster, Meigs was responsible for burying the military’s dead. He was also privy to the knowledge that General Ulysses S. Grant was launching his overland campaign, west of Fredericksburg, Va., all the way down to Richmond. 

“Meigs was well aware that if Grant’s vision of how he’s going to win is enacted, they will be sending supplies down, and bringing the dead and wounded back out,” Carney says. And Meigs was well aware, too, that given the war plan, the dead and wounded were likely to be many, and “how serious the space problem is for suitable burial ground.”

And so he looked to Lee manor and designated 200 acres or so around the house as a cemetery. In May, 1864, the first soldier was buried in what was dubbed at the time “the field of the dead,” which was a fair distance away from the Lee house. 

The burial happened while Meigs was away on business. When he returned, Meigs pointed out that his original order specified that he wanted soldiers buried as close to the house as was practical. 

He directed that the first officer to be laid to rest in the new cemetery should be buried right next to what had been Mary Lee Custis’ rose garden, beside the house.

In doing this, Meigs had two primary motivations, Carney says: “To punish Lee for the sense of betrayal that he feels, and again to really make sure for the federal government that this place is always going to be a national military cemetery, and not a private residence for anyone in the Custis-Lee family.” 

Lee never returned to the home, and by the end of the Civil War, there were 16,000 soldiers laid to rest in the new burial grounds. “Regardless of what the motivations were for turning Arlington into a cemetery, by 1900 it becomes a powerful symbol of reconciliation,” Carney says.

Today, there are 400,000, along with the remains of 2,111 unknown soldiers of the North and South, plus 403 Medal of Honor recipients, with headstones etched in gold rather than the standard black. 

The cemetery draws some 3.5 million visitors a year, and conducts 30 funerals a day, most recently for those who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of those 30 funerals, about eight of them each day are full honor funerals that include the casket or urn being brought to its final resting place on horse-drawn caissons.

Though caissons were used to carry artillery ammunition during the Civil War, they quickly became associated with the funeral process, since when the two sides called a cease-fire to remove their dead and wounded, they would often use caissons to transport them.

In the years since, the cemetery has seen veterans from every one of America’s conflicts interred there, from Revolutionary War fighters who were disinterred from a cemetery over in Georgetown to be buried there in 1905, along with 14 unknown soldiers and sailors killed during the war of 1812 and every US war since.

“Because of that,” Carney says, “I think the history of Arlington is the history of our nation.”

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