Arlington at 150: A tribute to the cemetery’s past, present and future

Story by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers
On behalf of the American people, lay to rest those who have served our nation with dignity and honor, treating their families with respect and compassion, and connecting guests to the rich tapestry of the cemetery's living history, while maintaining these hallowed grounds befitting the sacrifice of all those who rest here in quiet repose.

On behalf of the American people, lay to rest those who have served our nation with dignity and honor, treating their families with respect and compassion, and connecting guests to the rich tapestry of the cemetery’s living history, while maintaining these hallowed grounds befitting the sacrifice of all those who rest here in quiet repose.

When Arlington National Cemetery was founded on June 15, 1864, it was out of necessity. But after 150 years, it has evolved into a beautifully maintained national shrine. Emerald grass cushions the marble headstones, which are all precisely aligned in neat rows. Trees provide ample shade throughout the cemetery, and the distant drone of a lawn mower is comforting rather than disturbing. The staff lovingly maintains the cemetery and ensures America’s fallen are remembered with compassion and respect.

“Every day is Memorial Day here,” Patrick K. Hallinan, executive director for Army National Cemeteries said. The core mission of ANC is to bury active duty and retired service members, as well as veterans with dignity and honor, and maintain the ground as a national shrine, one befitting the service and sacrifice of those interred on the grounds, Hallinan explained.

The cemetery’s anniversary is being celebrated with a month of observances, which began May 13 with a wreath-laying ceremony at the grave of Pvt. William Christman, a Union Soldier who died during the Civil War, and will culminates in an evening ceremony, “Arlington at 150: A Tribute to Arlington’s Past, Present and Future,” June 15, at the Memorial Amphitheater.

Arlington National Cemetery is rich in history, even beyond its 150 years. Although the cemetery was created as a result of the Civil War, to increase burial space for the war dead, there are service men and woman interred there from every American conflict, to include the Revolutionary War. “Arlington is America,” Hallinan said.

From estate to cemetery

The property the cemetery is built on was originally patented in the 1660s, Dr. Stephen Carney, ANC command historian, said, and belonged to one family until the 1700s. Then, it belonged to Martha Washington’s first husband, and was passed on to George Washington when they married. Martha’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, the step-grandson and adopted son of George Washington, inherited the 1,100-acre property, known as the Arlington Estate, when he turned 21.

“His idea was to turn this into a living memorial for the only father he ever had,” Carney explained. Parke Custis built the Arlington House as a memorial to Washington that could be seen from anywhere in the District of Columbia. “But because it’s this great piece of high ground, militarily, it becomes critical at the start of the Civil War,” Carney added.

After Virginia seceded from the Union in May 1861, the U.S. Army sent more than 13,000 troops to seize the high ground. Carney explained there is a misconception that the property was seized to punish Robert E. Lee for resigning his commission in the U.S. Army and commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. But in 1861, if artillery was placed around the Arlington House, every federal building in the District would be within range.

“So I always say it doesn’t matter if Robert E. Lee would have stayed in the U.S. Army and accepted the offer to command the U.S. Army here in the D.C. area, I still think the first thing he would have done was seize his own property,” Carney said. The property was used, at first, as fortifications along what are now the Key Bridge, Section 11 of the cemetery and Fort Myer.

A large freedman’s village (a community that housed more than 1,000 freed slaves) was also created on the property, in the southern part of today’s cemetery in sections four, 8, 18 and 20. But in 1864, the Army was running out of burial space in the U.S. Soldiers Home Cemetery and the Alexandria National Cemetery, Carney explained.

“It’s a big problem the Army has to tackle. But right across the Potomac, you have this 1,100-acre estate. Parts of it are being used for forts, parts of it are being used as a freedman’s village, but you still have a lot of space and it’s easily accessible from the hospitals in the District,” he said. The property was seized, May 24, 1864 and the federal government purchased it for lack of payment of property taxes.

On June 15 that same year, the secretary of war ordered 200 acres of the estate set aside for use as a cemetery. Brig. Gen. Montgomery Meigs, who commanded the garrison at Arlington House, ordered the first burials to be placed in what had been Mrs. Lee’s rose garden, likely to spite the Lee family, Carney said.

Section 27 is one of the first sections opened at the cemetery, and at first, included integrated burials. Grave markers include the designation “U.S. Colored Troops,” or USCT, for black troops, and “citizen” or “civilian” for freed slaves interred there. When ANC became a national cemetery, however, Section 27 became segregated, just like the rest of the Army, and was converted into a freedman’s cemetery, Carney said.

Another notable section of the cemetery is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, constructed in 1921; it was originally just a flat marble slab over the crypt of the World War I unknown. The tomb remained unguarded for many years after it’s establishment. People would sometimes picnic at the tomb and chip pieces of the marble slab away to take home as souvenirs, Carney explained. It was a civilian that decided such behavior was disrespectful, guarding the tomb during cemetery hours. Congress authorized a military guard in 1926, but a 24-hour guard wasn’t established until 1937.  But the cemetery’s most famous unknown tomb isn’t its only, or its first.

The Civil War Unknowns Monument sits just outside of Mrs. Lee’s old rose garden. It was dedicated in September of 1866, where the remains of 2,111 soldiers from Civil War battlefields were reinterred, making it the cemetery’s first monument to unidentified Soldiers who died in battle.

“For me personally, that holds a lot of meaning,” Carney said. “We talk about the French and the British starting the tradition of an unknown soldier being interred in Paris and London in 1920, but here we are in 1866, and we have this large tomb of Civil War unknowns here.”

150 years of remembrance

As many as 30 funerals are held at the cemetery each day, and throughout the year there are thousands of ceremonies. The landscape serves as the backdrop for those reverent occasions, Stephen Van Hoven, the cemetery’s horticulture division chief, said.

“Our mission here is to maintain the grounds, these hallowed grounds, as a national shrine,” Van Hoven explained. The horticulture division is responsible for the upkeep of 624 acres of turf grass, trees, landscapes and other plants.

“Obviously, our number one thing is to have the grounds and gravesites looking as good as they possibly can throughout the seasons … so that when families come and lay their loved ones to rest here, they know it’s going to be taken care of; we’re going to grow grass on the gravesite, keep it as well maintained as we possibly can,” he added.

To do that, the cemetery employs sustainable, or environmentally friendly, landscaping practices, recycling yard waste, using plants that are less susceptible to disease and are more drought tolerant, and using a nutrient management plan.

“All the fertilization is based on testing,” Van Hoven explained. “We test all the sections of the cemetery every year so that we are prescribing what is necessary for when we’re putting fertilizer down.”

To celebrate the 150th anniversary, the horticulture division has increased horticultural tours of the cemetery and planted a white oak near the Arlington House. The entire cemetery has also been established as a national arboretum.

“The arboretum would incorporate all the trees that we have, which we have about 8,500 trees total at the cemetery, and about 300 different species of trees,” Van Hoven said. Examples of prime specimen trees along popular tourist walkways have been labeled with small plaques, naming the species of the tree.

“In addition to that, as we are going forward, we’re trying, we’re in the process of putting more on the website about trees, having tree highlights in the seasons … and we’re looking at integrating more of the tree and arboretum information into the existing technology that is already in place, like the Explorer app,” Van Hoven said.

The ANC Explorer app, which keeps users updated on activities, ceremonies and events, is also equipped with GPS, guiding users to the gravesite of a loved one or a monument. Every grave in the cemetery is catalogued in the app as part of ANC’s complete digitization process.

“Initially, when we put the app together, it was part of us digitizing the entire cemetery,” Hallinan said, “Every record has been digitized here. In June of 2010, we found outdated record keeping systems, outdated equipment, and a lack of good standard operating practices. The cemetery was operating in what I would consider a 1970s, early 1980s-era type of operation.”

So, ANC leveraged Army resources to help bring the cemetery into the 21st century. “We want to stay on the cutting edge of technology. One of the good parts of this is we’re one of the first national cemeteries to go all digital,” Hallinan said. Gravesites are digitally assigned, and the ANC staff can visualize and manage routes cemetery representatives are taking, see where landscaping crews are located, and see the location of special events at any given moment. If there is dangerous weather in the area, or a medical emergency, the Explorer app can alert visitors.

While the use of technology at ANC has grown, so too, will the grounds, Hallinan said.

“Many people are concerned that Arlington is running out of space,” he said, but that isn’t true — the cemetery is looking to expand. The Millennium Project is underway, and that will incorporate a 27-acre parcel of land that once belonged to Joint Base Myer Henderson Hall into the cemetery. The land will provide gravesites and columbarium sites into the mid-2030s. An additional expansion project is still in the design phase, and will provide 38 additional acres, bringing the cemetery operationally into the 2050s.

Hallinan said ANC is also in the process of surveying 34 monuments and memorials. “We’re looking in this coming year to renovate at least 11 of them, and then in the following year, hopefully, we’re going to look at a consistent maintenance program for (them) … so they are maintained consistently over the years.”

Hallinan believes that every funeral at the cemetery should be treated with the same care and reverence the deceased have earned, and he hopes to continue ANC’s example of excellence in the future.

“When you walk around, you realize very quickly that everyone here is someone’s hero,” he said.

Arlington National Cemetery will celebrate its anniversary at 8:30 p.m. EDT, June 15, with the “Arlington at 150: A Tribute to Arlington’s Past, Present and Future” observance. The free program is open to the public and will be held at the Memorial Amphitheater. It will also be webcast at A final, full-honors wreath laying ceremony will take place at 9 a.m. EDT, June 16, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to round out the anniversary.

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