Posts Tagged ‘Arlington National Cemetery’

The Paths of the Dead

Hoo boy, I’ve been writing a lot about the Civil War lately, haven’t I? That last post, about Appomattox, kinda drained me, and now I feel I’m gonna short-shrift Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. I just don’t have the energy in me. Let me just say I like the guy, and he deserves a memorial, and it should absolutely be his old home in Arlington, Virginia.

Arlington House — public domain photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Instead of writing more about the Civil War, let me talk about the grounds where the house sits, the famed Arlington National Cemetery. The cemetery itself is not part of the National Park Service, it’s managed by the U.S. Army. But it’s still open to the public, and if I had to assemble a list of the Top 10 Historical Sites in the U.S. to Visit, it would definitely be there. Arlington holds more history than any site other than the Capital and the White House. It’s a collection of the history of every armed conflict the United States has ever entered, it’s a string of tales that only dead men can tell.

Everything is represented at Arlington:

The Revolutionary War: Arlington House itself was built by George Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custiss, as a living memorial to the Founding Father’s memory. It passed down to Custiss’ daughter, who married Robert E. Lee, and therefore the house became Lee’s home. There are also eleven Revolutionary War veterans buried in Arlington, re-interred almost a century after they died.
Aerial View — public domain photo courtesty of Arlington National CemeteryWar of 1812: there’s a special Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington that houses fourteen men from that foolish conflict.
Mexican War: Many soldiers who fought in the later Civil War also fought in the Mexican War, and are buried in Arlington, including Phil Kearney, who lost his arm in the first, and lost his life in the second.
The Civil War: Not only was Lee’s house taken from him shortly after secession, but his lands were turned into the vast Arlington National Cemetery soon thereafter. Thousands of Civil War dead are buried at Arlington, from drummer boys to generals, including Abner Doubleday, the supposed inventor of baseball.
Indian Wars: Many Civil War veterans would go on to fight against the Native Americans in the West. George Crook was one, a man torn by those conflicts. He fought the Indians and chased after Geronimo, but also tried to defend and protect them from an unscrupulous government and hostile ranchers. It must have been hard to keep one’s integrity in those days…
Exploration: Polar explorers Adm. Byrd, Robert Peary, and Adolphys Greely are buried at Arlington.
Spanish-American War: the mast of the U.S.S. Maine (“Remember the Maine”) sits in Arlington, as well as a memorial to Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.
World War I: Of course, thousands of soldiers from the War to End All Wars are buried at Arlington, as well as the last General of the Armies, Gen. John Pershing. It is worth noting, however, that the heroes of WWI never gained the celebrity status of those of WWII, in life or in death. I find that sad, but it’s simply a sign of the times in which the wars were fought. WWI was before mass-produced radios, WWII was after. It’s that simple.
World War II: If you want WWII celebrity heroes, Arlington has them. Gen. Omar Bradley; Claire Chenault, commander of the Flying Tigers; British Field Marshall Sir John Dill; founder of the CIA predecessor, the OSS, Wild Bill Donovan; Admiral Bull Halsey; “Pappy” Boyington; and some of the Marines in the famed Iwo Jima photograph: all are buried at Arlington.
The Civil Rights Movement: 3800 slaves are buried, unnamed, in Section 27. Medgar Evers is buried in the cemetery proper, as well as the first black four-star general, Gen. “Chappie” James. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, champion of the Civil Rights movement, is also buried at Arlington.
The Cold War: Francis Gary Powers, famed pilot of a U-2 spyplane, downed by a Soviet missile in 1960. Ironically, he survived that, but was killed in a crash in California while filming wildfires. Admiral Rickover, the founder of the nuclear navy, is also buried there.
Challenger Monument — public domain photo courtesy of Arlington National CemeteryVietnam and Korea: Of course, thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who fought in Vietnam and Korea, including many Medal of Honor winners, are buried there. It is worth noting, however, that, thanks to DNA, there are no Unknown Soldiers from Vietnam buried in Arlington, nor will there ever be future Unknowns. That should bring some small comfort to mothers of soldiers everywhere.
The Space Program: Arlington Cemetery houses the graves of the three astronauts who lost their lives on Apollo I; and of two who lost their lives on the space shuttle Challenger.
War On Terror: a plaque erected in honor of the Beirut Marines sits in Arlington, as well as a memorial to those who died in the ill-fated Iranian Hostage rescue attempt in 1979. Soldiers from the first Gulf War are buried there, as well as victims from the Pentagon 9/11 attacks. A plaque stands in memory of the Lockerbie crash, and, of course, soldiers are still being buried, killed in the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Over 300,000 people are buried there. It’s quite a lot to take in, actually. All of them served this nation during times of war: soldiers, sailors, chaplains, nurses, buglers, generals, admirals. Congressmen, Senators, Supreme Court Justices and, of course, Presidents. Arlington holds the grave and eternal flame of John F. Kennedy, a man whose idealism extended beyond his own life, a man still admired over four decades since his death.

But the most popular spot in all of Arlington is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier itself. I happened to be in Arlington for Veteran’s Day during President Clinton’s term, and heard him speak at the Tomb of the Unknowns. To be totally frank, I can’t remember anything the man said. I was overcome by the eerie silence during the wreathlaying ceremony, and the sights I had seen earlier that day.

Speeches by political windbags come and go, seemingly on a daily basis. But the memories of the men and women who served and died in this nation’s many conflicts remain forever. Arlington is meant to remind us of the sacrifice of those brave souls. To hell with the political windbags …

Tomb of the Unknowns — public domain photo courtesy of Arlington National Cemetery


I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited Arlington. All pictures are public domain photos from Wikiepedia, or Arlington National Cemetery’s website, or the National Park Service.


Arlington House National Memorial

Arlington National Cemetery Official Website

Google map to Arlington National Cemetery

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