How Arlington became a final resting place for veterans

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Every year on the last Monday in May, Americans honor the men and women who lost their lives during their military service in the United States. Most Americans have a day off. Many attend parades, visit war memorials or say a prayer at a relative’s grave.

One of the most important sites for such commemoration is Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place of American military personnel from every major American conflict since the Revolutionary War. The cemetery is across the Potomac River from Washington, Northern Virginia. In 2021, President Biden visited there on Remembrance Day and said, “Let the light shine on the dead forever. May God bring comfort to their families. And may God protect our troops, today and always.

More than 400,000 military personnel who died on active duty, veterans and their eligible relatives are buried at the cemetery, which currently covers nearly 260 hectares and plans to expand by 80,000 additional burial plots.

Two American presidents were buried there. William Howard Taft’s grave in Section 30 is set back from Schley Drive, one of the main driveways, under the trees. John F. Kennedy is buried in Section 45 at the foot of the hill on which stands Arlington House, a mansion built in the early 1800s. (All presidents are eligible for burial in the cemetery, but other presidents have were buried in the places they called home or at the sites of their presidential library.)

Boy Scouts wave American flags at the grave of former President William Howard Taft in 1930. (© MPI/Getty Images)

Ancient history

Prior to being a cemetery, the land was an estate that had belonged to Mary Custis Lee, married to Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee. The Lees lived for a time on the Arlington House plantation, which had been built decades earlier by slaves at the behest of a descendant of Martha Washington, wife of America’s first president.

Left: Union soldiers relax on the steps of Arlington House in 1864. (© Alexander Gardner/Sepia Times/Universal Images Group/Getty Images) Right: The Greek Revival mansion of Arlington House overlooks Washington. (©Cliff Owen/AP Images)

The Lees abandoned the estate at the start of the Civil War in 1861, and during the war the Union Army seized it to defend Washington from Confederate soldiers.

Authorities turned the estate into a national cemetery in 1864, as Civil War dead filled nearby cemeteries, according to Tim Frank, a historian at Arlington National Cemetery. Like other national cemeteries at the time, Arlington separated the dead by race and rank. (It ended the practice 84 years later when President Harry S. Truman desegregated the military.)

The grave of World War II veteran and world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis Barrow (US Army/Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery)

In the immediate post-Civil War era, many families did not want their deceased buried in Arlington: This indicated that survivors could not afford to have the remains of their loved ones sent home for burial, Frank said. .

Attitudes changed in 1868, when Civil War veterans established Decoration Day (May 30) at Arlington Cemetery to honor the dead. President Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union Army to victory in the Civil War, honored more than one Decoration Day ceremony.

“We really give Decoration Day credit for making Arlington our first national cemetery,” Frank said. “Thousands of people came to Arlington to decorate the graves with flowers. And then we started to see more and more generals and admirals, Medal of Honor recipients and dignitaries asking to be buried in Arlington.

Thirty funerals are held daily at Arlington National Cemetery. (US Army/Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery)

After World War I, Americans began honoring the dead of all American wars on Decoration Day. And in 1971, Congress established Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) as a federal holiday to honor those who died while serving in the military. In recent years, Arlington National Cemetery has hosted a solemn Memorial Day ceremony in which the President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

U.S. Army Sergeant Brian Pomerville stands next to his wife, Tiffany Lee, and salutes at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (© Alex Brandon/AP Pictures)

The grave is home to an unknown American serviceman who was killed during World War I. Modeled after similar memorials in France and Britain, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is the most visited grave in the cemetery, attracting millions of people every year.

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