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From Privates to Presidents: The History of Arlington National Cemetery

On May 13, 1864, Army Private William Christman was the first soldier to be laid to rest on the grounds of what used to be the private home of Robert E. Lee in Arlington, Virginia, which became Arlington National Cemetery. Now, one hundred and fifty years later, there are over 400,000 veterans and spouses that share that hallowed ground with Private Christman. That place, those sacred acres, have come to mean so much to this nation, to the fallen, and their families.

In 2014, on the 150th Anniversary of Private William Christman’s burial, his grandnieces and grandnephews gathered at his grave in section 27, the oldest section of Arlington National Cemetery, to remember their ancestor and to commemorate the anniversary his burial represents. Private Christman entered the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry during the Civil War. At the ceremony, the family laid a second wreath and then a memorial stone on his grave marker. The memorial stone came from the Christman family home in Pocono Lake, Pennsylvania.

Funeral detail at Arlington

According to the story on NPR, the family had only recently learned that their famous relative was buried at Arlington. He was 20 years old when he entered the Army to fight with the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry to fight for the preservation of the Union. A historian, Rick Bodenschatz, president of the Historical Association of Tobyhanna Township, said that William had joined, too, because the family was desperately poor. On entering, he received a signing bonus of $300, a goodly amount of money in those days. With that and his monthly salary, his family was able to get most of the money they needed to purchase a 40-acre farm and to build the house that still stands today.

Unfortunately, after training, Private Christman contracted measles and died from the complications of that now treatable disease. A great many of those who died during the Civil War, on both sides, died from disease rather than combat injuries. The first veteran buried at Arlington as a result of combat injuries was Private William Blatt, who was buried there on May 14, 1864.

A Final Salute

Almost every day, the air over those vast grounds breaks with the sounds of rifle shots fired in a farewell salute over the grave of yet another warrior gone to ground. The mournful notes of taps then can be heard wafting through the trees, over the manicured and measured grasses, and past the seemingly endless gravestones in their precise, ordered rows.

Bugler plays taps over the snow-kissed graves at Arlington Cemetery

Members of the Army’s 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the Old Guard, who provide many of the burial services for the fallen, will be present and dressed in their perfectly tailored, immaculately groomed uniforms, their hands covered with white gloves, their shoes spit-shined to mirror-like blackness. They will remove the flag that has draped the coffin of the fallen veteran and fold it with precise, slow, measured, respectful solemnity into a tight triangle. Then, the officer-in-charge will hand the flag over to the principal family member. As the flag is handed over the officer offers the family, in simple and heartfelt words, the condolences and the thanks of the entire nation.

This ceremony is carried out every day at Arlington. The quiet grounds with their leafy trees, the broad green spaces marked and ordered with clean, military precision, breathe with reverence and respect. When you go there you are struck immediately with the profound sense of honor and respect that that place exudes. It is a place of great sadness, yes, but it is a place of profound beauty as well. It is physically beautiful, but its beauty is far greater than just the physical. One senses peace there, a peace that settles the soul.

“When you go there you are struck immediately with the profound sense of honor and respect that that place exudes.”

If you have never been there, you should put it on your list if you ever visit Washington, D.C. Most go there to witness the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, or to visit the grave site of President John F. Kennedy. Certainly go to see those things, but give yourself time, too, to wander the grounds as well. Feel the quiet and the reverent peacefulness there, and remember, too, the sacrifices that were made by those who have found their final resting place there. It is a noble and powerful place, indeed. It will move your heart and your soul.

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Images
1) Final playing of Taps for former Sergeant Major of Army: A bugler from the U.S. Army Band ‘Pershing’s Own’ plays taps at the burial service Jan. 28, 2009, in Arlington National Cemetery for former Sgt. Maj. of the Army William G. Bainbridge (U.S. Army photo, CC BY 2.0).
2) Two Sailors recovered from the ironclad USS Monitor are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Monitor sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in 1862. The Sailors are being interred with full military honors. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Todd Frantom, CC BY 2.0).


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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.