Arlington National Cemetery: History & Major Facts

Arlington National Cemetery, situated in Arlington, Virginia, stands as a solemn tribute to the sacrifices made by the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. This hallowed ground serves not only as a final resting place for military personnel, veterans, and their eligible family members but also as a living history of the nation’s military past, embodying the values of honor, courage, and sacrifice.

An image of the Arlington National Cemetery, which is located in Arlington in the state of Virginia.

Here is everything that you need to know about the cemetery’s rich history, notable burials, and iconic memorials offer a poignant glimpse into the American narrative.

Origin and Historical Context

The story of Arlington National Cemetery begins against the backdrop of the American Civil War. The property was originally part of Arlington House, the estate of Mary Anna Custis Lee, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington and wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

In 1861, following Virginia’s secession from the Union and the Lees’ departure from the estate, Federal troops occupied the land. The strategic location, overlooking Washington, D.C., made it a critical military asset.

By 1864, the casualties of the Civil War were mounting, and the need for burial space became acute. Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs proposed the use of Arlington Estate as a military cemetery to alleviate the overcrowding in D.C. cemeteries and to render the estate uninhabitable for the Lee family, as a form of retribution for Lee’s service to the Confederacy.

The first military burial took place on May 13, 1864, marking the official beginning of Arlington National Cemetery.

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Expansion and Evolution

Over the years, Arlington National Cemetery has expanded significantly, both in size and in the scope of individuals eligible for burial. The cemetery now spans 639 acres and contains the remains of over 400,000 individuals from every conflict in U.S. history, from the Revolutionary War to the present day.

Its evolution reflects changes in society and the military, including the integration of armed forces and the recognition of contributions by all service members, regardless of race, gender, or rank.

Notable Burials and Memorials

Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for many notable figures in American military history, including Presidents, generals, and unknown soldiers. Among the most revered sites are:

  • The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: Dedicated on November 11, 1921, this tomb honors unidentified U.S. service members who died in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The Changing of the Guard ceremony at the tomb is a powerful symbol of the nation’s respect for its fallen heroes.
  • The gravesites of Presidents William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy: Kennedy’s grave is marked by an eternal flame, lit by his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, at his funeral in 1963.
  • Memorials: The cemetery contains numerous memorials, including those dedicated to the victims of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the USS Maine, and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

As a site of remembrance and honor, Arlington National Cemetery encapsulates the profound respect and gratitude the United States holds for its military personnel, past and present.

Ceremonies and Traditions

Arlington National Cemetery is not only a place of rest but also a venue for ongoing military and commemorative ceremonies. These include Memorial Day and Veterans Day observances, wreath-laying ceremonies, and special honors for fallen service members.

The cemetery’s traditions, such as the precise and reverent conduct of funerals with military honors, underscore the nation’s gratitude to its military personnel.

Preservation and Challenges

The increasing number of eligible veterans and the finite space within the cemetery present ongoing challenges to Arlington’s future. Efforts to preserve its sanctity while accommodating future burials include strict eligibility criteria and considerations for expansion. The cemetery’s administration continually strives to balance the need for space with the desire to maintain Arlington’s historic and symbolic significance.

Educational and Commemorative Role

Arlington National Cemetery serves an educational role, offering visitors a profound insight into the sacrifices made for freedom and the complexities of American military history. The stories of those interred within its grounds provide personal connections to pivotal events and eras in U.S. history, from the Civil War to modern conflicts.

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Undoubtedly, Arlington National Cemetery embodies the heart of the American spirit, serving as a perpetual tribute to the resilience, courage, and devotion of the nation’s service members and their families.

Frequently Asked Questions

Arlington National Cemetery stands as a poignant reminder of the costs of war and the valor of those who serve in the United States Armed Forces. Its rolling hills and solemn memorials offer a space for reflection on the sacrifices necessary to secure and maintain the nation’s freedoms.

Here are some of the internet’s most asked questions about the cemetery:

Who is eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery?

Eligibility for burial at Arlington National Cemetery is primarily for members of the U.S. Armed Forces who died on active duty, retired military personnel, recipients of certain military honors (such as Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star), and their spouses and dependent children.

What is the significance of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a monument dedicated to deceased U.S. service members whose remains have not been identified. It symbolizes the nation’s honor and respect for the sacrifices of all unknown soldiers who died in service to their country.

Can civilians be buried at Arlington National Cemetery?

Civilians cannot be buried at Arlington National Cemetery unless they meet specific criteria, such as being the spouse or minor child of an eligible service member or veteran.

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How are burial services conducted at Arlington National Cemetery?

Burial services at Arlington are conducted with full military honors, including a ceremonial guard, a firing party, and the playing of “Taps.” The level of honors can vary depending on the rank and service of the deceased.

What are the visiting hours and rules for Arlington National Cemetery?

Visiting hours vary by season, and rules include respecting the solemn nature of the cemetery, keeping off the grass near headstones, and refraining from loud noises. Detailed and up-to-date information can be found on the official Arlington National Cemetery website.

How can one locate a grave at Arlington National Cemetery?

The cemetery provides an online database and mobile app to help visitors locate gravesites. Information desks and kiosks at the visitor center can also assist with grave locations.

What memorials can be found at Arlington National Cemetery?

Besides the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, other notable memorials include the JFK Eternal Flame, the USS Maine Mast Memorial, and the Pentagon Group Burial Marker, among others.

There are guided tours available that provide educational insights into the cemetery’s history, notable burials, and memorials. These tours can be arranged through the cemetery’s visitor services.

How is Memorial Day observed at Arlington National Cemetery?

Memorial Day observances at Arlington include a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a national Memorial Day service in the Memorial Amphitheater, and various other special ceremonies throughout the cemetery.

What steps are being taken to preserve Arlington National Cemetery for future generations?

Preservation efforts include considerations for expansion, updating eligibility criteria to ensure sustainable use of space, and ongoing maintenance and conservation projects to preserve the cemetery’s historical and cultural significance.

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