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Arlington National Cemetery USA

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Artwork depicting soldiers lifting an American flag.

On the Patriotic Holidays of the United States the cemetery at Arlington, Virginia, is featured in all the news reports. A wreath is placed at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, while guards perform a very precise drill. Memorial Day on the last Monday of May, and Veterans Day on 11 November, both always include this event.

Near the centre of the cemetery Arlington House still stands, surrounded by the tombstones. Tours of the home, and nearby 'slave quarters1' are conducted by the National Park Service.

The 'Founding Fathers' of the United States concluded that having their capital city in any one state would shift the balance of power. To prevent this unfair advantage, they decided to create a special district on 16 July, 1790, that was not under the control of any state. The district was to be a diamond shape, ten miles on each side, with land donated by the States of Maryland and Virginia along the Potomac River. All of Arlington was well within the bounds of the district, but in 1846 Congress returned the land in Virginia back to the State. The Arlington Memorial Bridge symbolically links Arlington House to the Lincoln Memorial at the Western end of the Capital Mall.

What is Arlington, and why is it the National Cemetery?

Arlington Plantation

George Washington Parke Custis was the grandson of Martha Washington. Martha is generally remembered as the first 'First Lady' of the United States. Her second husband was the first president elected by the terms of the US Constitution, he took office in 1789. When his father passed away, shortly after George's birth in 1781, he was adopted by his grandmother and her husband George Washington. He was raised on the plantation estate of Mount Vernon, near Alexandria Virginia.

When George Custis decided to build a home of his own he selected a site on Arlington Heights that overlooked the new capital of the United States which was slowly being built on the opposite bank of the Potomac River. Although he originally planned to name his estate 'Mount Washington' in honour of his grandfather, he later settled for the name his ancestors had used for their land in the tidewater area of Virginia.

The 'big house' on the estate began construction in 1802. The first part of the construction was the north wing. This was followed by the south wing of the home. It was not until 1818, when the main building with the public rooms was completed, that the two wings were connected and the home became a proper southern mansion. The new capital city across the river could easily be seen from the sprawling verandas.

George was married to Mary Lee Fitzhugh in 1804. They had four children, but only Mary Anna Randolph Custis would live to adulthood.

One of George Custis' passions was to collect artefacts of his adopted grandfather, and they were prominently displayed in many of the public rooms.

Robert E Lee

In 1831 Mary Custis married a dashing young officer of engineers in the US Army, Lieutenant Robert Edward Lee. The couple took up residence in Arlington House and began to raise a family of seven children. When George died in 1857 he left the estate and most of his property to his daughter Mary. He did leave a small parcel of land across the river to her husband.

Mary's husband, Robert E Lee, had risen steadily in the army ranks. Shortly before the Civil War he had led the Marine forces that ended the raid on Harpers Ferry and captured John Brown. John Brown was hanged for insurrection by the Commonwealth2 of Virginia.

Tension between the northern and southern states was becoming critical. When Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860 South Carolina quickly declared its independence followed by Mississippi, Florida and several other neighbouring states. Virginia was one of the last to leave the Union.

When the legislature of Virginia voted for secession, Lee was left with a choice between fighting for his country or his home state. He decided that he owed the most loyalty to his state, resigned his commission and offered his services to the Confederate Government. Lee was given the rank of Brigadier General in the Confederate Army, and ordered to the capital at Richmond to help develop a strategy for the war.

It soon became apparent that there were not enough troops available to defend Arlington. Its position overlooking the city made it a vital objective for the Union forces – an artillery battery set up there could easily shell the city.

Lee sent a message to his wife telling her that she and the children must abandon their home as soon as possible and seek refuge with friends away from the impending action. Everyone still thought that the war could only last a month or two. The actual conflict would last four long years.

Mary had been born in 1808, although some family Bible entries say 1807. As an Army wife she was used to having to control family decisions in her husband's absence. Although the movements of her husband are quite well documented during the war, we only get glimpses of Mary.

We do know she suffered from Rheumatoid Arthritis and was often confined to a wheelchair or on crutches. When she first abandoned Arlington she spent some time at the estate of her son 'Rooney' (William H Fitzhugh) in May 1862. As the battle line passed by she found herself trapped behind enemy lines. The Union General allowed her to pass through the lines and establish a home in the Confederate capital of Richmond. After a brief time in the Confederate Capital, she and her daughters relocated to 'Bremo Bluff', a friend's plantation in central Virginia and removed from most of the action.

Back Taxes

When the southern officers resigned from the army General Montgomery Meigs assumed the office of Quartermaster General of the US Army. One of his first acts in office was to establish a forward base at Arlington.

In June 1862 Congress passed an act to tax any property in the areas of insurrection. The tax on Arlington was placed at $92.07. The law also stated that the tax must be paid in person by the property's owner. Mary Lee claimed poor health and she stated that she did not feel well enough to travel, so she sent her cousin Philip Fendall to pay the tax.

Although the journey, in 19th Century carriages, was sure to be fatiguing, we should also remember that the trip to Washington involved crossing the front lines of a major war. The concept that Mary Lee might be held prisoner because of her husband's position is not beyond the realm of possibility. In any event she was not willing to travel to the office of the US treasury in Washington, DC, to pay the taxes that had been imposed under, at best, dubious circumstances. The government refused to accept any money unless it was offered by Mary Lee herself. On 11 January, 1864, the estate was sold at auction. The sole bidder was the government of the United States.

A 'Freedman's' village had already been established on the site, along with the military camps. On 13 May, 1864, the first soldier's grave was dug near the north east corner of the estate. General Meigs was not satisfied, he insisted that the next burials be placed in the rose gardens, as close to the mansion as possible to make any future habitation of the property impossible. Meigs searched the nearby battlefields for unknown soldiers and prominent Union officers and had them all interred at Arlington. One of the officers buried at Arlington was Lieutenant John Randolph Meigs, the 22 year old son of the general.

After the war Robert and Mary Lee resided in the Shenandoah valley, where Robert became president of Washington College (known today as Washington and Lee University). They were both saddened and outraged by the fate of their former home. Mary Lee took a last tour of her former home in 1873, three years after her husband's death. After seeing how completely the plantation had been occupied by the cemetery she resolved to give up her claim to the property. Five months later she would join her husband in death.

The Lawsuit

On 6 April, 1874, George Washington 'Custis' Lee, the eldest surviving son, petitioned the government for compensation for the value of the estate, claiming it was his rightful inheritance. After a long legal fight, the seizure of the property for back taxes was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in December 1882. Instead of demanding that the property be restored to its previous state and all the graves relocated, Custis Lee was satisfied with a cash reward of $150,000 and formally transferred the title of the land to the United States. In a strange stroke of fate Custis Lee transferred his family's estate to Robert Todd Lincoln, Secretary of state and the son of the late President. In 1892 General Meigs joined the rest of his family in the ground at Arlington.

Tomb of the Unknowns

Here Rests,
In Honoured Glory
An American Soldier
Known But To God.

On 4 March, 1921, Congress authorised a tomb to be erected for a single, unidentified soldier from World War I. Additional graves were added to honour unknown soldiers from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Each of the unknowns were issued a Congressional Medal of Honour (the highest award presented in the US military) before internment, and the sitting President acted as the next of kin during the interment service. The Vietnam unknown was later examined by DNA testing, identified, and his remains were returned at the request of his family. The grave remains vacant today.

The Honour Guard

The 3rd US Infantry Regiment (known as the 'Old Guard') has the duty of serving at Arlington today. The guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns is not just a spectacle for visitors, but a duty that is carried out 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. When the area was in the path of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 the guard was offered a chance to stand down due to the inclement weather. The guards insisted on maintaining their routine.

While the guard at the Tomb is the most visual function, it is by no means their only duty. They also conduct funeral services on the grounds. Whether the fallen is the President and 'Commander in Chief' or the most junior private in the army's ranks the service is solemn and conducted in the best tradition of the military. The casket is transported to its final resting place on a horse-drawn caisson and interred with full military honours.

There are also units of the Guard that serve as Colour Guards and Artillery Units at special events around the world. Some of them wear Colonial Uniforms and use historical weapons.

Who May be Buried at Arlington?

Although the cemetery covers nearly half of the original plantation, over 500 acres, it is surrounded by urban development. There are strict rules for internment today. Active members of the regular military, retired military who have been eligible for a pension, and veterans who have been awarded certain decorations are eligible, as are many former Prisoners of War. Spouses and, in some cases, children may also be eligible. Some high government officials may also be considered for burial at Arlington.

There is no charge for internment at Arlington, however if any special monuments or other items are desired beyond the basic marker and grave liner they must be paid for by the family, or other sponsors.

Who is Buried at Arlington?

The eligibility requirements for internment at Arlington have changed many times over the years. The list of the occupants are quite varied.

There are two former Presidents buried at Arlington. William Howard Taft, the 27th President who died on 8 March, 1930, and was buried on the 11th. Taft was not only President, but also later served as Chief Justice on the US Supreme Court. There are 12 other members of the Supreme Court who are resting at Arlington.

John F Kennedy who was assassinated on 22 November, 1963, and was laid to rest on the 25th. The solemn procession from the Capital rotunda to the grave-site was carried live on national television. His grave is one of the most visited sites in the cemetery – it is marked by the 'Eternal Flame'. He was later joined at Arlington by his brothers Robert and Edward. His wife Jacqueline Lee 'Jackie' Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was also interred with him in 1994.

There are thousands of others who occupy a spot at Arlington, including former slaves from the 'Freedman's Village' to astronauts who gave their lives in the 'Space Race', there are even former Confederate Soldiers buried on the grounds. They all now lie silently beneath the earth.


The casual visitor to the US Capital at Washington, DC, will usually encounter Arlington at some point in their travels. If you fly into Reagan National Airport and take the Metro into the city, the Arlington station is just to the north of the Pentagon. The city of Rosslyn is just to the north of Arlington, and the southern terminus of the Metro train is at Alexandria, near Mount Vernon.

A few of George Washington's items, such as his China collection, are on display at the house. His papers are now at Washington-Lee University, and many other items are housed at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC.

The fields of Arlington have been converted from acres of corn and wheat to a huge garden of gravestones. As you read this the guards are patrolling the Tomb of the Unknowns, and it is quite likely that a fallen US service member is waiting to be conducted to his final rest. This is the legacy of Arlington.

1While these buildings have been restored to their antebellum (before the war) condition, there are no actual slaves housed there.2A 'Commonwealth' is a state that had certain requirements in their colonial charter, they are also commonly referred to as 'States'.

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