guard at the tomb of unknown soldier Arlington cemetery

A visit and walk around Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, was high on a list of experiences for me. Not in a purely touristic way of course but in a way to see, learn, respect and take in the true sense of the place as much as I could.

The big thing that strikes you as you walk around is the scale. You walk and walk and the lines of graves keep on going and going in all directions. Hundreds of thousands of graves, graves of heroes who served or died on active duty, veterans and their families.

Over 400,000 graves are here and there are up to 30 burials every day still taking place now.

graves at arlington cemetery

There is so much history that comes with the place, from descendants of Martha and George Washington, through the Civil War, slaves both in service and those who were freed, plus presidents and other personalities well known.

Of course some people come to visit graves of the well known. But to stop and look over the rows of headstones you need to realise all people buried here are deserving of recognition.

To learn and discover more about this place that is now known as a National Cemetery, I needed to go to the top of the hill that the cemetery is on: to Arlington House.

Arlington House, Robert E. Lee Memorial

People often think of the cemetery when Arlington is mentioned, but to make the effort to get to the top of the hill is worth it. Arlington House is where it all began and the house now stands to help tell the story of dynasties, the location, slavery and reconciliation.

Front of Arlington House

George Washington Parke Custis was the adopted step-grandson of the first President George Washington and the grandson of Martha Washington, the first First Lady.

His father, John Custis, had purchased this land in 1778, a prominent hill overlooking what is now Washington, DC. It was originally named Mount Washington by John.

When acquired by George Washington Parke Custis he decided to build his home here and changed the name to Arlington in recognition of their original homestead, Arlington, on Eastern Shore, Virginia. It was intended as a memorial to George Washington with artefacts from the Founding Father within.

Built in a Greek Revival style, the first in the US, work started in 1803. Standing out of the front you get to see the grand location. It is high and directly across the Potomac River from The Capitol and now the monuments and memorials of Washington, DC.

washington monuments and capitol from arlington house

The fact that it had this view directly overlooking the capital played a big role into making Arlington what it is today.

Robert and Mary’s House

Curtis was survived by one adult child, Mary Custis. She married a certain Robert E. Lee in 1831 and they made Arlington their home, and plantation, for the next 30 years.

You are free to walk through the home, now a memorial, and each room has been laid out in the period style, with signage helping to show you the history. I learnt a lot passing through here. A fascinating place to learn some important American history, including the decision Robert E. Lee made to abandon his commission at the outbreak of civil war and become a general of the Confederacy.

Plus you get plenty of insight on the impact to his family and his slaves.

inside arlington house

Taken by the Union Army

At the beginning of the Civil War the Union had a problem. From this high position of Arlington, Virginia, the Confederates could use artillery to reach all the important buildings in Washington, DC.

The Lee family had already deserted the house leaving their slaves to run the place. The Union army took the Arlington Estate on May 24, 1861. It was a defensive move rather than, as one might think, a move just for the sake of taking Robert E. Lee’s house as is often assumed.

Soldiers from the Union took up camp over the Arlington Estate, took the family valuables still there, freed the slaves and chopped down most of the trees to aid their artillery should it be needed.

As the war progressed and soldiers died the cemeteries of DC, like nearby Alexandria, became full and, thus, Arlington Estate was chosen as the location for a new National Cemetery. The first military burials here took place on May 13, 1864.

Officers were buried near the house to stop Robert E. Lee (now considered treasonous) from wanting to come back here. Plus, a new law was made by Lincoln’s government during the war that created taxes on taken Confederate land. Mary, who was then in the south and unable to pay, making it easy for the government to officially seize Arlington by law.

In the house today you can also see the desk that President Gerald Ford used to pardon Robert E. Lee in 1975. It is situated in what was once Lee’s office.

Robert lee's desk

Slaves Quarters

Behind Arlington House are a couple of buildings that must be visited. The north and south slave quarters. These are the only two slave buildings remaining on Arlington. There would have been, in its time many, many more wooden shacks to house the plantation owners.

north slave accommodation arlington house

Each block, as you can see here, had 3 entrances to the living quarters. These non-wooden ones were actually the nicer buildings for the home’s servants, cooks, etc.

In one of the rooms,Martha’s personal slave, Selina Gray lived with her husband and 8 children, who had a tiny windowless attic space to help spread out a little.

story of slaves at arlington house

Seeing all of this first hand, at the same time as learning about the slaves, it gave such a sense of sadness; just as much as seeing all the graves outside.

Freedman’s Village

When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to free the slaves in the Confederate States, there was a need for homes for many freed and escaped slaves, and many more were heading north.

Even before the first burial here, Arlington Estate was home to Freedman’s Village. This was, of course partially motivated by the irony of placing it on Lee’s land.

Over 1,100 African Americans lived and worked here. They had access to education and resources but they were tightly packed as numbers grew. Pay was low and rents were not cheap. By 1900 the camp was closed and the people moved elsewhere.

rows of graves arlington cemetery

Becoming The Major National Cemetery

Today it is considered an honour to have family members buried at Arlington. During, and in the few years after the Civil War, it was used to give a proper burial to those whose families could not afford repatriation.

Sadly, at that time it showed a lack of wealth in the family rather than prestige. Arlington was one of many cemeteries in which Civil War soldiers were laid to rest. But the numbers of graves here were rising fast.

By 1865, 15,000 were already buried in the cemetery. Plus, just behind Arlington House another vaulted tomb was created for 2,111 unknown soldiers from many battlefields around Washington, DC.

Then, in 1868, Major General (retired) John Logan, Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared May 30 a national day of mourning for those who had fallen in the Civil War. He called it Decoration Day as it was a day to visit the graves and decorate them with flowers, memorabilia, etc. This is one of the reasons why 30 May was chosen, because more flowers were in bloom.

headstones through the trees and flowers

The commemorations of Decoration Day spread throughout cemeteries across the nation. But at Arlington Cemetery in 1873 a larger event took place with over 25,000 people present. By then, presidents had also started to come each Decoration Day to speak and honour the fallen. This is when Arlington became a place were veterans ‘wanted’ to be buried. After all, it gave them a chance to be a part of these annual memorials as well as be buried with their fallen comrades.

The televised funeral of John F. Kennedy in 1963 also created demand like no other for plots here. More on that shortly.

All this turned Arlington into America’s top military cemetery and took it along the path to what we know today.

By the 20th century, the Decoration Day had become a moment to honour all servicemen lost in all conflicts. Thought still officially called Decoration Day,even after WW2, the term Memorial Day was widely used.

In 1971 the name Memorial Day was officially adopted and instead of 30 May exact, it was changed to the last Monday in May.

graves beneath the trees

At the time of writing, there are over 400, 000 interments at Arlington of veterans and their families. With up to 30 burials taking place every day, space is running out, so an expansion project is underway to make room for another 80,000 burial plots.

Arlington Cemetery, alas, was a segregated cemetery for much of its time, but in 1948, President Harry S. Truman created an Executive Order to desegregate it.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

To stand at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington, watching the guards meticulously pass back and forth, is a solemn moment of pause and reflection.

The sarcophagus, perched up the hill, overlooking the cemetery and Washington, DC is a true place of remembrance, any day, any time.

tomb of the unknown soldier

After World War 1 due to the sheer number of British and French casualties involved, the dead were buried, many unknown, in huge local cemeteries on the continent. This allowed their family’s to experience slightly less pain than they would have done transporting them all back to their respective towns and villages.

They created tombs for 1 unknown soldier and repatriated them respectively to designated tombs in Westminster Abbey and the Arc de Triumph on Armistice Day 1920, representing all unidentified fallen soldiers.

America allowed repatriation at no cost to the family if they so wished. But that was not helpful for the unknowns.

It was agreed that, like the British and the French, they would bring back one unknown from the WW1 battlefields.

“…to bring home the body of an unknown American warrior who in himself represents no section, creed, or race in the late war and who typifies, moreover, the soul of America and the supreme sacrifice of her heroic dead.”

Hamilton Fish Jr, New York Congressman and WW I veteran
tomb of the uknown soldier from below

On November 11, 1921, the unknown was interred in the tomb.

The tomb as we see it today was completed in 1932. The Sarcophagus is at the head of the WW1 unknown. To the side are graves of unknowns from WW2 and the Korean War. There is a tomb for a Vietnam unknown but in 1998, using DNA testing, the body was identified as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie who was reinterred by his family.

The unknown Vietnam grave is empty at this time.

The Changing Of The Guard

Standing there in silence I watched the guard, marching by the tomb. It was perfect down to the finest detail. The movement, precision, the timing. As an ex soldier even I was shocked at the drill.

These soldiers come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment. The selection process to be a guard here is very strict. They march in a certain manner with movements and shouldering of arms very precise. Stopping, standing still at certain points. Each movement is meant for a reason. Facing East for 21 seconds precisely, turning north for 21 seconds precisely, marching 21 steps down the black mat. 21 means something, of course: it represents the 21 gun salute, the highest honour that can be bestowed on a soldier.

saluting tomb of unknown soldier

If you visit Arlington you must go and watch the changing of the guard here. It will spellbind you, I assure you.

The Grave of John F. Kennedy

Halfway up the hill through the cemetery, on the way up to Arlington House, you will find the grave of John F. Kennedy. Together with the Eternal Flame.

grave of J.F. Kennedy and wife with the eternal flame

Only 2 presidents are buried at Arlington. Presidents Taft and John F. Kennedy (JFK). After JFK was assassinated it was presumed that he would be laid to rest in Massachusetts where he was brought up.

His wife and First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, had the idea to make his grave as accessible to the American public as possible. Plus, in visits to Arlington Cemetery and during conversations with colleagues, he was known to have admired the peace and atmosphere here.

He was buried here on November 25, 1963, his original grave positioned directly inline between Arlington House and The Lincoln Memorial down below and across the Potomac River.

jfk gravestone

The initial gravesite was not suitable for the number of visitors it was receiving, however. Within 3 years of his death more than 16 million people had come to visit the grave.

It was moved a short distance away in 1967 to make it more permanent. The grave site contains the grave of not just JFK, but also his wife who died in 1994. At either side of them are the graves of 2 of their children who died as infants, one stillborn; one who died at a few days old.

The eternal flame, lit by Jackie Kennedy, was something that she was passionate about being in place. She and her husband had admired the one at the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier in Paris when they visited, plus inspiration came from the novel, The Candle in the Wind, symbolising eternal life.

Surrounding the graves is a wall bearing inscriptions of famous Kennedy speeches.

kennedy speech

This grave, as I have said, gave Arlington Cemetery even greater prominence. The televised funeral created huge visitor numbers and started to turn the cemetery into a tourist attraction of sorts.

Today it is visited by around 9 million people a year.

Other Notable Graves and Memorials

As I said, to me I was looking out over all those white headstones and thinking of each individual person.

sea of graves

A sea of graves in every direction.

I was a little conflicted at first in my head. Why do millions come here to see 1 or 2 graves? But then I realised that they, and the prominence of the cemetery, bring people to see everything else and to learn about the past.

Glenn Miller, the famous wartime bandleader who disappeared and perished over the English Channel in 1944, has a memorial here at Arlington.

Glen Miller memorial at Arlington

Another memorial I found interesting was the Lockerbie Memorial. It stands to commemorate the 270 lives who were lost on Pan American Airlines Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.

Lockerbie memorial

The cairn is made from Scottish red sandstone and is a gift from the people of Scotland and was all done by private donations.

Walter Reed is buried here, the man who discovered mosquitos were responsible for Yellow Fever. His work helped to combat illness and even led to the completion of the Panama Canal. In fact, you may have heard of Water Reed National Military Medical Centre.

Joe Lewis, the boxer; Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist, the list goes on and on. You really need to come here and see it all for yourselves.

An Incredible Place

I cannot say how many miles I walked on my visit, yet I still had not seen all. The scale of the place when you see it with your own eyes is unbelievable.

If you visit wear comfortable shoes as you will do some miles to see everything. You will also want to pause for thought in many spots, I assure you.

more graves at arlington

I learnt so much and came away even more I wanted to learn. People should never be forgotten, and their lives can teach us so much.

Some Common Questions Answered

Is Arlington cemetery free to visit?

Yes it is free to visit every day of the year.

Is it free to be buried at Arlington?

The actual burial and interment at Arlington is free yes, but if you would like a vault then there will be a charge.

What are the requirements to be buried at Arlington Cemetery?

Soldiers who die while on active duty, retired members of the Armed Forces and their families are all eligible to be buried here.

Is Robert E Lee buried in Arlington Cemetery?

No, he is buried at University Chapel & Galleries, Lexington, Virginia.

What is the oldest grave at Arlington?

Private William Christman was the first soldier buried at Arlington on 13 May, 1864.

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