March 28 was a cool and blustery day, and we decided to visit Arlington National Cemetery. Again, we parked the truck at the Vienna Metro Station and took the train. As Chari has mentioned, it’s a clean, efficient system, and really the only way to get around in the D.C. area.
We’ve visited a lot of cemeteries since we’ve been on the road, and we love wandering and looking at the old tombstones and markers, some centuries old, and wondering about the lives of the people interred there. Sometimes we’ve visited military cemeteries, usually at the site of a National Battlefield, like Little Bighorn or Gettysburg. It’s different in these places. The battlefield graves are not of people who lived out their natural lives, but are of men and women whose lives were cruelly interrupted by the horrors of war and who never returned to the arms of their families and friends. Other graves in these military cemeteries are of veterans of all American wars who survived their wartime experiences and were able to return to a normal life.
But this is different. This is Arlington. This place is special. You feel it as you enter the gates, along with thousands of other people, both citizens of the United States and citizens of the world, who come to pay their respects. This is not just another military cemetery, although in some respects, it is just that. Veterans of all of our armed conflicts are eligible for burial here, and as at the others, you feel a profound sense of respect for those who lie in the thousands of graves. But this is Arlington. This place is special. This is where we honor our greatest heros. Arlington.
The first thing you see as you enter and look to the top of the hill is Arlington House, with the American Flag flying at half-staff. Arlington house was built for George Washington Parke Custis, the step-grandson of our first President and only grandson of his wife, Martha Custis Washington. Custis’ father, John Parke Custis, bought the 1100 acre property in 1778, and after the death of his grandmother, Martha in 1802, decided to build his home there and name it Mount Washington. Family members convinced him to call it Arlington House, after their ancestral home on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. An English architect, George Hadfield, who also participated in the design of the U.S. Capitol, designed the house. Custis’ only surviving daughter, Mary, married her distant cousin Robert E. Lee, and in 1857 inherited the home.
At the beginning of the Civil War, President Lincoln offered command of the Federal Army to Lee, who declined and resigned to join the Confederate Army. He reported to Richmond, and almost immediately wrote Mary advising her for her safety to leave her home due to its proximity to Washington. Because of its high ground position overlooking the city, within days of her leaving it was occupied by Union troops.
General Irvin McDowel used the house as headquarters for his Army of Northeastern Virginia, and in 1864, Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, a Georgian who had served under Lee in the days before the war, believing Lee had made a treasonous decision in fighting against the Union, had Mrs. Lee’s prized rose garden dug up to bury twenty-six Union soldiers.
After the end of the Civil War, Robert and Mary Lee chose not to contest the Federal Government’s decision to confiscate the property during the war for “non-payment of taxes.” But in 1870, when Robert E. Lee died, his oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, who would have inherited the estate, sued to regain the property. It wasn’t until 1882 when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor. In 1883, in a signing ceremony attended by the son of Robert E. Lee and the son of Abraham Lincoln, Robert Todd Lincoln (then Secretary of War) the estate was sold back to the Federal Government for $150,000, about three and a half million in today’s dollars.
So much for the history of the estate. Now on to the cemetery itself.
We took the bus tour through the cemetery. The driver/tour guide spoke of various monuments and facts throughout the tour, but we only made three scheduled stops, at the John F. Kennedy grave, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and finally at Arlington House. We were free to wander on our own at each stop, and then pick up another bus to continue the tour. Since, as I mentioned, it was a chilly and blustery day, we didn’t spend a lot of time on our own, but someday we’d love to go back and spend the entire day wandering and exploring the cemetery.
Today’s politicians, of both parties, who profess to revere Kennedy, would do well to remember these words instead of pandering to those looking for a handout.
From the walkway not far from Kennedy’s grave, I saw the back of a stone for Michael A. Musmanno, whom I had never heard of, but I was intrigued by reading that he was a presiding judge at the International War Crimes Trials at Nuremberg. I looked him up on-line afterward, and found he led a very interesting life. He served in the Navy in both World Wars, rising to the rank of Rear Admiral. In civilian life after World War II he served as a justice in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania until his passing in 1968. He must have been quite a controversial character, as in his tenure, he himself wrote more dissenting opinions then in the previous fifty years of the court combined! I only saw the back of his stone, but was able to find a photo of the front on-line.
The quote on the front of the stone reads:
“There is an eternal justice and an eternal order, there is a wise, merciful and omnipotent God. My friends, have no fear of the night or death. It is the forerunner of dawn, a glowing resplendent dawn, whose iridescent rays will write across the pink sky in unmistakable language – man does live again.’
The final words of Michael A. Musmanno in his debate with Clarence Darrow, 1932.”
I found another stone quite interesting. Again, from my position I was only able to see the back, but it indicated that the person buried there was a veteran of the Spanish American War, World War I, and World War II. A long military career indeed! There was a number on the back of the stone, so I did a bit of research on-line and found his name was Frank Fletcher, and not only did he serve in those three wars, he was a Medal of Honor recipient for heroism in the Mexican Campaign in 1914. He was Task Force Commander at the Battle of Coral Sea in World War II, the first battle in history fought between Aircraft Carrier groups, and the first battle where opposing forces were out of sight of each other. Two destroyers bore the Fletcher name. The first, DD-445 was named for his uncle, the second, DD-992 was named for him.
For a very interesting internet article about Admiral Fletcher, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Jack_Fletcher
There is a memorial to the Battleship Maine, which exploded in Havana Harbor in 1898 and was a cause of the Spanish American War. Was it truly sabotage, as the American press professed? Or was the cause of the explosion a fire in a coal bunker? The controversy goes on to this day. Admiral Fletcher, by the way, at one point had served on the Maine. The actual mast of the Maine is part of the memorial, as well as the names of the 261 fatalities carved into the monument. I found it interesting while looking at the names of the marines and sailors that several of the sailors had rates which no longer exist. Like John T. Adams “Coal Passer” (I envision a bare chested, sweaty man covered in black coal dust with a large flat shovel piling coal into a boiler), Charles Anderson “Landsman”, and Bernhard Anglund “Blacksmith”. And how times have changed from when Orientals served in the American Navy as cooks or servants. Suki Chingi “Mess Attendant” and Yukichi Katagata “Warrant Officer Cook”.
We saw a memorial to the Challenger Astronauts.
And a tribute to the Americans who lost their lives in the failed attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran in 1980.
But by far, the most impressive sight at Arlington is the Tomb of the Unknowns. There are unknowns buried at most battlefield military cemeteries. In wars up to and including the Civil War, the only way to identify a dead soldier was if someone who knew the man could identify the body. Or if he had some personal belongings such as a letter or a bible on his person. By World War I most soldiers were wearing some sort of identification, but oftentimes these were lost and the bodies remained unidentified. After “The Great War”, it was decided to create a monument to The Unknown Soldier, thus honoring every soldier killed in battle whose identity was forever lost. The soldier chosen would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The process of choosing a particular person to be so honored was quite complex. The custom was followed for World War II and Korea, and again for the conflict in Vietnam, although by Vietnam, means of identification were much improved, and the remains selected were eventually identified and returned to his family. For an extremely interesting internet article about the selection process, please see: http://www.456fis.org/THE_SELECTION_PROCESS_OF_THE_UNKNOWN_SOLDIERS.htm
Inside the Amphitheater is a small museum, housing artifacts relating to the Unknown Soldier Tomb. Honors from countries all over the world are on exhibit. One I found very interesting was a letter from the King of England in 1921 thanking the American people for bestowing on the British Unknown Soldier from World War I the Congressional Medal of Honor, and so honoring ours with the Victoria Cross. The flags that draped the caskets of each of our soldiers, from WWI to Vietnam are on display, along with the Medals of Honor issued to them.
Quite by accident, while visiting the rest room, we happened by a soldier explaining to a family including a young boy, probably about twelve years old, about the proper procedure for placing a wreath at the tomb. The lad was extremely attentive, and I found out later he was being instructed because he was going to place a wreath there.
We were privileged to witness the Changing of the Guard ceremony, and it was very moving. Although there was a crowd of a couple of hundred people watching, including many children, there was dead silence. You could hear a pin drop. The following video lasts for about six or seven minutes. It’s a bit shaky in places, I was holding my small pocket camera, but turn on your volume and note the silence and respect of the spectators.
And please, as an American, please make the effort to visit Arlington.