Arlington National Cemetery is one of the most hallowed pieces of ground in the United States. Today over 270,000 patriots are buried on the gently rolling hills overlooking the Potomac River. Many of America’s most decorated soldiers and sailors are buried under the trees here: Audie Murphy, George C. Marshall, Omar N. Bradley and William F. Halsey. Additionally, two presidents are buried at Arlington National Cemetery: William Howard Taft and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. But there are also an incredible amount of private soldiers buried here. Some were awarded special medals for bravery, but most served their country quietly and with little fanfare. Every conflict, including the American Revolutionary War, is represented here. Some of these conflicts have nearly faded from memory: the Haitian Campaign, the Philippine Insurrection and the Boxer Rebellion. Others have been burned into our memories as pivotal events in the history of the United States: the Civil War, World War I and World War II. Other conflicts have become associated with controversy: the Mexican-American War, Vietnam and the Iraq War. However, all of these conflicts have one thing in common: they have caused ordinary men to do extraordinary things and become true American HEROES. At Arlington, rank has no bearing on where a soldier perpetually rests. Privates are buried next to majors. Lieutenant generals are buried next to sergeants. And brigadier generals are buried next to second lieutenants. This is Arlington National Cemetery. This is the United States. This is you and me.
Arlington was the home of George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha and George Washington (he was George’s adopted grandson). Custis started construction of the estate in 1802. It was to be a living tribute to his grandfather who had died a mere three years earlier. While Custis originally considered calling the 1,100 acre estate Mount Washington, Arlington won out as it was the name of the original tidewater home of the Custis family. He hired famed architect, George Hadfield, to help design the dwelling (Hadfield came to the United States to help design and construct the capitol). It would take a total of 16 years to construct the mansion.
George Washington Parke Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh in 1804. They had one child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis. She would marry another prominent Virginian, Robert E. Lee, on June 30, 1831. They were distant cousins and Bobby Lee was the son of four term Virginia governor, and famed soldier, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. In 1857, Custis would die, leaving his prized estate to his daughter, and Robert.
Prior to the start of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was approached to command all Federal land forces. While he considered his options, Lee determined to stay faithful to his state and resigned his commission in the United States Army. His family and slaves still lived on the the Custis estate and the decision was inevitably difficult for Lee to make as he gazed from his house overlooking Washington City. By May 1861, with Virginia seceding from the United States, Lee feared for his wife’s safety and brought her to Richmond. Federal forces under US Brigadier General Irvin McDowell set up camps around the estate. Ultimately the estate would be confiscated by the Federal government for back taxes. Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs, quartermaster general for Federal troops, would officially set aside the estate as a military cemetery, on June 15, 1864. Some of the first interments would be 1,800 unknown soldiers from the battles of Bull Run. They would be enshrined in a large burial vault in the rose garden of the estate, making the house permanently uninhabitable for the Lee family. Ultimately Meigs himself would be buried here.
I have visited Arlington National Cemetery several times over the past several weeks. Since I get to the Washington, D.C. area fairly regularly, I decided to start a tribute page on Flickr. It is my goal to obtain quality pictures of historically significant graves of Civil War era soldiers. Since there are other famous interments at Arlington, I will also add them as I come upon them. During my past couple of visits I have stopped by for visits with many Civil War notables: William Starke Rosecrans, Nelson A. Miles, John Gibbon, Orlando B. Willcox, Philip Kearny, Horatio G. Wright and many others.
If you have not visited Arlington National Cemetery in the past, I highly recommend it. Every time I visit, I feel a sense of awe at being in the presence of so many American HEROES. These are some of the men who have defined the United States. Enjoy my photo essay.
Click HERE to view Mike’s photo essay on Arlington National Cemetery.