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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

Arlington Cemetery, In Honor of Our Veterans

Updated: May 11, 2023

It is the ultimate memorial to our veterans: august, breathtaking, regimented, hallowed. A temple to devotion and sacrifice. It is 612 rolling acres of green grass, ancient trees, and solemn white stones. The stones mark the remains of 400,000 patriots, men and women, from—and this may surprise you—eleven countries. And yet, for all its magnificent dignity, its ironic history is pure American. Its roots go back to our country’s Founding Father, George Washington and the very first First Lady, Martha Washington, and embodies the heritage of both the North and the South, white and black, slave and free.

The 612 acres that today comprise Arlington National Cemetery was once the plantation and Greek Revival mansion of Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee. The grand home at a high point among rolling hills overlooking the Potomac River, was first built by the adopted son of George Washington, George Washington Parke Custis. Custis married a cousin of Robert E. Lee and Lee visited the home often as a young man, and watched their only surviving child, Mary Anna, grow up. Two years after he graduated from West Point, Lee married Mary Anna at the mansion in June 1831 and they lived there for the next 30 years and had seven children.

In April 1861, when Virginia seceded from the Union, General Lee resigned his commission with the United States Army and joined the Confederate States Army. Mary Lee was warned by a cousin that her estate would soon be overtaken by Federal troops, so she left to stay with relatives. When the taxes on Arlington House came due, she was behind enemy lines, as well as stricken with severe rheumatoid arthritis and was unable to pay the taxes. The U.S. government seized the property and bought it at auction. 

Cemeteries in the Washington area were overflowing with war dead and there was a dire need for more burial space. By June 15, 1864, the government approved the creation of Arlington National Cemetery on Robert E. Lee’s plantation. The first to be buried were Union dead from the Battle of the Wilderness in 1865. The spot chosen was a grove of oak and elm trees and the Lee’s flower garden. Then, in September 1866, the remains of 2,111 Union and Confederate soldiers were dug up from the First and Second Battles of Bull Run nearby and the unidentified remains were buried in the same area that would become the Civil War Unknowns Monument. 

In 1873, a wooden amphitheater was built southwest of Arlington House for funerals and memorials. About 50 years later, it was torn down and the grand, colonnaded Arlington Memorial Amphitheater was completed in May 1920. (Next spring will be its 100th anniversary.) It serves as an outdoor amphitheater, exhibit hall, and nonsectarian chapel for ceremonies, especially for Veterans Day and Memorial Day events, and memorial services. 

Over the west entrance of the amphitheater is a quote from the Roman poet Horace: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" ("It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country"). The amphitheater is surrounded by a grand colonnade, under which are 300 crypts, intended for the burial of important people. Above the grand stone stage is inscribed a quote from President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: "We are highly resolved that these dead shall not have died in vain." The entire amphitheater can accommodate about 5,150 individuals. 

Down the grand steps of the Amphitheater and across an Italianate formal garden is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, first installed on Armistice Day (later Veterans Day) on November 11, 1921. Four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four World War I cemeteries in France and one was chosen to be reinterred as the Unknown Soldier of World War I. Since then, memorials for fallen unknown soldiers of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War were added. 

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is Arlington’s most iconic monument. The inscription on the tomb reads: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” Military guards have maintained a 24/7 guard over the Tomb since midnight on July 2, 1937 to the present. Tomb guards are volunteers and part of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard,” the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army, since 1784! Sentinels must go through extremely arduous training and testing. Over three million tourists pass through Arlington each year, many expressly to see the Tomb and the solemn Changing of the Guard. 

An average of 25 burials are performed at Arlington each day. Various configurations of military escorts, including those with caissons, may be provided for military members who have received the Medal of Honor, who were killed in action, or have attained a grade of E-9, CW-4 or O-4. Two six-horse teams one black, one white, are maintained for the caisson. A caparisoned (riderless) horse may also accompany Army and Marine Corps colonels and general officers. The procession is meticulously regimented and involves a casket team, a firing party, a bugler, a marching element and military band, a chaplain, and folding and presentation of the flag. Some officers may be entitled to cannon salutes or 11-, 13-, 15-, or 17-gun salutes. Only the President of the United States is given a 21-gun salute.

Of course, many famous decorated soldiers are buried at Arlington, including Pima Indian and Marine at Iwo Jima who helped raise the flag, Ira Hayes; the most decorated combat soldier in WWII and later a popular movie star, Audie Murphy; and General George Marshall, WWII Army Chief of Staff and the man for whom the plan to rebuild post-war Europe was named. But there are many more who accomplished great things but are not well known. Anita Newcomb McGee was the first female surgeon in the U.S. Army in the late 1800s. Thurgood Marshall was the first African-American Justice of the Supreme Court. Marguerite Higgins was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the only female war correspondent in the Korean War. Medgar Evers was a black leader famous for desegregating the University of Mississippi. 

For all the formal stone memorials that grace Arlington Cemetery, there are some very personal ones that are sometimes left on individual graves: dog tags, notes, flowers, rings. Cemetery Historian, Tom Sherlock was strolling around the cemetery one day, when he saw a beer can on the grave of a soldier who died in the Persian Gulf War. He reached down and picked it up. It was full. There was a note attached to it: "I told you we would have a beer when you got home." Sherlock set the beer back on the grave.

Memorial Day and Veterans Day are two big days at Arlington. In 1954, Congress and President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the annual anniversary of Armistice Day ending WWI on November 11, 1918, to Veteran’s Day, so that all veterans could be honored on that day yearly. In his proclamation, he said: “Let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting and enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.” Veterans Day would become a day that the U.S. President would visit Arlington Cemetery to honor our military and place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. 

Nine years later, on November 11th, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, a veteran and WWII hero himself, appeared at Arlington Cemetery for Veterans Day and in a ceremony full of military pomp, placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Afterward, President Kennedy stood on the sloping hillside in front of Arlington House, admiring the panoramic view of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol. He turned to a park ranger beside him and said, "I could stay here forever.” Two weeks later, to the day, he would be buried at that exact spot. He is one of only two Presidents to be buried at Arlington. Near his gravesite is a marker with his famous words: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” 

At the end of the day at Arlington Cemetery, the sun sets. Taps sound. The flag is lowered. The stones cast long shadows. A sleeping army. Night falls. But, in the words of the Civil War-era American writer, Minot Savage: “The brave die never, though they sleep in the dust. Their courage nerves a thousand living men.” 

See related posts: 

-Ira Hayes, Native American Hero of WWII -Native American U.S. Military Tradition

PHOTOS: (1) On Veterans Day and Memorial Day, all graves at Arlington are marked with an American flag. (2) The Arlington House, once the home of leading Confederate General Robert E. Lee, is a spectacular Greek Revival mansion overlooking the Potomac River, the Washington Monument, and the National Mall. It was taken over by Union forces during the Civil War, then selected as the site for Arlington National Cemetery, where Civil War soldiers were buried. (3) The United States Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, is located at the Ord-Weitzel Gate entrance to the Arlington National Cemetery. The memorial was inspired by the iconic 1945 photograph of six Marines, including Pima Native American Ira Hayes, raising the flag over Iwo Jima. (4) The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is Arlington’s most iconic monument. Military guards have maintained a 24/7 guard over the Tomb since midnight on July 2, 1937 to the present. The inscription reads: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known by to God.” (5) Military caissons are provided for military members who have received the Medal of Honor, who were killed in action, or have attained a grade of E-9, CW-4 or O-4. Two teams of horses, one black, one white, are maintained for the caisson. (6) Arlington Memorial Amphitheater was completed on May 15, 1920. It serves as an outdoor amphitheater, exhibit hall, and nonsectarian chapel. (7) The Civil War Unknowns Monument is a burial vault and memorial honoring the unidentified dead of the American Civil War. It was constructed in 1865 in a former grove of oak and elm trees and the Lee's flower garden. (8) An archival photograph of Union soldiers gathered on the steps of Robert E. Lee’s Arlington House mansion during the Civil War. The mansion was confiscated during the war when Lee’s wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee, was unable to pay the taxes. The U.S. government took over the property and in June 1864 it was declared the site of the National Cemetery for war dead. (9) Arlington’s 600 acres hold 400,000 graves of veterans from each of America’s wars. There are more than 10,000 trees at Arlington, including many magnificent oak, hickory and maple trees that date back to the Civil War and even some that date back to the Revolutionary War. Several hundred trees have been planted as memorial trees for Presidents, dignitaries, military organizations, and buried soldiers.

"Arlington Cemetery" originally posted November 11, 2019 on Facebook and

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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