Arlington National Cemetery

the Corps of Engineers maintains the eternal flame at President John F. Kennedy's grave in Arlington National Cemetery
the Corps of Engineers maintains the eternal flame at President John F. Kennedy's grave in Arlington National Cemetery
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk District Image Gallery

Arlington National Cemetery was started during the Civil War. Over 250,000 veterans have been buried there since that time. As late as 2018, Civil War soldiers were still being buried there.

The cemetery was located on the grounds of the Arlington Plantation, built originally by George Washington Parke Custis in 1802-1818. He was the grandson of Daniel Parke Custis and Martha Custis Dandridge.

Two years after Daniel Parke Custis died in 1757, his widow married George Washington. Washington's stepson John Parke "Jacky" Custis left his home at Abingdon Plantation (now part of Reagan Washington National Airport) and went to Yorktown in 1781 to join his stepfather. Custis died from disease there in 1781.

George Washington then adopted "Jacky" Custis's two children, George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor "Nelly" Parke Custis. Nelly lived with her husband Lawrence Lewis at Woodlawn Plantation. Her brother George Washington Parke Custis inherited over 1,000 acres with a hillside that provided a grand views of the new national capital across the Potomac River. He built a Greek Revival home and operated a plantation there which depended upon enslaved labor. He initially called it Mount Washington, but then named it Arlington after an early Custis family plantation on the Eastern Shore.

George Washington Parke Custis had a Greek Revival house built on the banks of the Potomac River
George Washington Parke Custis had a Greek Revival house built on the banks of the Potomac River
Source: National Park Service, Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial

When George Washington Parke Custis died in 1857, his daughter Mary Anna Randolph Custis inherited Arlington. She had married Robert E. Lee in 1831, and the couple had treated Arlington House as their permanent home since then. They lived there with their seven children whenever Lee was not stationed at a military post. Technically the property was owned just by Mary Custis Lee after her father died in 1857, but in that time period husbands were treated as the master of the family.1

Just prior to the start of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the US Army and chose to serve the state of Virginia when it seceded from the Union. The Union Army could not allow an enemy force to occupy the heights at Arlington with a commanding artillery position that could threaten the Federal capital, so Lee knew that his home would be seized as soon as Virginia was invaded. He wrote his wife from Richmond on April 26, 1861:2

I am very anxious about you... You have to move, & make arrangements to go to some point of safety.

She fled just before Federal troops crossed the Potomac River on May 24, 1861. They converted the plantation initially into a fortified position to protect Washington from a Confederate attack, and newly-freed slaves bult a Freedman's Village there.

In 1862 the US Congress passed legislation to collect taxes on real estate in "insurrectionary districts" and required landowners to pay them in person. Mary Custis Lee sent a family member to pay, but the Federal commissioners rejected that attempt. Instead, they confiscated Arlington Plantation and sold it at auction on January 11, 1864. Only the Federal government submitted a bid.

The start of the Overland Campaign in May, 1864 dramatically increased Union casualties. Graveyards in the Washington, DC area were incapable of accommodating the dead, so Quartermaster Montgomery Meigs chose to bury them at Arlington.

The first soldier buried there, Private William Christman, had died of disease on May 13, 1864. He was buried near the pre-existing plantation graveyard for enslaved people and freed blacks. Other early burials occurred there in the "Lower Graveyard," probably because Union officers occupying the mansion house wanted the graves to be far away from the building. Meigs had the exact opposite plan, and insisted that burials occur next to Lee's home. He evicted the officers living in Arlington House and had graves for officers dug in Mrs. Lee's garden near the front door.

Meigs complained:3

It was my intention to have begun the interments nearer the mansion, but opposition on the part of officers stationed at Arlington, some of whom used the mansion and who did not like to have the dead buried near them, caused the interments to be begun in the northeast corner of the grounds near Arlington road. On discovering this on a visit I gave specific instructions to make the burials near the mansion...

He had 2,111 unknown soldiers excavated from Northern Virginia burial sites and transferred to a pit dug there, and later had his own son buried at the site. His intention was to make it impossible for the Lees to reoccupy the house.

the Memorial Bridge provides drivers headed into Virginia a view of the former Lee mansion at Arlington National Cemetery
the Memorial Bridge provides drivers headed into Virginia a view of the former Lee mansion at Arlington National Cemetery
Source: National Park Service, More than a bridge: National Park Service completes full rehabilitation of Washington’s ceremonial entrance

In late 1865, after the end of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee sent his older brother Smith Lee to inspect his wife's estate. It might have been possible to remove the graves and make it possible to live in the plantation house again, but Federal officials placed enormous tombstones on officers graves and made their removal impossible. Lee died in 1870, and Mary Custis Lee visited Arlington for one last time in Arlington in June 1873. Seeing the transformation of the site, she abandoned efforts to return there before dying several months later.

Her oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, inherited the Lee claim to the plantation. He petitioned Congress for compensation, without requesting the graves be removed or that title be transferred back to his family. After it was rejected, he filed a lawsuit to evict trespassers who had occupied the site since the 1864 auction by claiming the tax sale was not legitimate. In 1882, the US Supreme Court ruled in his favor, declaring the seizure to have been unconstitutional. At that point, there were 20,000 graves at Arlington.

Freedman's Village developed on the grounds of the Arlington mansion
Freedman's Village developed on the grounds of the Arlington mansion
Source: Library of Congress, Arlington National Cemetery: Where Every Day We Remember

Custis Lee negotiated a sale price and transferred ownership of the site to the Federal Government in 1883. More members of the Meigs family ended up buried at Arlington than members of the Lee family.4

The only person who was born and buried at Arlington Plantation is James Parks. He was an enslaved man there until the Union occupation in 1861, and was one of the early gravediggers for soldier burials. His description of the site before 1861 provided essential evidence for restoration of the mansion house to its historic appearance. When he died in 1929, he was buried with full military honors.

white and colored sections were established for burial at Arlington Cemetery
white and "colored" sections were established for burial at Arlington Cemetery
Source: Library of Congress, Map of the Arlington, Va. National Cemetery showing drives (1927)

The mansion house is managed by the National Park Service, and was labelled "Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial" in 1972. A bill was introduced in the US Congress in 220 to rename it to just "Arlington House," one of the initiatives to change memorials to prominent Confederates after the death of George Floyd spurred nationwide reconsideration of race relations. Arlington County also planned to remove the mansion house from its logo.5

Arlington County began planning in 2020 to remove the columns of the mansion house from the county's seal
Arlington County began planning in 2020 to remove the columns of the mansion house from the county's seal
Source: Arlington County, County Logo & Seal

The US Army retained responsibility for Arlington Cemetery and the cemetery at the Soldiers Home in Washington DC, after a 1973 law transferred most military cemeteries to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The National Park Service is responsible for 14 other military cemeteries on historic battlefields such as Gettysburg, and the American Battle Monuments Commission is responsible for 26 American military cemeteries in 17 foreign countries.

Confederates were reburied in Arlington Cemetery
Confederates were reburied in Arlington Cemetery
Source: Library of Congress, Map of the Arlington, Va. National Cemetery (1901)

In 2009, Salon began publishing articles about a hostile work environment and irregularities in budgeting and management at Arlington National Cemetery. As reported in the Washington Post in 2010:

Army investigators at Arlington National Cemetery have found more than 100 unmarked graves, scores of grave sites with headstones that are not recorded on cemetery maps, and at least four burial urns that had been unearthed and dumped in an area where excess grave dirt is kept.

A criminal investigation was opened after the remains of eight cremated bodies were discovered in one mass grave. Exhumations proved that a few graves contained more than one body, or the wrong body.

The US Army committed to digitize the 500,000 paper records documenting 330,000 burials, including 220,000 markers and another 43,000-some columbarium niches. Maps did not match on-the-ground findings; some locations marked as having no graves were found to have headstones, while areas with no markers were discovered to have burials. Some older markers had been lost, and during the 1920's and 1930's many spouses had been buried without adding their name to the tombstone.

Roughly 25% of the records had to be reconciled. After the US Army completed an accurate inventory of all burials, threats to move Arlington National Cemetery to the Department of Veterans Affairs were dropped. It turned out that one soldier had a grave for his amputated leg, and a second grave for the rest of him when he died many years later.7

The most recent Civil War burial at Arlington occurred in 2018.

In 1862, after the Second Battle of Manassas, two Union soldiers were interred on the battlefield west of the Stone House. Their bodies were placed in a pit together with nine legs and two arms that had been amputated from other soldiers. In 2014, The National Park Service discovered the pit and bones when excavating a utility line on the Second Manassas battlefield west of the Stone House.

In 2015, archeologists carefully excavated the site. It revealed how Civil War doctors had performed surgery, including bones with bullets still buried in them. A Smithsonian anthropologist commented:8

It's so rare that you have a discovery like this... You have a burial feature that speaks in so many ways to the events of a battle, but also to the... people participating in treating the wounded.

Arlington National Cemetery chose to bury the two soldiers in the first graves of a new 27-acre section created in the Millennium Project. The soldiers killed in 1862 and excavated in 2015 were buried, for a second time, in 2018.9

In 2020, Arlington County endorsed plans to expand the cemetery by 70 acres, surrounding the Air Force Memorial with 60,000 more graves. That expansion was expected to accommodate demand until 2050. The Navy Annex had already been removed in anticipation of the expansion, and realignment of Columbia Pike was included in the final decision.10

The expansion added 70 acres, of which 37 acres would be used for burial space. The space for 60,000 more graves would prevent the cemetery from becoming "full" in 2043.

Arlington County and the US Army agreed in 2020 on plans to expand Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington County and the US Army agreed in 2020 on plans to expand Arlington National Cemetery
Source: US Army, Arlington National Cemetery - Final 2019 Environmental Assessment for the Southern Expansion and Associated Roadway Realignment (Figure 2-15)

adding 70 acres to Arlington National Cemetery will create space for 60,000 burial plots
adding 70 acres to Arlington National Cemetery will create space for 60,000 burial plots
Source: US Army, Arlington National Cemetery - Final 2019 Environmental Assessment for the Southern Expansion and Associated Roadway Realignment (Figure 1-2)

expanding Arlington National Cemetery will require realignment of Columbia Pike
expanding Arlington National Cemetery will require realignment of Columbia Pike
Source: US Army, Arlington National Cemetery - Final 2019 Environmental Assessment for the Southern Expansion and Associated Roadway Realignment (Figure 2-1)

Also in 2020, the Secretary of the Army proposed new eligibility rules limiting who might be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, ensuring it would remain open for another 150 years.

Many of those who had served in the military would remain eligible for above-ground inurnment in a columbarium, which required far less dedicated space per burial. The proposed revision explained the math that drove the Army to propose excluding most veterans with combat service from below-ground interment at Arlington, except those who were killed in action, served as prisoners of war, or met several other narrow criteria:11

The nation's premiere military cemetery is at a critical crossroads in its history. Nearly all of the 22 million living armed forces members and veterans are eligible for less than 95,000 remaining burial spaces within these hallowed grounds.

the alignment of graves in Arlington National Cemetery is linear, largely independent of the local topography
the alignment of graves in Arlington National Cemetery is linear, largely independent of the local topography
Source: Arlington County, Arlington County, as seen from the air

in-ground burial ceremonies include ritual transport via a horse-drawn carriage
in-ground burial ceremonies include ritual transport via a horse-drawn carriage
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Alan Bean Interment (2018)

Arlington County

Civil War Cemeteries in Virginia

Graveyards in Virginia

Military Bases in Virginia

Navy Annex

Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery
Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk District Image Gallery

the crack in the marble of the Tomb of the Unknowns, as seen in 2011
the crack in the marble of the Tomb of the Unknowns, as seen in 2011
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk District Image Gallery

the crack in the marble of the Tomb of the Unknowns had been repaired prior to 2011

the crack in the marble of the Tomb of the Unknowns had been repaired prior to 2011
the crack in the marble of the Tomb of the Unknowns had been repaired prior to 2011
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk District Image Gallery

Links

the road acrosss Memorial Bridge stops at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery
the road acrosss Memorial Bridge stops at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery
Source: Arlington County, Arlington County, as seen from the air

References

1. "John Parke Custis," Mount Vernon, https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/john-parke-custis/; "Custis Family," Mount Vernon, https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/custis-family/; "Eleanor "Nelly" Parke Custis," Mount Vernon, https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/eleanor-nelly-parke-custis/; "George Washington Parke Custis," Mount Vernon, https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/george-washington-parke-custis/; "The Washington Treasury," Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/arho/learn/historyculture/the-washington-treasury.htm (last checked July 4, 2019)
2. "How Arlington National Cemetery Came to Be," Smithsonian, November 2009, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-arlington-national-cemetery-came-to-be-145147007/ (last checked July 4, 2019)
3. "How Arlington National Cemetery Came to Be," Smithsonian, November 2009, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-arlington-national-cemetery-came-to-be-145147007/; "The Beginnings of Arlington National Cemetery," Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/arho/learn/historyculture/cemetery.htm (last checked July 4, 2019)
4. "How Arlington National Cemetery Came to Be," Smithsonian, November 2009, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-arlington-national-cemetery-came-to-be-145147007/ (last checked July 4, 2019)
5. "James Parks," Arlington National Cemetery unofficial website, http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/jparks.htm; "Arlington House, Gen. Robert E. Lee's former home, won't be a symbol of the county for long," Washington Post, December 16, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/arlington-house-virginia/2020/12/16/4ad45dc0-3fb9-11eb-8db8-395dedaaa036_story.html (last checked December 16, 2020)
6. "Grave offenses at Arlington National Cemetery," Salon, July 16, 2009, https://www.salon.com/2009/07/16/arlington_national_cemetery/; "Chaos at Arlington Cemetery: Mismarked graves, dumping of urns," Washington Post, June 11, 2010, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/10/AR2010061005638.html (last checked October 5, 2020)
7. "National Cemetery Administration," US Department of Veterans Affairs, https://www.cem.va.gov/history/history.asp; "Cemeteries & Memorials," American Battle Monuments Commission, https://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries-memorials; "Problems possible with nearly 65,000 Arlington graves, report says," Washington Post, December 22, 2011, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/problems-possible-at-nearly-65000-arlington-national-cemetery-graves-review-finds/2011/12/22/gIQAqYY5BP_story.html; "Families Skeptical As Arlington Tries To Repair Trust," National Public Radio, August 29, 2011, https://www.npr.org/2011/08/29/140037988/families-skeptical-as-arlington-tries-to-repair-trust; "Arlington National Cemetery: Management Improvements Made, but a Strategy Is Needed to Address Remaining Challenges," Government Accountability Office, GAO-12-105, December 2011, https://www.gao.gov/assets/590/587017.pdf (last checked October 5, 2020)
8. "Bones of Civil War dead found on a battlefield tell their horror stories," Washington Post, June 20, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/06/20/bones-of-civil-war-dead-found-on-a-battlefield-tell-their-horror-stories/ (last checked August 8, 2018)
9. "Bones of Civil War soldiers to be buried in Arlington Cemetery on Sept. 6," Washington Post, August 7, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/bones-of-slain-civil-war-soldiers-to-be-buried-in-arlington-cemetery-on-sept-6/2018/08/07/877e7d9c-99b1-11e8-843b-36e177f3081c_story.html (last checked August 8, 2018)
10. "Arlington National Cemetery - Final 2019 Environmental Assessment for the Southern Expansion and Associated Roadway Realignment," US Department of the Army, August 2019, p.2, https://usace.contentdm.oclc.org/utils/getfile/collection/p16021coll7/id/12975; "Arlington Co. board approves Arlington National Cemetery expansion," WTOP, January 25, 2020, https://wtop.com/arlington/2020/01/arlington-co-board-approves-arlington-national-cemetery-expansion/ (last checked January 29, 2020)
11. "Proposed Revised Eligibility Criteria," Arlington National Cemetery, September 15, 2020, https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/About/Proposed-Revised-Eligibility-Criteria; "Arlington National Cemetery Slated To Expand By 70 Acres, With 60,000 New Burial Spaces," WAMU, November 10, 2020, https://wamu.org/story/20/11/10/arlington-national-cemetery-slated-to-expand-by-70-acres-with-60000-new-burial-spaces/ (last checked November 11, 2020)

Alan Bean, fourth astronaut to walk on the moon, is one of many famous Americans buried at Arlington
Alan Bean, fourth astronaut to walk on the moon, is one of many famous Americans buried at Arlington
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Alan Bean Interment (2018)

LIDAR reveals the topography around the Custis/Lee mansion house (red circle) at Arlington Cemetery
LIDAR reveals the topography around the Custis/Lee mansion house (red circle) at Arlington Cemetery
Source: Fairfax County, LiDAR Digital Surface Model -2018


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