Top 10 Unique Facts About Arlington Cemetery

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10. The Land Arlington sits on belonged to former Confederate General, Robert E Lee.

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In the beginning of the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee was asked to be the Commander of the Union Forces by Abraham Lincoln but refused to fight against his home state. After, he was then asked by the newly elected president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, to leave his home to become the commander of the Confederate forces. It would not be long before the Union forces would capture the home of Lee, known as the “Custis-Lee House.” It overlooked the capitol of the United States, Washington D.C. As union soldiers would fall in combat near the home, they were buried in the yard and gardens of the Lee home to send a gruesome and disrespectful message to the Lee family. When the war ended and the surrender was signed, the Lee family never returned home to their family land. Instead, Congress purchased the home in 1883 and it continued to be used as a cemetery for the fallen Union soldiers and eventually their Confederate adversaries.

9. A Supreme Court ruling almost caused a mass exhumation of graves

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At the end of the Civil War, there were an estimated seventeen thousand buried at what would become Arlington, after it was illegally confiscated by the Lee family during the war and used as officers’ quarters for those who were stationed there. Although after the war Lee and his wife never returned to Arlington, Lee’s son fought Congress over the ownership of the property and won. The decision stated that the property must be fully restored to the family in the manner in which it was confiscated, and had the decision been properly fulfilled it would have caused the exhumation of seventeen thousand graves. However, having no desire to cause such blatant disrespect to the fallen soldiers, Lee’s son agreed to sell the property to Congress for $150,000.

8. Exactly how many people are buried at Arlington?

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The first soldier to be buried with military honors at what would become Arlington was Private William Christman on May 13th 1864, and since then there have been hundreds of thousands more brave soldiers who have paid the ultimate price to defend our freedom. Today, Arlington remains the only national cemetery that serves as the final resting place for soldiers that have fallen in every single American war. There is no exact answer given unless you visit the cemetery because men and women continue to choose Arlington as their final resting place, with funerals occurring on a weekly basis. However, it is estimated that over four hundred thousand men and women are have been laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

7. The Eternal Flame at Arlington Cemetery

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The Eternal Flame is located at Arlington as a solemn memorial to our assassinated president John F. Kennedy. After President Kennedy was shot in Dallas in 1963, it was originally proposed that Kennedy would be buried in Massachusetts as the President was a resident of Boston. In a discussion of where to bury the president, Mrs. Kennedy spoke quietly to those in attendance, “He belonged to the people.” Shortly after the meeting, arrangements were made that President Kennedy would be buried at Arlington. Different places in Arlington were considered as a spot for the president’s final resting place, and the eventual decision was made for him to be buried on the hill right below the Arlington House (formerly the Custis-Lee House). The funeral was held at 3 p.m November 16th 1963, with many world leaders in attendance, complete with a fifty airplane fly-over and one special fly-over made by Air Force One in which the plane dipped its wing as a final salute to the fallen president. The flame today is visited by thousands every year, not only to view the graves of the late president but also the grave of his wife that was later added.

6. The slave graves of Arlington

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After Lee’s estate was wrongly confiscated by the Union Army, the U.S government set aside a small amount of land that would serve as a model community for the newly emancipated slaves. This area came to be known as Freedmans Village. The village would be complete with a school, church hospital, and mess hall, and the village continued its operation until it closed in 1900. During its time of inhabitance there were over four thousand people who passed away in “Freedmans Village.” These graves are unnamed and are marked with either “civilian” or “citizen” engraved on the tombstones.

5. There are three enemy POWs buried at Arlington

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When America entered World War II alongside the Allied Powers, the Geneva Convention had already been established to set aside the rules of war and those rules concerning the fair treatment of prisoners of war. America would be known to treat POWs with respect and be well taken care of, in the hopes that the enemy would also treat the prisoners of the U.S. with the same dignity. Among the thousands of POWs that were taken to America one German soldier named Anton Hilbereth, and two Italian soldiers Arcangelo Prudenza and Mario Batista, died during their captivity or disease. Under the Geneva Convention the government is also required to bury those POWs who die in captivity are to be buried with military honors. The services went off without any hitch of protest from American citizens, and were given the twenty-one gun salute the same honor given to every American serviceman, this type of act shows the American passion for valor even when it’s valor of a different kind.

4. Why there may never be another soldier buried at the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”

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Atop a hillside overlooking Washington D.C sits a marble tomb. Unlike most tombs, there is nothing inside, but it stands symbolic in honor of the 4 men who are buried in front of the tomb. A fallen serviceman from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, were hand chosen by military elite and past presidents to represent the many men who fought and died in battle before there were effective ways to identify bodies. These men were laid there as their final resting place, however with advancing DNA technology, the unknown soldier from Vietnam was exhumed in 1998 to be examined and was discovered as 1st lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie. In lieu of replacing the soldier with another body from Vietnam, Arlington chose to keep it vacant as a reminder of those unknown who were missing in action.

3. The Old Guard

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The tomb itself is already a monument to those who have fallen in combat, however when a patron of Arlington came to pay his respects at the tomb, he saw a group of people sitting on the tomb. He contacted Arlington, and those in charge of security at the cemetery responded with recruiting sentinels for the tomb, but not any security guard would do for such a testament to the valor of the U.S. serviceman. In front of the tomb stands a member of the 3rd infantry regiment known as “The Old Guard.” The Tomb Guard marches twenty-one steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for twenty-one seconds, turns and faces north for twenty-one seconds, then takes twenty-one steps down the mat and repeats the process. The number twenty-one is representative of the iconic twenty-one gun salute that is known as the “presidential salute” to all fallen servicemen.

2. Memorial Day at Arlington

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First celebrated on May 30th 1868, Decoration Day was celebrated at what would become Arlington National Cemetery. The celebration was commemorated by the Commander in Chief of the Army of the Republic, John A. Logan, with several prestigious dignitaries in attendance, such as Union General Ulysses S. Grant. This celebration was to commemorate the servicemen in the Union army who died during the Civil War, although the inspiration for “Decoration Day” was drawn from the Southern states’ commemoration for those who died for the Southern cause. It has come to pass that May 30th 1868 has been commonly agreed upon as the very first celebration of what would later become known as what we celebrate to this very day as “Memorial Day.”

1. Story of Moses Ezekiel

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There are several great stories of valor about soldiers who are buried at Arlington who gave the ultimate price for our country, however there are not very many stories about those who were not killed in action and went on to honor their comrades in very different ways. During the desperate and final days of the Civil War the Confederate forces felt the increasing need of manpower on the battlefield. The rebel generals, after feeling the strain of low numbers, requested a cadet regiment from the nearby Virginia Military Institute to fight at the battle of New Market.

Ten cadets were either killed in action or later died of their wounds and are honored every year by the modern cadet regiments at the Virginia Military Institute immortalized in the movie “Field of Lost Shoes.” Among those who fought at the battle of New Market under the cadet regiment was Moses Ezekiel of Virginia, Moses not only was he the very first Jewish cadet at the Virginia Military Institute, he also went on to become a world famous sculptor with works all over the Eastern United States and in Italy. Ezekiel lived the remainder of his life in Rome and returned to Virginia where he sculpted one of the largest statues on Arlington grounds, the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.


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4 Comments

  1. Sorry to be a stickler, But John F. Kennedy was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery on Monday, November 25th, 1963. 3 days after his assassination on the 22nd of november. The day he was buried was also his son’s 3rd birthday.

    • Annoyed History Buff on

      Thank you for pointing that out so that I didn’t have to. Apparently he was buried six days before he even died…that’s kind of harsh.

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