Arlington National Cemetery: The Resting Place of Heroes

Arlington National Cemetery with view of Arlington House
Arlington National Cemetery with view of Arlington House in the background

One of the most humbling, beautiful, awe-inspiring places in Virginia to visit is the Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place of many of our nation’s greatest heroes. One cannot help but feel a sense of reverence and gratitude while visiting the cemetery. It is filled tombstones and monuments for those who dedicated their lives to the service of their country. Walking along the pathways looking at the various headstones, each with dates spanning across more than two centuries, you cannot help but to stop and ponder about the life that belonged to the person buried there.

Arlington National Cemetery holds a special place in my heart. I come from a family whose members have served their country during and since the Revolutionary War and am the mother of a veteran.  Although I have no family buried there, I still have ‘family’ buried there. This is something every military family understands. Each name on those tombstones makes my heart hurt, for them and those they left behind.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under protection of soldier

Tomb of the Unknowns

A definite sight to behold in the cemetery is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The tomb sits atop a hill overlooking Washington, D.C., almost as if continuously standing watch over it. There is something utterly noble and majestic in the scene. The tomb is guarded by The Old Guard (3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment) 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, regardless of the weather or event. These sentinels are considered the best of the best. They must pass extremely rigorous testing and inspections to earn this right.

Hushed crowds gather at the appointed times to see the changing of the guard. It is truly a magnificent event to witness. While witnessing the changing of the guard, one cannot help but feel a deep sense of gratitude that such people exist.  Guards willing to dedicate their lives to serve, honor, and protect those who sacrificed all for their country. The changing of the guards is one of my favorite events in the Washington, DC, area. Watching the guards march those 21 steps with such precision and dedication fills me with so many emotions all at once: pride, gratitude, patriotism, and love for our fellow man.

Changing of the Guard
Changing of the Guard

Prominent Figures Interred at Arlington

The cemetery is the final resting place for two presidents, John F. Kennedy (Lieutenant, USN) & William H. Taft. It also holds Supreme Court Justices like Thurgood Marshall. Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of President Lincoln, can be found in Section 31. Also interred here are well-known figures who had served their country, including Robert F. Kennedy, Joe Louis Barrow, and Lee Marvin, among others.

Before becoming an actor, Audie Murphy was a fierce warrior and a legend in the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. In World War II, he served three years as a combat soldier. Audie Murphy is credited with killing more than 240 enemy combatants while wounding and capturing many more. The Army indicates he became one of the best combat soldiers of any century. Due to high-tech warfare, Audie Murphy may never be matched by another soldier.

Audie Murphy fought in nine major campaigns across Europe and was wounded three times. He was the most decorated U.S. combat soldier of the war with 33 awards and decorations, the Medal of Honor among them. He received every decoration for valor the country had to offer and received five decorations by Belgium and France. Quite an honor for a young, poor sharecropper’s son.  After leaving the service, Audie Murphy went on to become a successful Hollywood actor. He tragically died in a plane crash in 1971. The grave of Audie Murphy is in Section 46, Grave 366-11.

John F. Kennedy grave with eternal flame
John F. Kennedy grave with eternal flame

A Warrior’s Final Resting Place

The cemetery is the final resting place for more than 400,00 veterans, active duty service members, and their family members. These include warriors from the Revolutionary War through Afghanistan. More than 360 of these heroes are Medal of Honor recipients. There are ten Revolutionary War veterans buried at Arlington, but, obviously, this was not their original resting place. Each was reinterred at different times between 1892 and 1943.

There are many memorials to visit, including one to Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. There is also one for the Buffalo Soldiers who accompanied them. The crews of both the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia have monuments dedicated to them in remembrance of their sacrifices.

Memorials for space shuttles Columbia and Challenger
Memorials for space shuttles Columbia and Challenger

There are many notable and prominent military figures buried at Arlington. The hero that touches my heart the most is Cpl. Ira Hamilton Hayes. Hayes was one of the infamous flag raisers at Iwo Jima. It might be partially because he is from my home state of Arizona, but primarily because of who Ira was as a person and his tragic end. Hayes, a Pima Indian, was by all reports a quiet, humble, intelligent young man who appeared to feel things very strongly. He enlisted in the Marines in 1942 when he was 19 years old. He trained to become a paratrooper.

After earning his ‘jumping wings’, he was sent to war and fought in a couple of battles before being sent to Iwo Jima. He became good friends with his fellow Marines during that time. On that fateful day of February 23, 1945, Ira found himself atop of Mount Suribachi raising the American flag with his brothers for the rest of the world to see. What the world did not understand, however, was what Ira lost that day. He lost so many of his brothers who died at Iwo Jima, including some of the flag raisers.

Ira Hayes did not want the notoriety that came with the infamous photo. While he remained proud of his service, he suffered from survivor’s guilt and felt the loss of those left dead at Iwo Jima. He was also quite disturbed about an identification error in the now infamous photograph. Another soldier was mistaken for his friend, Corporal Harlon Block, who was the actual person in the picture. It bothered Ira so much that in 1946 he walked 1,300 miles to Corporal Block’s family home to explain the error to Corporal Block’s parents. Because of Ira Hayes’ incredible dedication to his friend and his own integrity, the government eventually corrected the mistake.

Ira Hayes never recovered from the loss of his brothers-in-arms during the war. He took to drinking, could not hold steady employment, and was arrested numerous times. Finally, he ended up dead in a ditch where he had passed out the night before.  Ira Hayes, whose legacy of freedom lives on today, could not escape the prison of PTSD. He died within ten years after raising the flag at Iwo Jima. Ira Hayes was just 32 years old. He is buried in Section 34, Grave 479-A.

Ira Hayes is just one of many stories in Arlington. Each headstone has its own story to tell, some we know and some we can now only magine. All are worth remembering.

Hillside view of Arlington National Cemetery
Hillside view of Arlington National Cemetery

Freedman’s Village

In 1863, a segment of land on the southern side of the property was sectioned off and dedicated to a planned community for freed slaves. The Village was to serve as a temporary place where they could obtain a new start. The freed people could use the land to live on and for farming. Today, Section 27 of the cemetery contains the remains of those who died while living in the Freedman’s Village.

View of Arlington House
View of Arlington House

Arlington House

One cannot visit the cemetery without also seeing Arlington House, former home of Robert E. and Mary Custis Lee. Arlington House and the Custis and Lee families could be the subject of a whole article themselves; there is just so much history there. General Robert E. Lee is a man worth studying and understanding.

The house sits on top of the hill overlooking what is now the cemetery. It has a breathtaking view of Washington, D.C. Arlington House belonged to the Custis family. It was managed by Robert E. Lee once his wife’s parents passed away. In the Spring of 1861, Robert E. Lee was dispatched to Richmond for the Confederate Army. Mary Custis Lee fled Arlington House in May 1861, when it became apparent war was inevitable. The Lee’s would never return to Arlington House again.

Union troops first occupied the estate in late May 1861. They later seized it from Mary Custis Lee in 1864 when she did not appear in-person to pay a tax on it. Apparently, out of spite, Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs wanted to ensure that the Lee family would never return to Arlington House. He succeeded. On June 15, 1864, the U.S. Army appropriated about 200 acres of the estate for use as a military cemetery.

George Washington Custis Lee, the Lee’s eldest son, did sue the government for illegal confiscation of property. In 1882, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor. In 1883, Congress purchased the property back from him for $150,000. The purchase of the land by the government led to the formation of the Arlington National Cemetery we have today.

View of Washington, DC from Arlington House
View of Washington, DC from Arlington House

Touring Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery is 624 acres of beautifully landscaped and well maintained rolling small hills. The hills will give you great views of Washington, D.C., on just the other side of the Potomac River. They will also wreak havoc on your feet if you want to walk the whole thing. There is a tram (cost extra, I believe) that will drive to different spots around the cemetery. You can hop on and off the tram as you wish. Also, if there are specific graves you want to see, it is best to look them up on the grave finder before arriving at the cemetery. Having the gravesite detail with you when you get to the cemetery will help you map out the best route for your tour. This will make your visit go a lot smoother.

Memorial to Armed Forces - Hostage Rescue Attempt from Iran
Memorial to Armed Forces who died in hostage rescue attempt from Iran on April 25, 1980

A Place of Respect

The cemetery is the final resting place for those who dedicated their lives to the service of their country; it is a place of solemnity. Reverence and respect are expected. The guards at the Tomb of the Unknown will reprimand anyone not behaving accordingly. Arlington National Cemetery continues to hold an average of 27-30 funerals six days a week (Monday through Saturday) for men and women who served in the Armed Forces. It is important to remember this if you choose to visit the cemetery. This is not just a historical memorial, but a place where current mourning for those lost is taking place regularly as well.

Lt. David A. Strachan, Died June 6, 1864
Lt. David A. Strachan, Died June 6, 1864

Cemetery Centrally Located

Arlington National Cemetery is ideally located for a day of sightseeing, sitting just off the Potomac River facing Washington, D.C. It is located right next door to both the Pentagon and the Iwo Jima Memorial and has its own stop on the Metro system. The cemetery is very convenient to the Arlington Memorial Bridge, which crosses over the Potomac River directly into the nation’s capital city. The Mall, a popular tourist location, is just on the other side of the Potomac.

I would highly recommend including The Arlington National Cemetery on any itinerary to the Washington, D.C. area.

Links:

Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery

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