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After 150 years, Arlington Cemetery still holds secrets

May. 11, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Honor Guards Pvt. 1st Class Martin, left, and Spc. Holland stand guard at the Arlington House.
Honor Guards Pvt. 1st Class Martin, left, and Spc. Holland stand guard at the Arlington House. (Evan Eile / USA Today)
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Union Army Pvt. William Henry Christman became the first to be buried at Arlington on May 13, 1864. (Evan Eile / USA Today)

ARLINGTON, VA. — A lingering image for any Arlington National Cemetery visitor — more than caissons bearing the soon-to-be-interred or even the white-gloved honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — is the perfect symmetry of alabaster headstones endlessly arrayed.

The stone sentinels give up their dead only on close inspection to visitors who leave pathways to gingerly step close and read the black lettering etched into marble.

“Christopher David Horton, Spc. U.S. Army, Afghanistan, Oct. 1, 1984, Sept. 9, 2011, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Valiant Warrior, Fearless Sniper” are words on one of more than 900 graves from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the cemetery’s Section 60.

For the dead — like Horton, killed in a hail of enemy AK-47 fire — the words are a spare summary of sacrifice; what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”

More than 400,000 are buried here.

The epitaphs are reminders that ever since Union Army Pvt. William Henry Christman became the first to be buried here on May 13, 1864 — 150 years ago Tuesday — this place has always been less about grandeur, stone and protocol than about people.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus touched on this theme before a congregation at an Arlington burial service a year ago for two sailors killed in war: “We are joined as Lincoln again reminded us by ‘the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and every patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone.’”

The sailors’ remains were recovered years earlier from the sunken wreckage of the USS Monitor, famed for battling a Confederate ironclad to a draw in 1862.

As the Civil War dead were carried to their Arlington graves, hundreds gathered. Scattered throughout were sailors of today in dress uniforms eager to link with this moment, each crisply saluting from wherever they stood.

The place is about people.

It was the bitterness of Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery Meigs that first led to the cemetery’s creation.

Angry that his former mentor, Robert E. Lee, had joined the rebellion and desperate for more space to bury the accumulating dead of the Civil War, Meigs recommended that the Lee estate overlooking Washington be turned into a graveyard. Burials had already begun by the time approval came through on June 15, 1864.

A century later, it was with a simple nod of her head that Jacqueline Kennedy acquiesced to the gravesite for her husband on the slope below the Lee Arlington House. She insisted that the assassinated president be laid to rest in a public, accessible place because “he belongs to the people.”

A half-century after that, it was the outpouring of grief by young widows, parents and battle buddies that led to the only consistent splash of color within 624 acres of cemetery — the balloons, childhood drawings, stuffed Easter bunnies and unopened bottles of beer left on the graves of Iraq and Afghanistan war dead.

The now-widely recognized Section 60 is a long stroll from popular tourist sites such as the Kennedy grave and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Unlike the deceased retired military that make up most of the 27-30 burials that occur at Arlington each day, the dead of Section 60 were so young, that the grieving here is far more intense.

So it is a place where a grieving father may be seen laying prostrate on his son’s grave or where a mother sits in a thunderous downpour unaware that her lawn chair is sinking into a softening earth.

Those who mourn regularly have coalesced into a kind of club, but one that one mother conceded “nobody wants to be in.”

For visitors who stroll the walkways or ride the trolleys across the cemetery, there are more stories than a single trip can encompass.

Here are seven seldom-known facts about the people of Arlington National Cemetery:

■ For decades, an area south of the cemetery was home to thousands of former slaves. They began filtering into the capital area shortly after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, hundreds settling near Arlington House. Freedman’s Village was born and thriving with a school, hospital and church until disbanded about 1900, the land eventually included in the cemetery. About 3,200 unmarked contraband graves remain.

■ Among the more infrequent of headstones at Arlington are those with gold lettering against the white marble. There are 403. These signify that the buried service member received the highest valor award — a Medal of Honor. One of the more recent belongs to 19-year-old Army Spc. Ross McGinnis, who lowered himself onto a grenade thrown inside the Humvee he was riding in Iraq in 2006.

■ When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, his younger brother, Robert, urged that the grave be adorned with a simple white cross. He was overruled by his brother’s widow, Jackie. After Robert was assassinated five years later, he was laid to rest near his brother, the grave marked with a simple, white wooden cross. The same now adorns the nearby grave of Edward “Ted” Kennedy. They are the only two wooden crosses in the cemetery.

■ Among 16,000 Civil War dead buried at Arlington, including several hundred Confederate soldiers, is the son of cemetery founder Montgomery Meigs. Lt. John Rodgers Meigs died in a skirmish in October 1864. His father later had him re-interred at Arlington beneath a tomb depicting in statuary the lieutenant’s death scene, his body laying in the mud amid trampling hoof-prints of Confederate horses.

■ Amid the head-stone covered hills of Arlington is one bare but for three graves representing two generations and two wars. One is the grave of Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, who led U.S. forces in World War I. Nearby are two grandsons: John W. Pershing, an Army veteran who died 1998 and Richard W. Pershing, killed in Vietnam in 1968. Along the slopes of the hill are buried troops the elder Pershing commanded.

■ Three of the seven service members depicted in the iconic Marine Corps Memorial, showing the flag raising on Iwo Jima, are buried at Arlington. Two, Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon, survived the battle and lived to see the memorial built just outside the cemetery. The third, Michael Strank, was killed in combat six days after the famous AP photo that inspired the statue was taken.

■ A very rare group at the cemetery are the 184 victims of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. They are represented as co-mingled, unidentified remains buried under a memorial. There are individual victim graves nearby. One person whose remains were never identified was a 3-year-old girl aboard American Airlines Flight 77 that struck the Pentagon. The site is in a distant southeast corner of the cemetery several hundred feet from the Pentagon. It is unique in Arlington to be buried so close to where death occurred, cemetery officials say.

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