Arlington National Cemetery is a U.S. military cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C. The site, once the home of legendary Confederate Army commander Robert E. Lee, is now the burial ground for more than 400,000 active duty service members, veterans and family members. The cemetery contains several memorials including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument dedicated to U.S. service members whose remains were never identified.
Arlington National Cemetery is built on plantation land that once belonged to George Washington Parke Custis. Custis was the grandson of Martha Washington and the step-grandson of President George Washington.
The plantation is located on a hilltop overlooking the Potomac River and Washington, D.C. Custis inherited the 1,100-acre plantation from his father at the age of 21 in 1802. He built Arlington House, a Greek Revival-style mansion on the property as a tribute to George Washington and filled the home with many of Washington’s belongings.
In 1857, Custis willed the property to his daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis. Mary was the wife of Robert E. Lee, then a military officer in the U.S. Army.
Lee took command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at the onset of the Civil War in 1861. The Lee family vacated the property that spring as Union troops advanced into the Virginia hills outside of Washington, D.C.
Civil War Burials
Beginning on May 24, 1861, the Union Army used the land and house as a camp and headquarters.
As the carnage of the Civil War entered its third year, fatalities began to outpace the burial capacity at Washington, D.C.-area cemeteries. To address the problem, the federal government designated Arlington as a national military cemetery in 1864.
Private William Christman of Pennsylvania was the first military service member buried at Arlington on May 13, 1864. Christman was a farmer, newly recruited into the Army. He fell ill with the measles and died several days later of complications before ever going into combat.
Approximately 16,000 Civil War soldiers are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1914, a Confederate Memorial was added to section 16 where 482 Confederate Army troops are buried.
In June 1863, the U.S. government established a Freedman’s Village for African Americans on a portion of the Arlington estate. The village consisted of enslaved people who were freed by advancing Union forces (referred to as “Contrabands”) or those who had escaped from nearby Virginia and Maryland plantations.
At its height, roughly 1,100 former enslaved people lived in the village. Some were employed in government jobs on the estate or on nearby farms growing food for the Union Army.
Freedman’s Village was a bustling town with homes, churches, stores, a hospital and a school for nearly 30 years. The federal government closed down Freedman’s Village in 1900 to make room for more burial plots.
Arlington National Cemetery’s Section 27 contains the graves of nearly 3,800 former slaves, though no residents from Freedman’s Village are buried there. The word “Contraband” was originally inscribed on these gravestones, though the headstone inscriptions have now been changed to read “Civilian” or “Citizen.”
Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, or Tomb of the Unknowns, is a monument at Arlington National Cemetery dedicated to unidentified U.S. service members who died in the line of duty. It is considered the most hallowed grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated on November 11, 1921 during an Armistice Day ceremony commemorating World War I veterans. President Warren G. Harding presided over the ceremony. (In the United States, Armistice Day later became Veteran’s Day to honor veterans of all wars.)
The Unknown Soldier of World War I was exhumed from a military cemetery in France and buried with highest honors beside the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington. A two-inch layer of soil brought from France was placed below the coffin.
The ornate marble sarcophagus, completed in 1932, reads, “Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God.”
In 1998, the remains of the Vietnam Unknown were exhumed and identified by scientists as those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, who was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. Blassie’s remains were returned to his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. The crypt that contained the Vietnam unknown remains vacant.
Future of Arlington National Cemetery
Currently, as many as 30 U.S. service members or relatives are buried at Arlington each day. The cemetery, which has gone through several expansions through the years, now spans 624 acres, roughly one square mile.
The Millennium Expansion Project, started in 2014, adds 27 acres and roughly 30,000 additional burial plots to the cemetery. Even with the expansion, Arlington National Cemetery is expected to reach capacity by the 2040s.
History of Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington National Cemetery.
How Arlington National Cemetery Came to Be. Smithsonian Magazine.
8 Things You Didn’t Know About Arlington National Cemetery. PBS NewsHour.