On this day in 1862, United States National Cemeteries were authorized by the Federal government. “United States national cemetery” is a designation for 146 nationally important cemeteries, which are generally military cemeteries containing the graves of U.S. military personnel, veterans and their spouses, but not exclusively so. Some national cemeteries, especially Arlington National Cemetery, contain the graves of important civilian leaders, to include U.S. Presidents, as well as other important national figures. Some national cemeteries, including Arlington, also contain sections for Confederate soldiers. More than 3,800 former slaves, called “Contrabands” during the Civil War, are also buried at Arlington National, with the designation “Civilian” or “Citizen” on their headstones. In addition to national cemeteries there are also state veteran cemeteries.
In observance of this, on this bike ride I went to Arlington National Cemetery, which is located in Arlington County, Virginia (MAP), directly across the Potomac River from The Lincoln Memorial . Arlington National is a U.S. military cemetery beneath whose 624 acres have been laid more than 400,000 casualties, and deceased veterans, of the nation’s conflicts beginning with the American Civil War. Arlington National also contains the reinterred dead from earlier wars, making it the only national cemetery to hold servicemen from every war in U.S. history.
The cemetery was established during the Civil War on the grounds of Arlington House, also known as Custis-Lee Mansion, which had been the estate of the family of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary Anna Custis Lee, who was also a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. The Lees had lived there for over thirty years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. The government seized the property in 1864 as part of a dispute over a $92.07 tax bill, and began to use the property as a cemetery. In 1882, almost twenty years later and more than a decade after Lee’s death, the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. government had seized his estate without due process and ordered it returned to his family in the same condition as when it was illegally confiscated. If followed, the ruling could have required the exhumation of all of Arlington’s dead, which at that time was approximately 17,000. Instead, the Lee family officially sold the property to Congress for $150,000 the following year.
Arlington National Cemetery also houses a number of other memorials on its grounds, including the Tomb of the Unknowns, in honor of those who lay unidentified on the battlefields of freedom. Additional memorials at the cemetery include: the USS Maine Mast Memorial; the Spanish-American War Nurses Memorial; Chaplains Hill, which includes monuments to Jewish, Protestant, and Roman Catholic military chaplains; the Confederate Memorial dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy; the Eternal Flame marking President John F. Kennedy’s grave; the Lockerbie Cairn Memorial to the 270 killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland; the Space Shuttle Challenger and the Space Shuttle Columbia Memorials, as well as; a section of burial ground for military personnel killed in the Global War on Terror.
It is listed as the Arlington National Cemetery Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. But despite its rich history, it is important to remember that Arlington National Cemetery is still an active cemetery. It averages about 5,000 funerals each year. Funerals are normally conducted six days a week, Monday through Saturday. Arlington averages 27 to 30 funerals, including interments and inurnments, each and every weekday. And six to eight services on Saturdays. It is for this reason that the flags on the cemetery grounds are flown at half-staff from a half hour before the first funeral until a half hour after the last funeral each day.