civilwarunknowns01

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, also known as the Tomb of the Unknowns, is not the only local memorial dedicated to soldiers who had died in battle but later could not be identified.  There is The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution, located in the churchyard Burial Ground of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria.  And during this lunchtime bike ride, I rode to another of these memorials.  I visited The Civil War Unknowns Memorial.  It is also located in Arlington National Cemetery, on the grounds of Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial.  And the memorial I saw today actually predates the other two, making it the earliest such memorial in the local area.

In 1865, U.S. Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs decided to build a memorial to Civil War dead.  The following year, in September of 1866, The Civil War Unknowns Memorial, was dedicated.  It stands atop a masonry vault containing the remains of 2,111 soldiers gathered from the battlefields of first and second battles of Bull Run as well as the route of the Union army’s retreat along the Rappahannock River.  The remains were found scattered across the battlefields or in trenches and brought to the cemetery.  None were identifiable.  And because in some instances only a few bones or a skull was recovered, it is presumed the vault contains the remains of both Confederate and Union Soldiers.

In constructing the memorial a circular pit, measuring approximately 20 feet wide and 20 feet deep, was dug.  The walls and floor were lined with brick, and it was segmented it into compartments with mortared brick walls.  Into each compartment were placed a different body part: skulls, legs, arms, ribs, etc.  The vault was then  sealed with concrete and soil.  Atop the burial vault was placed a 6-foot tall, 12-foot long, and 4-foot wide grey granite and concrete cenotaph, which was personally designed by General Meigs.  On the west face is an inscription that reads:

BENEATH THIS STONE
REPOSE THE BONES OF TWO THOUSAND ONE HUNDRED AND ELEVEN UNKNOWN SOLDIERS
GATHERED AFTER THE WAR
FROM THE FIELDS OF BULL RUN, AND THE ROUTE TO THE RAPPAHANOCK,
THEIR REMAINS COULD NOT BE IDENTIFIED. BUT THEIR NAMES AND DEATHS ARE
RECORDED IN THE ARCHIVES OF THEIR COUNTRY, AND ITS GRATEFUL CITIZENS
HONOR THEM AS OF THEIR NOBLE ARMY OF MARTYRS. MAY THEY REST IN PEACE.
SEPTEMBER. A. D. 1866.

The original memorial has undergone a number of aesthetic changes over the years.  But it’s original purpose, to honor our country’s unidentified dead from the Civil War, remains unchanged.

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