Posts Tagged ‘Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’

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The Sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknowns

Since 1937 the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery (MAP) has been guarded every minute of every day, 365 days a year, even when the cemetery is closed and in any kind of weather. It is guarded by Tomb Guard sentinels, who are considered to be the best of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard,” headquartered at Fort Myer, Virginia, which is adjacent to the cemetery. Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military.

Because it is considered such a high honor, the process to become a sentinel is incredibly difficult. Members of the Old Guard must volunteer for the position. Volunteers who are accepted are then assigned to Company E of The Old Guard. Each soldier must be in superb physical condition, possess an unblemished military record and be between 5 feet, 10 inches and 6 feet, 4 inches tall for males or 5 feet, 8 inches and 6 feet, 2 inches tall for females with a proportionate weight and build. An interview and a two-week trial to determine a volunteer’s capability to be trained as a sentinel then is required.

During the trial phase, would-be sentinels memorize seven pages of Arlington National Cemetery history. This information must be recited verbatim in order to earn a “walk.” A walk occurs between guard changes. A daytime walk is one-half hour in the summer and one hour in the winter. All night walks are one hour.

And each walk performed by a tomb sentinel is identical, with the steps the sentinels perform having specific meaning. Everything the sentinels do is a series of 21, which symbolizes the 21-gun salute, the highest military honor that can be bestowed, and is reserved for the President and foreign heads of state, but also for the Unknowns.

The sentinel marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process. After the turn, the sentinel executes a sharp “shoulder-arms” movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors to signify that the sentinel stands between the Tomb and any possible threat.

The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change Ceremony begins with the appearance of a relief commander, who will approach and salute the Tomb. The commander then turns to the crowd and asks everyone to rise and remain silent during the ceremony. As the Commander is speaking, the relief sentinel will report. The commander will walk over to the relief sentinel and conduct a full inspection of the new sentinel, inspecting the weapon and the sentinel himself. This is a real inspection and the relief sentinel can be sent away, leaving the current sentinel in place till the next scheduled Changing of the Guard. If approved, both the commander and relief sentinel will walk to the middle to meet with the posted sentinel, all the while keeping in step with each other. At this point, the ceremony concludes when the posted sentinel step off of the mat and faces the relief sentinel. Both sentinels will acknowledge each other with orders. All three will salute the Tomb, then the relief sentinel will step onto the mat and take over where the now relieved sentinel left off. Both the commander and the relieved sentinel will then walk off in step with each other and exit to the right, concluding the ceremony.

Duty time when not “walking” is spent in the Tomb Guard Quarters below the Memorial Display Room of the Memorial Amphitheater where they study cemetery “knowledge,” clean their weapons and help the rest of their relief prepare for the Changing of the Guard. The guards also train on their days off.

If a soldier successfully passes the training during the trial phase, “new-soldier” training begins. New sentinels learn the history of Arlington National Cemetery and the grave locations of nearly 300 veterans. They learn the guard-change ceremony and the manual of arms that takes place during the inspection portion of the Changing of the Guard. Sentinels also learn to keep their uniforms and weapons in immaculate condition, a meticulous process that by itself can take up to eight hours each day.

After several months of walking and serving, sentinels are then tested to earn the privilege of wearing the silver Tomb Guard Identification Badge. First, they are tested on their manual of arms, uniform preparation and their walks. Then, the Badge Test is given. The test is 100 randomly selected questions of the 300 items memorized during training on the history of Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The would-be badge holder must get more than 95 percent correct to succeed.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Sentinels are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over.

The Sentinel’s Creed

My dedication to this sacred duty is total and whole-hearted.
In the responsibility bestowed on me never will I falter.
And with dignity and perseverance my standard will remain perfection.
Through the years of diligence and praise and the discomfort of the elements,
I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability.
It is he who commands the respect I protect, his bravery that made us so proud.
Surrounded by well meaning crowds by day, alone in the thoughtful peace of night,
this soldier will in honored glory rest under my eternal vigilance.

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NOTE:  Due to the coronavirus pandemic Arlington National Cemetery is closed to visitors until further notice.  Funerals, however, are proceeding as scheduled albeit with certain limitations.  Please check their website for specific and updated information.

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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.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution

On this bike ride I went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. However, I did not ride to the widely-known memorial at Arlington National Cemetery which holds the unidentified remains of soldiers from World War I, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. I rode to the one located in a cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia, which holds the remains of an unknown soldier of the American Revolution. Unknown to most tourists and even longtime area residents, the Revolutionary soldier’s gravesite is the original Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

It is not included in Alexandria’s official walking-tour guide handed out at the city’s visitor center. Washington tourism materials don’t give it much regard, and the tomb is mentioned only briefly, if at all, in any guidebooks written about the area. Tucked away in the corner of the burial ground and backed up against a wall of an adjacent building, it can be difficult to locate even if you know where to look. I was fortunate to just accidently happen upon it when I was riding around and exploring.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution is located in a small burial ground behind the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, which is located at 323 South Fairfax Street (MAP) in the Old Town district of the city of Alexandria.  In addition to the unidentified soldier who is honored by the tomb, the burial ground, which was founded in 1775, is the final resting place of approximately 300 persons, including many other patriots of the Revolutionary War.

The remains entombed in the Alexandria memorial were unearthed during an 1821 construction project when workers dug a foundation for a Catholic chapel behind the Old Presbyterian Meeting House and found an unmarked grave with an ammunition box serving as a coffin. The uniform identified the soldier as from Revolutionary War and uniform adornments indicated he was from Kentucky. The remains were reinterred at their present location behind the meeting house on January 21, 1821, more than 100 years prior to the dedication of Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns, which took place on November 11, 1921.

The tabletop epitaph on top of the marble marker for the Tomb has faded with time, but is still legible. The inscription is remarkably similar to the inscription on the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National, and reads, “Here lies a soldier of the Revolution whose identity is known but to God.” The inscription at the memorial in Arlington reads, “Here reset in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” An additional inscription on a plaque in front of the memorial, similar to that found on the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington, reads, “In Memory of an Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution. Erected by the National Society Children of the American Revolution. April 10, 1929. Temporary Marker Place by American Legion Post No. 21, Alexandria Virginia February 22, 1928.”

The Old Presbyterian Meeting House, which is the caretaker for burial ground where the tomb is located reports that, on average, only handful of people per day pick up the pamphlet explaining the memorial. This does not compare with the approximately 11,000 people who enter Arlington National Cemetery each day to view the Tomb of the Unknowns. Also, there are no guards before the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier. Rather, only a small wrought-iron fence surrounds the gravesite. This stands in stark contrast to the Sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknowns, who stand guard while “walking the mat” in perfectly measured steps.   However, despite the fact that the small marble Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution cannot compete in regard to size, the number of visitors, or the grandeur of the Tomb of the Unknowns or the other giant memorials, statues and monuments throughout the national capitol area, it ranks right up there with all of them in terms of history and meaning.

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Arlington Memorial Bridge

Arlington Memorial Bridge

Widely regarded as D.C.’s most beautiful bridge, Arlington Memorial Bridge spans the Potomac River and is one of nine bridges that connect the National Capital City to the Commonwealth of Virginia. It is located at the western end of the National Mall (MAP), and in part constitutes a formal terminus of the Mall.

A masonry, steel, and stone arch bridge with a central drawbridge, Arlington Memorial Bridge was designed in the Neoclassical architectural style. Except for the draw span, the bridge is of reinforced concrete construction faced with dressed North Carolina granite ashlar. The draw span is of the double leaf, underneath counterweight type and is faced with pressed ornamental steel made to blend with the masonry spans. At the time it was built, the draw span was the longest, heaviest and fastest in the world, although it is now sealed and inoperative. The bridge is 2,163 feet long, carrying a 60-foot-wide roadway and 15-foot sidewalks on either side.

Arlington Memorial Bridge also contains some ornamental characteristics typical of the “City Beautiful Movement” which was taking place in D.C. at the time it was designed. This reform philosophy of North American architecture and urban planning flourished during the 1890s and 1900s with the intent of introducing beautification and monumental grandeur in cities. However, it promoted beauty not only for its own sake, but also to instill moral and civic virtue among urban populations. The northeastern entrance to the Arlington Memorial Bridge features “The Arts of War” sculptures, Sacrifice and Valor, which were completed by Leo Friedlander in 1951. On the pylons of each pier of the bridge are large circular discs with eagles and fasces designed by sculptor Carl Paul Jennewein.

Congress first proposed a bridge at the site of the current structure on May 24, 1886. However, the bridge went unbuilt for decades thanks to political quarrels over whether the bridge should be a memorial, and to whom or what. Then in November of 1921, President Warren G. Harding was travelling to the dedication ceremony for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery when he was caught in a three-hour traffic jam because the existing bridges at the time could not handle the traffic. Resolving to prevent that from happening again, President Harding sought an appropriation to fund the work to build a bridge. Congress subsequently approved his request in June of the following year. Construction finally began in 1927, and took six more years to complete. The dedication ceremony was on January 16, 1932, headed by President Herbert Hoover. Arlington Memorial Bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Today Arlington Memorial Bridge is a major entryway and commuter route into the city. But the years of heavy use have taken their toll, and although the bridge has received various relatively minor repairs over the years, it has never had a major overhaul or restoration. In a report two years ago, the Federal Highway Administration called for a complete overhaul of the bridge. And after a major inspection of the bridge, the National Park Service transportation division head Charles N. Borders, II, stated “The bridge … is really at the end of, and beyond, its life cycle.”

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