Virginia: Arlington National Cemetery Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Of the more than one hundred national cemeteries in the United States, Arlington is one of only two administered by the U.S. Army and has the second largest number of people buried within its boundaries, over 260,000 persons. Veterans from all the nation’s wars, from the American Revolution onward, are buried there. The remains of those now at Arlington National Cemetery who were killed before the Civil War were reinterred there after 1900.

Site Office

Superintendent

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington, VA 22211-5003

ph.: (703) 289-2500

fax: (703) 697-4967

Web site: www.mdw.army.mil/cemetery.htm

Every year, between four and five million people visit Arlington National Cemetery to tour the grounds and pay homage to those who served their nation in the armed forces, government, or public office. The land constituting the cemetery was first established as a place to bury the nation’s military dead during the Civil War, when a 200-acre plot was set aside for that purpose. Since that time the land dedicated has been expanded to over three times its original size.

Arlington House

The 612-acre property now containing Arlington National Cemetery was once part of an 1,100-acre plantation owned by George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington by her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. Young George Custis was raised by his grandmother and her second husband, George Washington, at Mount Vernon, and when he reached adulthood he became determined to perpetuate the memory and principles of the first U.S. president. He was only three years old when he inherited the 1,100-acre plantation upon the death of his own father. At one point he thought about naming the estate Mount Washington, but he finally chose Arlington because it was the name of the Custis family ancestral estate in the Tidewater area (eastern shore) of Virginia.

Custis hired an English architect named George Hadfield to design the mansion on his estate. Hadfield had come to Washington in 1785 to help build the U.S. Capitol. Begun in 1802 but not completed until 1818, Arlington House was constructed in the Greek revival style and was completed in stages. The central section contained a formal dining room, a sitting room, and a large hall. One of the most recognizable features of the mansion’s central section is the exterior portico displaying eight large columns, each approximately five feet in diameter at the base.

George Washington Parke Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh in 1804, and the two lived in Arlington House until their deaths in 1857 and 1853, respectively. They were buried close to each other on the property. Over the years their mansion home became a treasury of Washington heirlooms, including portraits, Washington’s personal papers and clothes, and the command tent which the great commander in chief had used at the Battle of Yorktown.

The plantation was next inherited by the couple’s only surviving child, Mary Ann Randolph Custis, who was born in 1808. On June 30, 1831, Mary Ann married a recent graduate of West Point, Lieutenant Robert E. Lee, and they also lived at Arlington House for the next thirty years. Though the Lees spent much of their time traveling between U.S. Army duty stations and Arlington, six of their seven children were born at Arlington. Lee was at home on April 20, 1861, when he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army in the wake of Virginia’s secession from the Union just three days before. On April 22, Lee left Arlington for Richmond to accept command of Virginia’s military forces. He never returned to Arlington. About one month later, with the occupation of Arlington House by Union forces imminent, Mary Ann Lee also left the home, managing to save only some family valuables.

As Union troops under the command of Brigadier General Irvin McDowell crossed the Potomac and took up positions around Arlington House, fortifications were erected at several locations around the 1,100-acre estate, including Fort Whipple, which became Fort Myer. Arlington House became a headquarters for Union officers supervising the defenses of Washington, D.C., and though many of the Lee family possessions were moved to the U.S. Patent Office for safekeeping, some items, including Mount Vernon heirlooms, were looted.

The National Cemetery

Wartime law required property owners in areas occupied by Union troops to pay their property taxes in person. Because the Lees failed to appear to pay their $92.07 tax bill, Arlington House and the accompanying estate were confiscated by the federal government, offered for sale on January 11, 1864, and purchased by a tax commissioner for government, military, charitable, and educational purposes. Six months later, Arlington National Cemetery was established when a portion of the Arlington estate was appropriated for use as a military burial ground by Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs, commander of the garrison at Arlington House. On June 15, 1864, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton officially declared the Arlington mansion and two hundred acres of surrounding land a military cemetery, and sixty-five Union soldiers were interred there. By the end of the Civil War, more than sixteen thousand headstones dotted the cemetery’s landscape. Among the first monuments erected on the estate to honor the Union dead was a stone and masonry vault containing the remains of some eighteen hundred casualties from the Battle of Bull Run, built by order of General Meigs. Later Meigs himself was buried on the grounds within one hundred yards of Arlington House, along with his father, mother, and wife.

Neither Robert E. Lee nor his wife (the official titleholder of the estate) ever attempted to recover their lost property. After Lee’s death in 1870, George Washington Custis Lee, the oldest son of General and Mrs. Lee, filed suit to regain the Arlington estate, claiming the land had been confiscated illegally and that he was the legal owner. In December, 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, returned the property to Lee, agreeing that the property had been confiscated without due process. However, in March, 1883, Lee accepted a congressional settlement of $150,000 as compensation for the property.

For several years the superintendent and staff of the cemetery used Arlington House for office space and living quarters. In 1925 the War Department began restoring the mansion to its original condition. In 1933 oversight responsibilities for the mansion were transferred to the National Park Service, and in 1955 it was designated as a memorial to Robert E. Lee. Arlington House may be visited during designated operating hours; brochures are available for self-guided tours.

Tomb of the Unknowns

The Tomb of the Unknowns, originally known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, is is one of the most-visited places at Arlington National Cemetery. On March 4, 1921, the U.S. Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American soldier from World War I at Arlington. On Memorial Day of that year, four unknowns were exhumed from American cemeteries in France, and one was selected to be transported to the United States for reinterment. President Warren G. Harding officiated at the interment ceremonies at Arlington on November 11, 1921.

The tomb is a sarcophagus of white marble quarried in Colorado. It consists of seven pieces weighing seventy-nine tons. The north and south sides of the tomb are divided into three panels each by Doric pilasters or columns carved into the sides. Sculpted into the east side, which faces Washington, D.C., are three Greek figures representing Peace, Victory, and Valor. Inscribed on the west, or back, side are the words “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” The tomb was completed and opened to the public on April 9, 1932.

On August 3, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill to select and memorialize unknowns of World War II and the Korean War. President Eisenhower presided over reinterment ceremonies on May 30, 1958. An unknown soldier of the Vietnam conflict was reburied at Arlington on May 28, 1984, under the direction of President Ronald Reagan. The U.S. Army began guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns on April 6, 1948, and it is now guarded twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.

Memorial Amphitheater

Another important site on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery is the Memorial Amphitheater, which was the dream of Judge Ivory G. Kimball, who wanted visitors to have a place to meet and honor America’s defenders and fallen heroes. Because of Kimball’s efforts, Congress authorized the construction of the amphitheater in March, 1913. Groundbreaking for the structure took place on March 1, 1915; President Woodrow Wilson laid its cornerstone on October 15, 1915, and the amphitheater was dedicated on May 15, 1920. Items placed within a box inside the cornerstone included a copy of the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, a U.S. flag from 1915, and several other items. The amphitheater is constructed of marble quarried in Vermont. A Memorial Display Room, situated between the Memorial Amphitheater and Tomb of the Unknowns, is made of marble imported from Italy and houses plaques and tributes presented in honor of those buried in the tomb. Among the many inscriptions found in various locations around the amphitheater is a quotation from the Roman poet, Horace, etched above the west entrance: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country).

About five thousand visitors attend each of the three major memorial services held every year on Easter, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day. The services are sponsored by the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, though several other military organizations also conduct memorial services in the amphitheater.

On December 4, 1863, near where the Memorial Amphitheater now stands, the federal government established a community for freed slaves, the Freedman’s Village, which provided food, housing, medical care, employment training, and education for former slaves who migrated to the area; the village operated for more than thirty years. Over eleven hundred freed slaves were given some land by the government, where they farmed and lived; however, they were removed in 1890, when that portion of the Arlington estate was dedicated as a military installation.

Visiting Arlington

Arlington National Cemetery is an active military cemetery, conducting about fifty-four hundred burials each year (between twenty-two and twenty-four funerals Monday through Friday). Because of limited space, eligibility for burial at Arlington is restricted to specific categories of honorably discharged U.S. servicemen and servicewomen. More information can be obtained from the Superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery. In addition to subterranean interment, Arlington also has a large columbarium for housing cremated remains–ultimately a total of 50,000 niches capable of holding 100,000 remains. Any honorably discharged veteran is eligible for inurnment in the columbarium.

A new cemetery visitors’ center was opened in January, 1990. Situated near the cemetery entrance, it provides parking, historical information, and gravesite location information. Removal of the old visitors’ center allowed for expansion of the cemetery, making 9,500 additional grave sites available. An atrium inside the visitors’ center contains exhibits and an information hall. Arlington National Cemetery is a sobering reminder of those who have served their country.

For Further Information
  • Ashabranner, Brent. A Grateful Nation: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery. New York: George Putnam’s Sons, 1990. Written with younger audiences in mind, this work traces the history of the national cemetery and shrine to American heroes.
  • Hinkel, John Vincent. Arlington: Monument to Heroes. New and enlarged ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1970. An excellent resource, which lays out the history of the cemetery and highlights stories of some of the men and women buried at Arlington who served in the armed forces. Some maps are included.
  • National Park Service, Division of Publications. Arlington House: A Guide to Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, Virginia. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1985. A succinct, helpful guide to the Arlington estate mansion, containing history, photographs, and illustrations.
  • Peters, James Edward. Arlington National Cemetery, Shrine to America’s Heroes. Kensington, Md.: Woodbine House, 1986. Perhaps the most helpful and comprehensive book for both historians and tourists. Contains histories and descriptions of the cemetery’s many monuments.
  • Reef, Catherine. Arlington National Cemetery. New York: Dillon Press, 1991. For juvenile audiences. This work examines the history and current activities of the most famous of our national burial places.
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