On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery

Author Magazine
By A.B. Mead
November, 2009

The story of Arlington begins as the story of Robert E. Lee’s private estate. Scarcely had he and his family abandoned it to flee to Richmond at the start of the Civil War, when the U.S. Government annexed it. The property was too strategically located to allow if to fall into enemy hands. The War caused so many deaths that President Lincoln and congress had to create America’s first military cemeteries, and, after ironically serving as a camp for freed slaves, Arlington slowly began to fill up with corpses. The war ended, but, in order to discourage the Lee family from trying to reclaim it, over 2,000 unknown soldiers were buried in a huge pit near Mrs. Lee’s garden. The Lee family fought long and hard to recover Arlington, eventually ending up in the Supreme Court, where they won, but were bought out by the government for a small fortune. When victims of the sinking of the Maine were buried there, Arlington became not merely a Civil War cemetery, but a national one. It soon became the place to remember those who assisted the nation. Revolutionary War and Confederate soldiers were disinterred and reburied there. Pierre L’Enfant, the architect behind much of Washington, D.C. was exhumed in Maryland and reburied where he would have “the best view of Washington at his feet.” The Pentagon was originally supposed to be built on the grounds, but some said it would have ruined the aesthetic flow, and Franklin D. Roosevelt had to settle the matter personally. But it was the burial of John F. Kennedy that seared the cemetery into the world’s consciousness. The number of visitors more than tripled after his internment was televised. Today, Arlington continues its duty, housing the remains of those who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq in the newly-opened Section 60, called “the saddest acre in America.”