By Megan Gambino
October 20, 2009
Robert M. Poole was an editor and writer for National Geographic for 21 years. He retired from the magazine in 2004, the same year that his book Explorer’s House, about the history of National Geographic‘s founding family, was published. Poole has written for National Geographic, Preservation, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Smithsonian, where he has been a contributing editor since 2005. His latest book, On Hallowed Ground, from which “The Battle of Arlington” is adapted, is due out in November.
What drew you to this story—and book idea?
I am keen on the biography of places—in other words, how a particular piece of geography evolves over time, taking on its own distinctive character. So I begin with a stage—in this case 1,100 acres of plantation land known as Arlington—and watch the characters come and go over a 200-year period. Each character brings something new to the place and changes it in some way.
I wish I could say that I developed the idea for my new book, On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery, but it came from my friend and literary agent, Raphael Sagalyn. Living within a few minutes of the cemetery and having visited it many times, I knew the place well, at least superficially, but it was so close to home that it never occurred to me that it might make a book and a magazine piece for Smithsonian. It took someone else to see it for me.
Has Arlington always been a place of interest to you? Can you recall your first visit?
To answer the last part first, I vividly remember my first visit. I was eight years old, Dwight Eisenhower was president, and my family drove up from North Carolina to see the sights, including the White House, the Capitol, the Armed Forces Medical Museum (which featured, among other things, the amputated leg of Civil War Gen. Daniel Sickles in a jar), and Arlington. My parents made my brother and me shut up for the changing of the guard at Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknowns, which was as impressive then as it is now. From that time, and from attending occasional funerals at the cemetery, I retained an interest Arlington. I knew it was one of our nation’s most familiar and important historical sites, but like many others, I never knew why. My book attempts to answer that. It shows how this place, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee, became a pauper’s cemetery, a refuge for freed slaves during the Civil War and gradually a national shrine to those who sacrificed everything in service to our country.
What’s the experience of walking through the cemetery like now, after all the research and writing you’ve done on its history?
I’ve been practically living at Arlington for several years, visiting several times a week, but I must say that I discover something new on each visit, a corner I had missed before, a piece of history that comes into focus. A walk through Arlington is quite literally a walk through history, through all of the wars our nation ever fought—even those predating the Civil War and the creation of the national cemetery. As you would expect, it remains a place of quiet beauty, and one linked, by way of Memorial Bridge and the Lincoln Memorial, to the viewscape of the nation’s capital. Indeed, that view is the reason that President Kennedy is buried there. After looking through the Lee mansion in March of 1963, he stood on the hill looking back across the Potomac River to Washington and remarked to a friend: “So beautiful! I could stay here forever.” His words were prophetic, of course. He returned to Arlington for burial a few months later, in November 1963.
What was your favorite moment in your research?
Getting to know the people who work behind the scenes to keep Arlington going—the specialty teams from the armed services who fire rifle salutes, fold the flags, play the music, drive the caissons; the groundskeepers and chaplains who make sure that a final salute at Arlington is carried out with care and dignity; the Tomb Guards who keep watch at the Tomb of the Unknowns around the clock, rain or shine. It is a remarkable place with a unique history. It is unlike any other place I know, with so many memorable characters, living and dead, that the great challenge for a writer is to pick a few to carry the story.