On May 5, 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, the head of an organization of former Union soldiers and sailors — the Grand Army of the Republic — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers.
Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared the day of remembrance should be May 30. A large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The cemetery already held the remains of 20,000 Union and several hundred Confederate soldiers.
Presided over by Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant and other Washington officials, the ceremonies centered around the veranda of Arlington House.
As Memorial Day, as it is now known, approaches, it is significant to note that on May 13, 1864, the first soldier was buried at the mansion on the cemetery grounds, Arlington House. We now know the property as Arlington National Cemetery, the revered final resting place of more than 400,000 stories of the heart.
According to the Library of Congress, one of the first persons buried at Arlington was a Confederate prisoner of war. “The prisoner, who had died at a local hospital, was … buried at the cemetery, located on the Potomac River. … It now contains the graves of soldiers from every war in which the United States has participated, including the American Revolution.”
According to the cemetery’s official website, Pvt. William Henry Christman, of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, was the first “military service man” interred. He had only been in the Army for 90 days and died of peritonitis.
Pvt. William H. McKinney, of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, also was interred May 13, 1864. He was only 17 years-old and was the first to have his family present at the funeral.
The first draftee buried there was Pvt. William Reeves, 76th New York Infantry. He also was buried on May 13, 1864. The first battlefield casualty to be interred was Pvt. William Blatt of the 49th Pennsylvania Infantry — on May 14, 1864.
The only person to be buried in the cemetery who was born on the property was the person who dug the first graves, James Parks, a former enslaved man. Approximately 1,500 members of the “first black combat soldiers of the Civil War,” from the famed United States Colored Troops, are buried in a particularly hallowed area of the property identified as “Section 27.” The web site notes that nearly 3,800 “former slaves who were living in Freedman’s Village on the Arlington Estate,” are buried in Section 27.
The Library of Congress notes that Arlington House, the mansion on the property, was built in 1802 by George Washington Parke Custis, whom the Arlington Cemetery website history identifies as the “first president’s adopted grandson … son of John Parke Custis, who himself was a child of Martha Washington by her first marriage and a ward of George Washington.”
In 1831, Custis’ daughter, Mary Anna, married Lt. Robert E. Lee in the main hall of the mansion.” Yes, that Robert E. Lee. The Confederate general lived there from 1857 until he “took command of Confederate troops in the Civil War” in April 1861.
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After his departure in 1861, Union troops seized the property and made it into a military headquarters and camp, under the command of Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs. It is, after all, only 3.8 miles from the U.S. Capitol.
After the war, Gen. Lee’s oldest son, Custis Lee, and heir to the property, took issue with the federal government’s seizure of the historic family estate and took his case to have it returned to the family to the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision in December, 1882, the court decided in favor of Custis Lee and returnedthe property. Lee subsequently sold the property to the federal government on March 3, 1883 for $150,000.
Today, Arlington is not simply a part of history. It is the final resting place of more than 400,000 individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice and whose friends, loved ones, and families were left behind to mourn. Previous versions of this story have been published by this writer before. It is a story that bears repeating — over and over again.
Carroll County has many ties to Arlington Cemetery. Army Capt. Sara M. Knutson-Cullen, 27, of Eldersburg died on March 11, 2013, while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Knutson-Cullen was a 2003 graduate of Liberty High School and a 2007 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In April 2013, she was laid to rest in Section 60.
Today Section 60 is in the hearts of many. That is the section where many of the fallen from Afghanistan and Iraq have been laid to rest.
Appropriately, CBS News observed that Arlington is, “A place of profound sorrow open for everyone to visit. But only those who have served their country with honor are allowed to stay.”
This coming Memorial Day, say a prayer for those who stay behind at Arlington and no longer have a voice. Keep them first in your hearts.