Arlington at 150

From John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, to Arctic explorer Robert Peary and Heavyweight Champion of the World Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis, Arlington National Cemetery has its share of notable graves to visit.

As the cemetery celebrates its 150th anniversary this weekend, the honor that comes with being buried in Arlington continues to be as notable as it’s been in decades and centuries past.

Linda Steelman, 67, of Marietta, attended the funerals there of both her parents. She said the impressive thing is that rank doesn’t matter in the massive cemetery.

“When you look at the acres and acres of beautiful white stones…It didn’t matter if you’re some high ranking official or a private; everybody served,” she said.

According to local funeral homes there have been at least 20 local people/relatives of local people buried in Arlington in years with records accessible. There are 12 Washington County Civil War veterans there.

Steve Carney, command historian for Arlington National Cemetery, said the history of Arlington runs deep, starting with Martha Washington’s first husband, Daniel Custis.

“George Washington raises (her) two children,” said Carney. “Eventually the property is owned by George Washington Parke Custis (a grandson to George Washington) and he has the idea to set up a living memorial…to George Washington.”

Carney said eventually, the property passed to Mary Custis, who married Robert E. Lee. Lee left to join the Virginia Militia and Mary left when Virginia seceded from the Union. The home became a military site, high on a hill overlooking Washington D.C.

“In 1863, there was the Freedman’s village here,” he said. “(Brig. Gen.) Montgomery Meigs was a Georgian by birth, but chose to stay in the U.S. Army. He’s very disillusioned and…angry that other Southern-born officers in the U.S. Army…resigned their commissions.”

One of the first things Meigs did after establishing Arlington as a national cemetery was order soldiers to be buried near the home Lee occupied, said Carney.

“By June 15, there were probably 1,000 soldiers, both U.S. and Confederate, who were buried here,” he said. “Clearly one reason Arlington was established was to punish Robert E. Lee. That is definitely part of it, but it’s a little more complex than that.”

Carney said the high number of soldiers dying contributed to the establishment too.

“There were just so many soldiers who were dying at hospitals in the D.C. area with wounds and who were infected with disease. The first burial here (on May 13, 1864) had measles before he died…There were so many soldiers dying and no suitable burial space. That’s been a problem in the District of Columbia since our founding.”

The estate, which used to be 1,100 acres, is now about 630. There are plans for expansion that are currently ongoing, to ensure Arlington can continue to be an active place of burial until the 22nd century, said Carney. About 400,000 people are currently buried there and 3.5 million people visit the cemetery each year.

Bill Peoples, owner of Cawley and Peoples Funeral Home in Marietta, has performed graveside services at several funerals, including at Steelman’s father’s service.

“We don’t do that many over there because of distance,” he said. “I think overall people like to have (a funeral and interment) close by…We’ve probably done half a dozen (services at Arlington).”

Peoples said there are some challenges to doing a funeral at the 150-year-old cemetery.

“Challenges typically are when we have burials,” he said. “(It’s usually) done in three to four days’ time…As far as burials, it could be weeks, six to eight weeks, before we can have a burial at Arlington. That becomes a challenge…We have to keep the body here for that period…and the family understands that going into it.”

Peoples said that in addition, there is the distance to drive there.

“At the appropriate time, we drive over and usually the family drives, and we have a service at the graveside,” he said. “It’s very organized, as you would expect the military to be.”

He said from a professional standpoint, the services are inspiring.

“We’re just in awe of how organized it is, even though (it takes) six weeks,” he said.

Scott Britton, local historian and director of The Castle, said the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is especially moving.

“It’s really one of the most impressive things that you’ll ever witness…regardless of your background,” he said. “All the symbolism behind that, it’s moving. Even very small kids when witnessing it know it’s something special; their whole attitude changes.”

Carney said the cemetery’s significance really took off after President John F. Kennedy was buried there.

“The number of requests every year, from the time of his funeral to 1967 either tripled or quadrupled,” he said. “It was the first time an average member of the American public got to see on TV what kind of honors and tradition of funerals are here at Arlington National Cemetery.”

The history of the cemetery is the history of the nation, said Carney.

“We have veterans from every one of the American wars, from the American Revolution (to present),” he said. “We really can tell the history of our country through the military and people who sacrificed their lives.”

Peoples said the appeal of Arlington for families is that’s a place of honor and distinction.

“It’s pretty hallowed ground with the presidents and officers (buried there),” he said. “The service is the same, whether (someone was) a four star general or a private. The grave sites are the same, no matter what…It (is) very impressive to see. Some have other family there, and want a loved one to be there too. They won’t be in the same location, but some say, ‘Dad’s brother is buried there, we’d like to honor dad.'”

Steelman said the appeal for her is the way her family was treated and seeing her mother receive her father’s flag.

“I think what impressed me the most was the folding of the flag,” she said. “It’s one of the most moving things in a person’s life. When (that soldier) knelt and handed it to Mother, that pretty much did me in. Just watching these people care for and serve (my) family was a pretty neat thing.”

For Williamstown resident Don Badgley, 74, it’s a thrill to say his brother is in Arlington.

“I’m very happy and overwhelmed with it,” he said. “It’s an honor for me to know my brother is buried there. He accomplished so much. I’m overjoyed and proud of him.”

Wood County resident Brian Dempster, 54, said he’s very proud of his father, William Dempster, who served in World War II.

“I’m very proud of him and he earned it,” Dempster said. “He was quite the war hero but he never talked about it; men of that generation never did…I carry a copy of his obituary in my wallet…I’m quite pleased and proud. (Someone asks), ‘Where’s your father buried?’ Oh he’s buried in Arlington Cemetery. It feels good. I’m so happy I got him in there; he earned it.”