Another Union soldier would be buried on the gentle slope near Christman later that Friday, with six more the next day and an additional seven on May 15. By the time the war ended the following year, some 16,000 graves stippled the rolling greensward at Arlington as part of a deliberate plan to ensure that the Lee family could never reoccupy the estate and to punish what many saw as General Lee's treason. With more than 600,000 dead in the Civil War, passions ran high.
In the 143 years since William Christman's burial those passions have cooled, but the veneration of Arlington as a place of reverence and remembrance has only increased. From the muddy potter's field of 1864, Arlington has grown to a vast necropolis of more than 300,000 dead in a leafy tract that has more than tripled in size from the original 200 acres (80 hectares). Of the 3.8 million square miles (9.8 million square kilometers) composing the United States of America, none is more sacred than the square mile (three square kilometers) of Arlington National Cemetery.
Here are buried Presidents and privates, five-star generals and anonymous souls known but to God. Here too are buried more than 370 recipients of the congressional Medal of Honor, and ten times that many Civil War "contrabands"—fugitive or liberated slaves. Arlington today holds dead veterans from every American war since the Revolution, including several hundred from the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are buried in section 60, perhaps the saddest acre in America today.
Four and a half million visitors a year stroll beneath the white oaks and red maples, deciphering the nation's martial contours in the endless ranks of headstones that sweep from the ridgeline to the river flats below. Two dozen or more funeral corteges roll through the cemetery each weekday, and the sounds of another soldier going to his grave—the clop of caisson horses, the crack of rifles, the drear blare of "Taps"—carry on the soughing wind from early morning until late afternoon.
For nearly a century after William Christman's interment, graves in the nation's best known cemetery were dug with a long-handled shovel, a task that took all day. In 1955 the purchase of a Trenchmaster excavator brought the gravedigging time down to 12 minutes and reduced the cost from $29 to less than $10.
These days a pair of three-man crews roams the cemetery with John Deere 310G backhoes, searching for the wooden stakes left by a surveyor who measures and marks each new plot to be opened. On a late summer morning in section 2 on Arlington's upper slopes, 52-year-old Charles Montgomery eases his Deere among headstones covered with plastic trash cans to prevent accidental chipping.