Published: June 2007
The Nation's Cemetery
No land in America is more sacred than the square mile of Arlington National Cemetery.
By Rick Atkinson

Nothing in William Henry Christman's brief life suggested that in death he would become a singular figure in American history. A laborer from Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, Christman enlisted in the U.S. Army on March 25, 1864, for a $60 cash bounty and a $300 promissory note from his government. The muster rolls of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment recorded that he was five feet seven and a half inches (1.7 meters) tall, with sandy hair, gray eyes, and a florid complexion. Twenty-one years old and unmarried, he bore a scar on the left side of his neck and three prominent moles on his back.

"I em well at the preasant time ant hope that my few lines will find you the same," he wrote his parents from Philadelphia on April 3, 1864. Military life suited him, he added. "I like it very good. We have enuph to eat and drink."

Three weeks later young Christman was hospitalized for measles. He grew sicker, and on May 1 was admitted to Lincoln General Hospital, a mile east of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. There, in Ward 19, on Wednesday, May 11, he died of peritonitis, a toxic inflammation of the membrane lining the abdominal cavity. An inventory of Christman's effects listed his modest legacy, including a hat, two flannel shirts, a pair of trousers, a blanket, a haversack, a canteen.

With the Civil War now in its fourth sanguinary year, Christman's body was among all too many bodies overwhelming the nation's capital. Every steamer up the Potomac River carried dead soldiers from Virginia battlefields, sheeted forms laid across the bows. Hospitals—often converted churches, public halls, or private mansions—ran out of burial space; more than 5,000 graves filled the Soldiers' Home cemetery alone. In desperate need of an expedient solution, Army quartermasters on May 13, 1864, trundled William Christman's mortal remains to a new burial ground that had been identified above the south bank of the Potomac on the confiscated estate of the Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee. The place was called Arlington.

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.

"My job's just to dig the holes. Dig the holes, then cover 'em back up," Montgomery says. "I start my way in the back of the grave and work my way to the front, trying to keep it straight." Centering the backhoe boom on the headstone in an adjacent row, Montgomery gnaws at the earth with the steel teeth of his 32-inch (81 centimeters) bucket. This particular grave is an "open-up": A recently deceased 98-year-old rear admiral will be reunited with his wife, who was laid to rest on this spot, nine feet (three meters) down, in 1991. His coffin will go atop hers, at seven feet (two meters). In five minutes a yawning hole has been dug, with the corners square, the sides true, and the spoil in a neat pile. "When I've got the bucket like this with the boom all the way down, that's seven feet," Montgomery says. "I been doin' this a long time, and I just know it."

After each interment a hydraulic tamper beats the earth to crush out air pockets. Still, subsidence requires refilling up to 10,000 graves each year. The dead in fact need perpetual care. Each day maintenance crews mow 130 acres (50 hectares), reset dozens of leaning headstones, and power-wash a thousand. (Water pressure must be carefully modulated to avoid chewing into soft marble, particularly the older stones such as those in sections 1 and 13.) Because the white-painted headboards used during the Civil War had to be replaced every five years—at $1.23 each—Arlington briefly experimented with markers made of a metal alloy from melted-down munitions. In the 1870s, the government adopted white marble for national cemeteries; the familiar slab used today was designed by a board of officers after World War I.

Twenty-four inches (60 centimeters) above ground, thirteen inches (33 centimeters) wide, and four inches (ten centimeters) thick, each marker accommodates only the sparest biographical details and brief terms of endearment, all within a maximum of 12 lines, 15 characters per line. Each stone can also carry a spiritual symbol, of which 38 have been authorized, from Episcopal to Muslim to atheist to Hindu.

More than 6,000 funerals a year end in Arlington. A daily spreadsheet lists them hour by hour, giving not only the location and depth of new graves but also a few hints of each life now ended: rank, next of kin, military service, whether the deceased was a decorated veteran. To prevent the corteges from colliding and to keep maintenance work at a respectful distance from graveside ceremonies, a sheaf of maps shows hourly funeral routes on the cemetery's 45 roads and walkways.

"The challenge is to ensure that we beautify the grounds without in any way compromising the grave sites," says Erik Dihle, a tall, blond Californian who is the chief of grounds and burial operations.

In Dihle's office, next to a Norfolk Island pine and an angel-wing begonia, a quotation from philosopher William James adorns a large wall map of Arlington: "The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook." Regulations prohibit mourners from embellishing graves with artifacts or love tokens other than flowers. Yet in section 64 a grieving mother has placed several stuffed bears in a weeping willow near the grave of her son. "She has a whole little colony of teddy bears there," Dihle says with a shake of his head.

In section 60 the raw graves of the dead from Iraq and Afghanistan are appointed with little amulets for the next world: a ceramic fortune cookie; a bottle of beer; a spent 9-mm brass cartridge; a sliver of agate from the fallen soldier's native Kentucky; laminated photos of wives, sweethearts, children. On a smooth stone, a message neatly printed in indelible ink could crack the hardest heart: "I love you, Daddy. Happy birthday."

A single sheet of paper listed the 24 funerals scheduled for November 25, 1963, beginning with an Air Force Reserve colonel named Edward C. Forsythe at 9 a.m. in section 35. Yet it was the last of those two dozen ceremonies on the list, scheduled for 3 p.m. in section 45, that would forever change Arlington. With the name of the deceased's next of kin misspelled—perhaps reflecting the bewildered anxiety that afflicted cemetery officials, as it did all Americans—the entry read: "John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Cdr. in Chief. NOK: Jqcqueline Kennedy, widow."

In the decades after the Civil War, Arlington had grown at a modest rate. Among the most poignant events in the cemetery was the first Decoration Day—now called Memorial Day—on May 30, 1868. President Andrew Johnson gave all federal workers the day off for what was described as "the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades." Wearing black satin sashes and singing "Father Come Home," children from the Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphan Asylum tossed blossoms on graves near the Custis-Lee mansion; Gen. James A. Garfield, who, as President 13 years later, would be sent to his own grave by an assassin's bullet, lauded those for whom "death was a poem the music of which can never be sung."

Kennedy's death transformed the national cemetery into a national icon. The President, during a visit to Arlington earlier that year, had unwittingly selected his own grave site. Surveying the serene vista below the original plantation house—the Custis-Lee mansion—he reportedly murmured, "I could stay here forever." Mrs. Kennedy approved the location the day after his assassination, and a grave was opened through the hard clay and oak roots. Since the solid mahogany casket weighed 1,200 pounds (545 kilograms), military pallbearers in the small hours of November 25 practiced carrying a duplicate casket filled with sandbags and further deadweighted with two soldiers sitting on top.

The President's burial, a somber pageant of grace and dignity, was watched by a worldwide television audience. Within three years, 16 million visitors paid homage to the site in section 45, which was soon expanded to a three-acre (one hectare) sanctuary paved with Cape Cod granite and softened with sedum plants. The Institute of Gas Technology of Chicago installed an Eternal Flame as a beacon of remembrance. "It's as eternal as anything man-made can be," a cemetery official later observed.

Requests for burial in Arlington abruptly swelled, a demand soon aggravated by more than 58,000 American deaths during the Vietnam War, when as many as 47 funerals in one day crisscrossed the cemetery. From the late 1950s until 2000, the number of graves would nearly triple, from almost 93,000 to 250,000. As cemetery officials searched for more contiguous land to augment Arlington's acreage, new eligibility rules imposed in 1967 sharply restricted burials to a small percentage of veterans, including those who die on active duty, those honorably retired after a career in the military, those highly decorated for valor, and their spouses.

Even a short stroll through Arlington is a perambulation through the American narrative. The graves of prominent military figures abound, of course, including World War II commanders like Gen. George C. Marshall, Gen. Omar N. Bradley, and Adm. William F. "Bull" Halsey, Jr. Beneath a simple government-issue stone in section 34 lies Gen. John J. Pershing, who led the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. Steps away is the grave of his grandson, who was killed in Vietnam. Other veterans achieved fame in arenas beyond the battlefield, including boxer Joe Louis, author Dashiell Hammett, civil rights leader Medgar Evers, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and physician Walter Reed, whose headstone in section 3 notes that "He Gave to Men Control Over That Dreadful Scourge Yellow Fever."

The Tomb of the Unknowns began with the random selection of a single soldier in France from the Great War. Brought home aboard the U.S.S. Olympia, the casket was interred on November 11, 1921, and eventually surmounted by a sarcophagus—roughly 80 tons (70 metric tons) of Yule marble quarried in Colorado. During the ceremony, so heavily attended that it created what was described as "the greatest traffic jam in Washington's history," President Warren G. Harding voiced hope that the day would mark "the beginning of a new and lasting era of peace on Earth, good will among men."

It was not to be. Later conflicts produced more unknowns, and the site now contains remains from World War II and the Korean War. A Vietnam unknown, entombed in 1984, was exhumed in 1998 and reburied in St. Louis after DNA tests identified him as 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, an Air Force pilot shot down in May 1972.

Section 27 is particularly poignant, with stones devoid of dates and no more than the leanest biographical detail, such as "Mrs. Bannister, Citizen," or "Power Boy," or simply, "Civilian." Here nearly 4,000 African Americans are buried, many of them denizens of Freedman's Village, established in 1863 on the confiscated Arlington plantation as a so-called model community for emancipated slaves, runaways, and those liberated by Union troops. The village was gone by 1900, but the dead remain. Other stones, inscribed "U.S.C.T.," commemorate U.S. Colored Troops who served the federal cause during and after the Civil War. If "in the democracy of the dead all men at last are equal," as poet and politician John James Ingalls proclaimed, some were more equal than others: Segregation by race and by rank in the cemetery held sway for decades before the ascent of contemporary egalitarianism.

Few national calamities remain uncommemorated at Arlington. The more recent tragedies still sear, such as the graves of 21 service members killed in the Beirut barracks bombing of 1983, or the memorial cairn to 270 people murdered by a terrorist bomb on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Of the 184 victims killed when American Airlines Flight 77 smashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. on September 11, 2001, 64 are buried in Arlington. In the final moments of its flight, the hijacked Boeing 757 screamed over the cemetery's southern edge at 530 miles (850 kilometers) an hour. The horrific impact flung debris several hundred yards into sections 69 and 70, which for more than a week remained an FBI crime scene.

Hour by hour, year by year, ritual and ceremony at Arlington link yesterday to today, providing a rhythm that dignifies death and consoles the living. The morning begins at 4 a.m. in the stables of the Third Infantry Regiment caisson platoon on adjacent Fort Myer. Soldiers assigned to the Old Guard shine their brass, clean the equestrian tack, and wash the horses to be used in the day's funerals—deep dents in the sheet metal lining the shower-room walls show that some steeds resent the predawn ablutions more than others. The platoon has its own coal-fired forge and master farrier, who shoes the horses every six weeks and adds borium studs for extra traction on Arlington's hilly roads. A platoon leatherworker, using the "1916 Field Artillery Harness Quartermaster Drawings" as a blue-print, fashions the reins, girths, and other tack from thick rolls of cured rawhide.

Each ritual has its own intricacies. Many of today's military funeral traditions were born of expediency during the Civil War, explains Thomas L. Sherlock, Arlington's historian. There was a shortage of caskets, so flags were draped over bodies. A shortage of ambulances necessitated the use of caissons.

Today the funeral flag is boxed—folded 13 times into a trim triangle, stars out—in one minute and 54 seconds, precisely the duration of the hymn played by the band. Officers and the most senior noncommissioned officers of each service are still entitled to the caisson.

"Horse teams are in matched colors, all blacks or all grays," says Sgt. Jared Bolton. Six horses pull a 1918 artillery caisson that bears either a casket or an urn with cremated remains, placed on a tray that slides out of a mock casket. Soldiers in dress blues ride postilion style on the left mounts. Deceased Army or Marine Corps colonels and generals may also be honored with a caparisoned ("cap") horse—a riderless mount tacked with a saber and cavalry boots fitted backward in the stirrups to signify a fallen warrior looking back at his troops a final time. An ancient ritual, the cap horse was used in Lincoln's funeral but most famously in Kennedy's cortege, where the handsome, spirited Black Jack, a gelding Morgan and quarter horse cross, seemed representative of the slain President's vigor.

By midmorning, honors are under way and shots ring out across the cemetery. The seven soldiers in a firing party pull their triggers three times successively so that each volley of blanks sounds like a single shot, a particular challenge given that acoustics vary from section to section. "Every movement that these guys do with their weapons has to have a cadence that's burned into their brains," says Staff Sgt. Robert F. McLauchlin, who waits with the honor guard in section 54 to bury a retired colonel, a World War II veteran. "The goal is to make the movements look mirrored, like you cloned one guy."

No ritual is repeated more often, nor carries more enduring emotional power, than the playing of "Taps" at the end of a ceremony. It too has Civil War origins, having been composed in July 1862 during the Peninsular Campaign on Virginia's James River by Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, who supposedly whistled a new tune for his brigade bugler to replace the bland "lights out" call previously used in Union bivouacs. Again, the most memorable rendition came during Kennedy's funeral when an Army bugler, numb from standing outdoors for nearly three hours, cracked the sixth note. It was "like a catch in your voice, or a swiftly stifled sob," wrote author William Manchester.

Today more than 50 military buglers play at Arlington, including Army Master Sgt. Allyn Van Patten, who estimates he has blown "Taps" at least 8,000 times in a quarter century of service at the cemetery. "It's a nice piece of music. It's like a song," he says. "Unlike a lot of bugle calls, you can inflect it, you can play music with it." Adds Master Sgt. John Abbracciamento, a Marine Corps bugler, "I don't want to be detached when I play during a funeral. I want to do something for that family. They'll never know who I am, but they'll never forget."

At 24 notes, "Taps" also has the virtue of brevity in graveside services that often conclude in ten minutes or less. As an Arlington guide for clergy notes, "Please remember that time is our enemy at ANC."

Space is also an enemy, or rather the lack of it. For more than a half century, Arlington's guardians have cautioned that the cemetery is running out of room. As author Philip Bigler noted in his comprehensive history, In Honored Glory, a surge in interments during World War II led to a warning in 1944 that grave space "will be exhausted in five to seven years … only 14,000 more persons can be buried in Arlington." Grave dimensions were reduced, from six by twelve feet (two by four meters) to five by ten (1.5 meters by three meters); tiered burials—with caskets stacked like bunk beds in the same hole—were adopted in the early 1960s, followed by the controversial new regulations that sharply curtailed eligibility. Parcels of land were appended over the years, notably 190 acres from the Fort Myer South Post. Still, at the current rate of interment, Arlington will be at capacity around 2060.

Few issues have greater urgency for John C. Metzler, Jr., Arlington's superintendent since 1991. A former Army helicopter crew chief in Vietnam, Metzler lives in the same gabled house behind the Custis-Lee mansion where he grew up: His father, who is buried in section 7A, was superintendent here from 1951 to 1972. Asked to pick his favorite section of the cemetery, Metzler replies, "I always walk around section 1 because that's where I live. I know virtually everybody in section 1. But section 2 has a wonderful view of Washington, D.C. I'll walk over there sometimes at night and just ponder for 20 minutes or half an hour."

Metzler's master plan, drafted in 1998, identified 14 parcels of land abutting the existing cemetery. Collectively those tracts, mostly owned by federal agencies, would provide another 125 acres (50 hectares); Metzler so far has acquired 3 of the 14. Topography is always an issue because steep slopes are the gravedigger's bane. "Eight hundred graves per acre is the optimum," Metzler says, "and if there are less than 600, then you're probably talking about too much slope to stabilize the gravedigging equipment."

Each opened grave yields roughly one and a half cubic yards of excess dirt, and that spoil is now used to build up the final few acres of a new swatch. Some 20,000 graves will occupy the sector, with a sweeping view of the Potomac, and niches for cremated remains will be built into the cemetery's perimeter wall. A long grassy stretch also remains unturned in section 60, sacred ground awaiting those whose fates will lead them here. Roughly one in every ten soldiers killed in Iraq is buried at Arlington, a higher percentage than from any previous American war.

The seasons rise, the seasons fall away. Arlington bustles year-round, but with a stately, measured grace. A squall line blows through, tossing the great trees. Rain pelts the graves and laves the headstones, each emblematic of who we were, where we've been, and what we have become. Then the afternoon skies fair and the final funeral procession of the day snakes through the great yard, bearing another old soldier to his rest, or perhaps a soldier no older than William Christman was.

Across the river, the federal city gleams in the dying sun. A tranquil silence descends, broken only by the distant rap of a drum.