Arlington National Cemetery

Few symbols are more iconic on Memorial Day than Arlington National Cemetery, which is located in Arlington County, Virginia, directly across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial. Like Memorial Day, this historic treasure has its origins in the American Civil War, which remains the deadliest conflict in U.S. history. 

It was established during the war on the grounds of Arlington House, which had been the estate of the family of Mary Anna (Custis) Lee, wife of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington (George Washington’s wife). Most military personnel who died in battle near Washington, D.C., were buried at the United States Soldiers’ Cemetery in Washington, D.C., or Alexandria Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia, but by late 1863 both were nearly full.

On July 16, 1862, Congress passed legislation authorizing the U.S. federal government to purchase land for national cemeteries for military dead, and put the U.S. Army Quartermaster General in charge of this program.In May 1864, Union forces suffered large numbers of dead in the Battle of the Wilderness, leading Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs to find eligible sites for large new military cemetery. Within weeks, his staff recommended Arlington Estate: it was high and free from floods, had a view of the capital, and was aesthetically beautiful. Moreover, as the home of the supreme commander of the Confederate States of America, its confiscation had an important political purpose. 

The government acquired Arlington at a tax sale in 1864 for $26,800, equal to $400,000 today. Mrs. Lee did not appeared in person but rather had sent an agent, who was turned away. In 1874, Custis Lee, the eldest son of Robert E. Lee and the heir to the property, sued the government for ownership of Arlington. In 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor, deciding that Arlington had been confiscated without due process. Congress subsequently returned the estate to him, and shortly after Custis Lee sold it back to the government for $150,000 (over $3.2 million today) at a signing ceremony with Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln.

On May 13, 1864, William Henry Christman was the first soldier to be buried (although burials were not formally authorize until June 15, 1864). The date or name of the first African American burial is unknown but said to have occurred on either July 2 or July 3, 1864; Arlington did not desegregate its burial practices until 1948 under President Harry Truman. The southern portion of the land now occupied by the cemetery was known as Freedman’s Village, a settlement for freed slaves. Over 1,100 freed slaves had lived there during and after the Civil War. They were evicted in 1888 when the estate was repurchased by the government and dedicated as a military installation.

The first national Memorial Day ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery was conducted by President Herbert Hoover on May 30,1929. Commemorated on the last Monday of May, Memorial Day honors men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War – the bloodiest war in American history – and became an official federal holiday in 1971.

Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings and participating in parades. Cities and towns across the United States host Memorial Day parades each year, often incorporating military personnel and veterans. Some of the largest parades take place in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. Additionally, many people take the opportunity to reflect on the noble sacrifices made by our troops throughout history and to this day.   

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