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May 13, 2009

Arlington National Cemetery Firsts of the heart

Kevin E. Dayhoff

As Memorial Day approaches, it is significant to note that today, on May 13, in 1864; the first soldier was buried at Arlington House, also called the Custis-Lee Mansion. We now know the property as Arlington National Cemetery and it is now the revered final resting place of over 320,000 stories of the heart.


According to the Library of Congress, one of the first persons to be buried at Arlington was a Confederate prisoner of war.


“The prisoner, who had died at a local hospital, was the first soldier buried at the cemetery, located on the Potomac River opposite Washington, D.C. It now contains the graves of soldiers from every war in which the United States has participated, including the American Revolution.”


Also of note is the fact that it is not – as thought by many – the largest of the 130 national cemeteries in our nation. That honor goes to the “Calverton National Cemetery, on Long Island, near Riverhead, N.Y. That cemetery conducts more than 7,000 burials each year,” reports the Arlington web site.


There are approximately 6,400 burials a year at Arlington – an average of 28 burials a day.


I had the honor of attending one such burial a number of years ago and the memory of the occasion still gives me goose bumps. It was for the father of a friend, who was a decorated World War II ace fighter pilot.


In a number of “firsts,” according to the cemetery’s official web site, 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, was also interred Friday, May 13, 1864. He was only 17 years old and was the first to have his family present at a burial there.


The first draftee buried there was Pvt. William Reeves, 76th New York Infantry. He was also 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 that was born on the property was the person who dug the first graves, James Parks, a former slave.


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, along with four Medal of Honor recipients: Landsman William H. Brown, on the USS Brooklyn, U.S. Navy – Civil War; Sgt. James H. Harris, 38th U.S. Colored Troops, U.S. Army – Civil War; Pvt. James Richmond, 8th Ohio Infantry, U.S. Army, who captured the flag at Gettysburg – Civil War; and Sgt. Thomas Shaw, 9th U.S. Cavalry, U.S. Army Indian Campaigns (1881).


The history of Arlington Cemetery before it was officially designated as a national cemetery on June 15, 1864, by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, is of additional interest as it is steeped in the history of the families of some of America’s more memorable historic namesakes.


The Library of Congress notes that the mansion on the property, called Arlington House, was built in 1802 by George Washington Parke Custis, whom the Arlington Cemetery 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 storied Confederate general later lived there from 1857 until he “took command of Confederate troops in the Civil War” in April 1861.


After the war, General Lee never tried to reclaim the property and it is said that he never returned. He was buried with his wife, after his death in 1870, at what we now know as Washington and Lee University, where he Lee served as president after the Civil War.


(Editor’s Note: The Rev. William Nelson Pendleton, former rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Frederick, conducted the funeral for General Lee, the first service conducted in the school’s chapel. He also posed for the sarcophagus containing the general’s remains in the undercroft of the chapel because they looked so much alike.)


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 away from the Capitol.


Technically, the property was seized for non-payment of property taxes. The Arlington Cemetery web site chronicles that the property was offered for public sale Jan. 11, 1864, and was purchased by a tax commissioner for “government use, for war, military, charitable, and educational purposes.”


After the war, General 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 all the way to the Supreme Court to have it returned. In a 5 to 4 decision in December 1882, the court decided in favor of Custis Lee and “returned” the property.


Mr. Lee subsequently sold the property to the federal government on March 3, 1883, for $150,000.


Of course today, Arlington is not simply the cold stuff of history or a part of a study of firsts. It is the sobering saga of 320,000 individual stories of the ultimate sacrifice and the friends, loved ones, and families left behind to mourn.


Today it is Section 60 that is in the hearts of many. That is the section where over 500 of the fallen from Afghanistan and Iraq have come to rest. The families come and go…


Last year, on May 25, CBS noted in “Our Nation's Most Hallowed Ground,” that Section 60 is not on the visitors’ tour, however people are finding it.


Appropriately, CBS 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.”


On May 25, Memorial Day, say a prayer for those who stay behind at Arlington and no longer have a voice. Keep them first in your hearts.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at


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