Arlington National Cemetery

"Taps" drifts on the breeze at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, as it does most days, while thousands of tourists look for the graves of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, and the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Visitors are always in a hurry, for Washington is a city of too many monuments and never enough time.

The tourists step briskly along, most likely bypassing Arlington's first tombstone; oblivious to the Army general buried there, along with his wife and two daughters, under a cannon because he'd spent his military career in the artillery; missing the graves of civil rights martyr Medger Evers and Supreme Court giant Thurgood Marshall.

They also rush past the Women's Memorial, the mast of the USS Maine, relocated from the bottom of Havana Harbor after the Spanish-American War, and the memorial to astronauts who died aboard Challenger.

"I wish Americans would take more time to reflect on what Arlington means to them," says my friend, a city guide who needs only one question to launch into an hour of talk about her favorite place.

"The cemetery isn't just for those lost to us, it's a place for remembering, for memory. Standing on this hill you can see all of our history where we've been, where we are, who we are.

"It's all about the extraordinary sacrifices that have been made to get us to today," she adds. "I sit sixth-graders down on the grass and point to landmarks that link us all the way from George Washington to the Gulf War, the Custis-Lee Mansion, the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol dome. There's the Vietnam War memorial, the Korean memorial, the Pentagon. The kids are amazed at all this history and symbolism in one place."

George Washington's adopted stepson began building Arlington House on Martha Custis Washington's family plantation in 1802. Descendant Mary Custis later married Robert E. Lee, who, having declined to lead the Union army, wrote his letter of resignation in the mansion before leaving to head up the Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia.

His wife lost her home when the U.S. government refused to accept her $100 in back taxes from a surrogate and ordered her to pay in person. Confined to a wheelchair, she did not; the plantation was seized to billet Union soldiers, though later the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Lee's son, and the government was forced to pay restitution.

Now the Custis-Lee Mansion, the imposing centerpiece of Arlington National Cemetery is overseen by the National Park Service.

"My favorite place is Section 1," says my friend. "Pvt. William Christman of Pennsylvania was the first soldier buried here, in 1864; they put him in Mrs. Lee's rose garden to make sure she wouldn't come back.

"When the war ended in 1865 the vault of the Civil War Unknowns included soldiers on both sides because burial details sent out to nearby battlefields sometimes couldn't tell a Rebel from a Yankee. Instead, they just counted skulls; there are 2,111 in the vault behind the house.

The cemetery also was part of Freedman's Village, where thousands of former slaves camped following Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. The "temporary refuge" ordered by the government lasted 30 years.

Arlington was divided by race until 1948, when President Harry S Truman outlawed segregation in the military.

Officers' and enlisted men's graves also were used to be kept apart, but no more; the most famous generals of World War I, John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, rests surounded by his men. Gen. George C. Marshall of World War II fame is interred there with his wife and mother-in-law. Besides Kennedy, the other president buried at Arlington is William Howard Taft. Equality in the military had brought female soldiers to their final rest at Arlington, too.

The 612-acre cemetery is expected to run out of room by 2025. Till then, "no matter how many times I hear 'Taps' played, I still get chills," says my friend. "The newly deceased may not be famous, but anyone qualified to be buried at Arlington deserves to be here."


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