Today in History, May 13, 1864:
Private William Christman of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, US Army, became the first soldier laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. He was laid to rest in the Lee’s rose garden near the Custis-Lee Mansion, or Arlington House.
Private Christman’s brother had preceded him in service to his country, leaving William to manage the family farm. William volunteered himself in part to help provide for his family. He became ill and died in a DC military hospital.
The mansion and the plantation it was on had belonged to George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington, step-grandson of President Washington. He willed the property to his daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis. She in turn married a young US Army Lieutenant and West Point graduate, Robert E. Lee.
Lee served in the Mexican-American War and was respected as one of the best officers in the US Army. In fact he was offered command of the forces around Washington at the outset of the Civil War. He turned this offer down and instead left the Custis-Lee Mansion to go further south into Virginia and command Confederate forces.
As the war progressed the mansion was used as a Union Headquarters. A camp to assist former slaves was set up on the property. And finally, faced with mounting casualties in the war, the Union assumed the property as a cemetery for Union war dead.
It was actually after Private Christman was interred that the property was designated the Arlington National Cemetery. Today American soldiers from every war fought by the United States are buried and memorialized at Arlington, including the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
Today in History, June 15: 1864 – US Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton sets aside the land around Arlington House, the home of Robert E. Lee, as a National Cemetery. The home had been passed down to Lee’s wife from her ancestor, Martha Custis Washington, George Washington’s wife. When the Civil War broke out, Robert E. Lee, a US Army officer, surrendered his commission and went home to his “country”, Virginia, where he became the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia for the Confederacy. When Lee’s efforts began filling up Northern cemeteries, Stanton decided to use Lee’s home to give the Union dead a place to rest, and Arlington National Cemetery was born. When you stand in Lee’s living room, you can see the White House, the Washington Monument, The Lincoln Memorial, and most of D.C. It is fascinating.
Today in History, May 30: 1958 – At the Tomb of the Unknowns, Arlington National Cemetery, President Dwight Eisenhower awards the Medal of Honor to 3 unknown servicemen selected to lie beside the Unknown from WWI. The three, one from the Pacific Theater of WWII, one from the European Theater of WWII, and one from Korea, would eventually be joined by one from Vietnam.
And who better to bestow the Honor to these Heroes than General of the Army Dwight David Eisenhower, who had led the war effort in Europe during World War II? “Ike” had not wanted the Presidency…he was literally drafted into it…initially very much against his will. If we could only have such an “adult” to lead us in modern times.
Today in History, May 13: 1864 – A Union soldier is buried on the grounds of the Custis-Lee House, otherwise known as Arlington House. The adopted son of George Washington and Martha Custis-Washington had built the mansion in 1802. In 1831 his daughter, Mary Anna Custis married Lt. Robert E. Lee, and they lived in the home until 1861, when West Point graduate Lee resigned from the US Army and accepted the command of the Confederate Army.
1864 Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized the Lee’s property to become Arlington National Cemetery, so that Lee and his family could never again occupy the mansion. You can look out the front window of the mansion and see the major landmarks of Washington DC across the Potomac…it’s that close. Today, over 320,000 service men and women have been laid to rest at Arlington, including many of our nation’s most famous heroes from every war from the Revolution to Afghanistan. By the way, I took the photo I used…touring Arlington was a truly inspiring experience. To see the final resting place of so many of my heroes was an experience I’ll cherish forever.