On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery
by Robert M. Poole
This work was first published in 2009, after the controversy about
mismanagement at the Arlington Cemetery came to the forefront. The book
begins with Robert E. Lee in 1861 considering whether or not to accept an offer
relayed by Francis P. Blair,Sr. , to take command of the Union forces at the
beginning of the Civil War. Lee's angst is explored via letters and correspondence
during and after the time. The estate, which was an 1,100 acres plantation, had
been started by Lee's father in law, George Washington Parke Custis, who was
the stepson of George Washington, whose own plantation, Mr. Vernon, was about
twenty miles south and, like Arlington, sat on the shores of the Potomac River,
which was the border between Virginia and Maryland. Lee himself was a
member of one of the FFVs, First Families of Virginia. Lee's wife, Mary Custis
Lee, whom Lee married at the Arlington Mansion in 1831, inherited the property
when her father died in the 1850's. Lee took a leave of absence from the army to
manage the plantation. When Virginia voted to join other southern states to leave
the Union and join the Conferacy, Lee resigned from the Union army to accept
command at first the Virginia military forces and then later higher commands
within Confederate forces. The decision forced Lee and his wife to leave
Realizing the strategic importance of Arlington Heights, given its proximity to
Washington and its environs, Union army commanders established the site as a
base for military operations and planning. From this point on, the book describes
the Freedman's village which occupied a portion of the estate during and after the
Civil and the overcrowding of hospitals and Cemeteries, such as the Alexandria
National Cemetery, which necessitated the establishment of portions of the estate
as both an army installation and a place of interment for the unprecedented
number of fatalities within the Eastern Theater of the Civil War. Added to this,
was the belief by the Quartermaster General of the Union Army, one Montgomery
Meigs, that Lee was an outright traitor, and thus arranged for the interment of
Union officers within the garden of the mansion.
Later interments multiplied in vast numbers. When Mrs. Lee sent
an agent to pay taxes levied upon the property, the government tax collectors
refused payment stating that she herself would have to pay in person or
relingquish the property. The dispute was finally resolved by a Supreme Court
decision in the 1880s in favor of the descendants of General Lee and his wife,
who died in in 1870 and 1873 respectively, and a payment of about $ 150,000
was paid to the Lee family, who had realized that Arlington, for all practical
purposes, was forever more a resting place for the nation's honored deceased.
The son of Robert E. Lee, in 1883, signed over the title of the property to the
Secretary of War, Robert T. Lincoln, the son of President Lincoln. Robert T.
Lincoln would be laid to rest in Arlington in 1926 in a crypt which is in sight of
the Lincoln Memorial across the Potomac in Washington D.C.
Poole continues paralleling the history of the Cemetery with
the history of the United States through the 19th, 20th, and into the 21st Century.
He cites how President William McKinley, himself a Union Army combat
Veteran, proposed in a speech before the Georgia State Legislature, that the
graves of Confederates would also be cared for by the federal government. This
goodwill gesture was warmly received by the Southern States and Confederate
soldiers graves at Arlington were given care and attention thereafter at
Arlington. The involvement of the United States in subsequent conflicts and
how these events Arlington are chronicled with stories of history and anecdotes
through out the book, including the Tombs of the Unknowns from World Wars
One and Two and Korea, as well as the Interment and dis-Interment of Air
Force Lt. Michael Blassie, who was buried in 1983 as the Unknown from the
Vietnam War and then was identified by DNA evidence in 1998 by means of
DNA techniques which were not available at the time of the 1983 internment. Lt.
Blassie was re-interred at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery near St.
Louis. The saga the Pentagon on 9/11 is descibed in touching detail as well.
This reviewer has been to Arlington four times between 1975
and 2013. My first visit was a walk though history. I viewed the Tombs of the
Unknowns and strolled throughout the grounds for a good three hours. Every
pilgrimage thereafter has been with a reverence and appreciation for the significant
features of this hallowed sanctuary, whether viewing the grave of the most
decorated soldier in WW 2, Audie Murphy, or the elaborate resting place of the
martyred President John F. Kennedy, or the simple grave stone of Actor Lee
Marvin, a Purple Heart Veteran of the Pacific. The book should be read and
absorbed one chapter at a time, allowing the reader to digest the stories of
Arlington as a living entity whose biography is updated daily as men and women
who have served this nation are laid to rest. The investment of time reading this
opus will yield fine returns.
Mike McAdoo, Past President, SFCWRT
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