By Dr. Steve Carney, Command Historian, Arlington National Cemetery
For many years after Arlington National Cemetery’s establishment on May 13, 1864, Civil War service members were the only veterans buried at the cemetery. Today, however, service members who fought in all U.S. conflicts lay at rest on these hallowed grounds, including veterans of wars that predated the establishment of Arlington as a military cemetery. On Independence Day, we take a look at how these veterans of earlier wars—including the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the U.S.-Mexican War—came to rest at Arlington.
The earliest burials on the property were associated with the Custis family, who owned the Arlington Estate before it became a national cemetery. Buried in 1825 just down the slope from the Arlington House, Mary Randolph (Mary Custis Lee’s godmother) lies in what today is Section 5 of the cemetery. Upon their deaths in 1857 and 1853, respectively, George Washington Parke Custis (George Washington’s step grandson and owner of the 1,100 acre Arlington Estate), as well as his wife, Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, were buried southwest of the house. Their family plot is now in Section 13 of the cemetery. Arlington Estate was a working plantation, and an unknown number of enslaved African Americans owned by the Custis family between 1802 and 1860 were also interred in a cemetery on the east side of the property. No extant evidence survives that pinpoints the exact locations of these plots.
With the transformation of the Arlington property into a national cemetery, more than 16,000 Civil War veterans came to fill the cemetery’s early sections during and after the Civil War. By the 1890s, however, the close association between Arlington National Cemetery and the Civil War began to change, in large part due to the growing significance of the cemetery as the site of the nation’s official annual observance of Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day. (For more about the importance of Decoration/Memorial Day in the development of ANC, read our previous blog post.) As a result, many Americans came to view Arlington as the nation’s premier military cemetery, causing the demand for burials to increase. No longer reserved only for Civil War veterans, burial spots opened to veterans of other conflicts as well. This included veterans of wars fought prior to Arlington’s establishment as a cemetery in 1864.
Between 1892 and 1943, eleven veterans of America’s Revolutionary War were moved from their original burial locations and reinterred at ANC. They illustrate Arlington National Cemetery’s rise in status from one of many national cemeteries established during the Civil War to America’s “Most Sacred Shrine.” As Arlington became a more important part of the national consciousness, many people thought it fitting to rebury veterans of the nation’s founding conflict here. In honor of our nation’s Independence Day this July 4th, please see our social media posts (@arlingtonnatl) that detail each of these veterans, or read more about them here.
Initially buried in a Georgetown, Washington D.C. cemetery that fell into disrepair, the remains of five Revolutionary War veterans (William Ward Burrows, Joseph Carleton, James House, Thomas Meason and Caleb Swan) were relocated to ANC. Burrows, House, Meason and Swan were reburied at Arlington on May 12, 1892 in Section 1. Carleton’s gravesite remained in Georgetown until that cemetery closed, at which point he was reburied next to his comrades on November 13, 1907.
The six remaining Revolutionary War veterans came to Arlington between 1908 and 1943. Originally buried at a private cemetery in Washington D.C., James McCubbin Lingan was reinterred at Arlington on November 5, 1908. Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a Frenchman who gained particular notoriety during his wartime service, stayed in America after the war and was appointed by President George Washington to design the city plan for Washington, D.C. Yet he achieved little success as a commercial architect. L’Enfant died penniless in 1825, and was buried at Green Hill farm in Chillum, Maryland. He did not receive much recognition for his contribution to the design of the District of Columbia until the McMillan Commission set about revising the design of the city in the early twentieth century. In 1909, Congress ordered his remains disinterred. Honored by first lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda, L'Enfant’s reinternment took place on April 28, 1909, and he now lies at rest on the ridge in front of the Arlington House, which boasts an unobstructed view of the city he helped to shape.
After L'Enfant, four other veterans of the Revolutionary War were reinterred at Arlington. John Follin, originally buried in Falls Church, Virginia, was buried at Arlington on May 13, 1911 at the request of his family. Similarly, John Green’s family had his remains moved from his home in Liberty Hall, Virginia to ANC on April 23, 1931. Both are buried in in Section 1. Hugh Auld was reinterred from his family’s plot located in Claybourne, Maryland along with his son, Hugh Aulds Jr., a veteran of the War of 1812. Today, they rest next to each other in Section 2 of ANC. Finally, William Russell was reburied in Section 1 on June 11, 1943. These requests for reburial underscored Arlington’s ever increasing prominence with the American public.
The haphazard military burial policies of the early nineteenth century eventually led to the interment of fatalities from the War of 1812 at Arlington. During construction work at the Washington Navy Yard in 1905, the U.S. Navy discovered the commingled remains of fourteen soldiers and sailors killed defending the nation’s capital from the British invasion on August 24, 1814. Because of the prestige of Arlington National Cemetery, the Navy chose to reinter the remains at ANC in Section 1. In 1976, during the nation’s bicentennial, the National Society of the United States Daughters of the War of 1812 dedicated the grave marker that currently commemorates these service members.
Another example of the desire to bury pre-Civil War service members at Arlington is Erastus Allyn Capron, who had been deployed to Mexico during the Mexican-American War in 1846 as an officer in the 1st U.S. Artillery battery. Capron died in the Battle of Churubusco, at the site of a fortified monastery south of Mexico City, on August 20, 1847. At the time, the United States government did not have a policy to return the bodies of service members who fell on foreign soil, so Capron’s family arranged and paid for his remains to be returned and buried at Congressional Cemetery in southeast Washington, D.C. Several decades later, his son, Allyn Capron, and his grandson, Allyn K. Capron Jr., died in 1898 while serving in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. By then, the government had changed its policies regarding wartime fatalities, allowing both Allyn Caprons to be repatriated at the government’s expense and buried at Arlington. The family then moved Erastus Capron and reinterred him at Arlington as well. Today, Erastus and his grandson Allyn Jr. are buried in Section 1, Grave 289, while his son Allyn Capron is buried a few feet away in Section 1, Grave 679.
Although it originated as a Civil War cemetery, Arlington National Cemetery’s increasing prestige eventually transformed it into a burial ground that now contains veterans of every one of America’s major conflicts, from the Revolutionary War onward. Through the lives of the service members and their eligible dependents who are buried here, our 639 acres truly tell the story of our nation’s history. It is only fitting that we remember them this month, as we celebrate the anniversary of our nation’s founding.