Patton and World War I’s Unknown Soldier


By Kevin M. Hymel, Contractor, ANC History Office

In 1921, Major George S. Patton Jr. held an important role during ceremonies for America’s World War I Unknown Soldier. The man who would become an iconic general, known for commanding victorious armies in World War II, was then the commander of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment’s 3rd Cavalry Squadron. On November 9, 1921, Patton helped escort the Unknown Soldier’s casket from the USS Olympia to the U.S. Capitol, where the Unknown would lie in state for two days. On November 11, the day of the Unknown’s burial ceremony, he marched in the procession that escorted the casket to Arlington National Cemetery.

Maj. George S. Patton Jr. commanded the 304th Tank Brigade in France during the last year of WWI. 
(National Archives and Records Administration) 

Maj. Patton, a war veteran himself, had seen many Americans fall in the trenches and battlefields of World War I. Commanding the 304th Tank Brigade, he had led his tanks in two major actions. During the Battle of St. Mihiel on September 12, 1918, he walked across a bridge his tankers worried was mined; rode atop a tank until enemy machine gun fire forced him to jump off; and stood upright, talking to Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, during an enemy artillery barrage. Two weeks later, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Patton helped shovel a tank out of mud, exposing himself to enemy fire. He ended his war by charging a German machine gun, only to be wounded by a bullet in the lower abdomen.

After returning from Europe, Patton commanded his tank brigade at Fort Meade, Maryland, before transferring to Fort Myer, in Arlington, to command the 3rd Cavalry Squadron. Patton, his wife Beatrice and their two daughters lived in Quarters No. 6 on Officers Row, a large Victorian brick home overlooking the Potomac River and the city.

On November 9, 1921, Patton’s squad was among the units that greeted the USS Olympia—the storied battleship that transported the Unknown Soldier from France to the United States—upon its arrival at the Washington Navy Yard. When the cruiser docked, Patton’s cavalrymen lined up, facing the ship. As the casket was carried down the gangplank, the men saluted. They then helped escort the Unknown Soldier’s caisson to the U.S. Capitol. Once at the Capitol, the cavalrymen dismounted and again formed a line. Patton’s squad faced another squad, forming a cordon at the foot of the Capitol’s east steps, as the casket was carried between them and into the rotunda.

The 3rd Cavalry Squadron, commanded by Patton, marches down Pennsylvania Avenue on horseback during the funeral procession for the WWI Unknown Soldier, November 11, 1921.
(National Archives and Records Administration) 

Two days later, on November 11—Armistice Day and Patton’s birthday (he was 36 years old)—Patton’s squad marched in the funeral procession to Arlington National Cemetery. The procession headed west on Pennsylvania Avenue and turned right on M Street to Georgetown’s Aqueduct Bridge (near today’s Key Bridge). From there, it proceeded through Fort Myer to the cemetery, where the caisson was brought to Memorial Amphitheater for the final ceremonies.

Patton was not part of the burial ceremony, however. Upon arrival at Fort Myer, the cavalry left the procession and paraded on the fort’s drill field while the Unknown was laid to rest. Nonetheless, Patton and his cavalrymen impressed their senior officers. The chief of cavalry, Maj. Gen. Willard Holbrook, appreciated the “appearance and conduct of [his] command during the ceremonies.” Patton’s immediate superior, Brig. Gen. Harry H. Bandholtz, wrote that his cavalrymen “were in every respect most satisfactory.” He added, “I am highly pleased with their snap and military bearing and I have received many favorable compliments from officers on the appearance of the men, horses, and equipment.”

Despite this praise, the famously prolific Patton never wrote about his role in the Unknown Soldier’s ceremonies. Still, Patton performed his role professionally while honoring the Unknown Soldier, who represented all who sacrificed themselves for their country in World War I.

► See also: Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Centennial Commemoration

Selected Sources Consulted

•  Blumenson, Martin, ed. The Patton Papers, Volume I. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972.

•  D’Este, Carlo. Patton: Genius for War. New York: Harper-Collins, 1995.

•  Hymel, Kevin M. Patton’s Photographs: War As He Saw It. Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2006.

•  Mossman, B.C. and M.W. Stark. The Last Salute: Civil and Military Funerals 1921-1969. Washington DC: Department of the Army, 1991.

•  Perry, Milton and Barbara Parke. Patton’s Pistols: The Favorite Side Arms of General George S. Patton Jr. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Company, 1957.

•  "Order of March in Hero Cortege," Washington Post, November 11, 1921.