This Month in Arlington History
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded just moments into its launch from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Its crew included schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, shuttle commander Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, pilot Michael J. Smith, mission specialists Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik and Ronald E. McNair, and payload specialist Gregory B. Jarvis. The remains of the shuttle crew were located and identified during the weeks after the explosion; however, not all of the recovered remains could be individually identified. As a result, on May 20, 1986, the co-mingled remains of all seven Challenger astronauts were buried together in Section 46 at Arlington National Cemetery. The Challenger Memorial was dedicated on March 21, 1987. It serves as the headstone for the remains which are in the base of the monument.
The USS Maine Memorial in Section 24 of Arlington National Cemetery was dedicated on February 15, 1915 — seventeen years after the battleship exploded on the night of February 15, 1898 in Havana Harbor, Cuba, killing more than 260 American sailors on board. The Maine had been sent to protect U.S. economic interests in Cuba, where rebels were fighting for independence from colonial Spain. Historians are still unsure what caused the explosion, but outraged Americans, fueled by sensationalist journalism, widely blamed Cuba. The United States declared war against Spain on April 25, 1898, with "Remember the Maine!" a popular pro-war rallying cry.
The war was over in less than four months, with Spain surrendering on August 12, 1898. However, the Spanish-American War had enormous historical impact. During the conflict, the United States acquired overseas territories, confirmed its status as the dominant nation in the Western Hemisphere and began a new era as a major world power. Arlington National Cemetery contains more monuments and burial sites related to the Spanish-American War than any other location in the continental United States.
The USS Maine Memorial features the actual mast from the ship, with the names of those who died in the explosion inscribed onto its base. The ship's bell is welded into the door of the base. The remains of 229 sailors are buried near the memorial.
In honor of Women's History Month, we recognize Major General Marcelite Jordan Harris (1943-2018), who retired in 1997 as the highest-ranking female officer in the U.S. Air Force and the highest ranking African American woman in the Department of Defense. A graduate of Spelman Academy, Harris was commissioned in 1965, rising through the ranks to become, in 1991, the first African American female brigadier general in the Air Force — one among many "firsts" in her Air Force career. Harris was also the first woman to serve as a commanding officer at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Her medals included the Bronze Star and the Legion of Merit.
On February 7, 2019, Maj. Gen. Harris was honored with military funeral honors with funeral escort, including a C-130 flyover (pictured). She was buried alongside her husband, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Maurice Harris, in Section 30, Grave 621.
Members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, "The Old Guard," have guarded the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every second of every day, regardless of weather or holidays, since April 6, 1948.
“The Old Guard” — the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army, serving the United States since 1784 — is the Army's official ceremonial unit and escort to the president. In addition to their 24-hour vigil at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 3rd Infantry soldiers provide military funeral escorts at Arlington National Cemetery, and are responsible for conducting military ceremonies at the White House, the Pentagon, national memorials and elsewhere in the nation's capital. The Old Guard participates in more than 6,000 ceremonies each year, an average of 16 per day. The unit also provides security for Washington, D.C. in time of national emergency or civil disturbance. All soldiers are as familiar with traditional infantry or military-police duties as they are with ceremonial duties.
The unit received its unique name from Gen. Winfield Scott during a victory parade at Mexico City in 1847 following its valorous performance in the Mexican War. The black-and-tan "buff strap" worn on the left shoulder replicates the knapsack strap used by the unit's 19th-century predecessors to distinguish its members from other Army units.
During your visit to Arlington National Cemetery, you can witness the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — performed every hour, on the hour from October through March, and every half hour from April through September.
In May 1864, one month prior to its establishment as a national cemetery, the first military burials took place at Arlington National Cemetery. The four burials took place in Section 27 (pictured), the oldest section of the cemetery:
- Private William Henry Christman, 67th Pennsylvania Infantry: first military service member interred at Arlington
- Private William Reeves, 76th New York Infantry: first draftee
- Private William Blatt, 49th Pennsylvania Infantry: first battle casualty
- Private William H. McKinney, 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry: first to have family present at his funeral
Happy birthday, Arlington National Cemetery! June 15, 2020 marks the 156th anniversary of Arlington National Cemetery, which was established as a military cemetery on this date in 1864, during the American Civil War. Upon the authority of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs — Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army, who commanded the Union garrison at Arlington House — appropriated the grounds of Arlington House for use as a military cemetery. The estate was formerly the property of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Custis Lee (a descendent of Martha Washington), and Meigs intended to make the property uninhabitable, should the Lees ever wish to return. Under Meigs' orders, Union soldiers constructed a 20'x10' stone and masonry burial vault in the rose garden for the remains of approximately 1,800 casualties from the Battle of Bull Run. It was one of the first monuments to Union dead in what is now Section 1 — the oldest section of the cemetery, containing an eclectic variety of elaborately designed headstones. After his death on January 2, 1892, Meigs himself was laid to rest in Section 1, along with his wife, father and son.
On July 27, 1953, the Korean War ended with an armistice signed by the United States, North Korea and China. According to current Department of Defense statistics, 36,574 U.S. service members died during the conflict, which began on June 25, 1950. Korean and Chinese casualties were exponentially greater. Approximately three million people (civilian and military) perished during the Korean War, making it one of the deadliest conflicts of the Cold War.
On Memorial Day in 1958, an unknown soldier from the Korean War was interred at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, symbolically representing all Americans who died in Korea. On July 27, 1987, the Korean War Veterans Association and No Greater Love dedicated the Korean War Contemplative Bench — located on the north side of the Memorial Amphitheater, next to a Korean white pine tree donated by President Roh Tae Woo of South Korea in October 1989. The bench's inscription quotes writer Herman Wouk: "The Beginning of the End of War Lies in Remembrance."
On the morning of August 2, 1943, a U.S. Navy patrol torpedo boat, PT-109, was rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri while patrolling in the Blackett Strait (Solomon Islands). The ramming cut away the PT boat's starboard side, leaving the small craft completely disabled. As PT-109 slowly sank, its crew abandoned ship and swam to a nearby island; they were widely presumed to be dead. On August 8, however, Navy rescue ships found the weak and hungry crew — including its commander, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) John F. Kennedy, who would be elected president of the United States in 1960. The charismatic young president had been in office for less than three years when he was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. President Kennedy is one of only two U.S. presidents buried at Arlington National Cemetery; the other is William Howard Taft. Kennedy's gravesite, memorialized with an eternal flame lit by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy at the funeral, is in Section 45, on the hillside near Arlington House where he had once stood and remarked, "I could stay here forever."
Major General Philip Kearny Jr., United States Army, died on September 1, 1862. During the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), Kearny's fearless character in battle earned him the nickname "Kearny the Magnificent." In the Mexican-American War, Kearny led a daring cavalry charge and suffered a wound to his left arm which was later amputated. After the war, Kearny served in Army recruiting in New York City. While there, he was promoted to major but later resigned his commission. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Kearny returned to the Army and was appointed a brigadier general. The Army had been reluctant to restore his commission due to his disability, but realized the need for experienced combat officers like Kearny. He was killed in action during the 1862 Battle of Chantilly. Kearny was buried at Trinity Churchyard in New York. In 1912, his remains were exhumed and re-interred in Section Two at Arlington National Cemetery, under the equestrian statue in his honor.
On October 12, 2000, the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole docked for refueling at the port of Aden in Yemen. At approximately 11:18 a.m. local time, a small craft approached the port side of the ship and set off an explosion. The terrorist organization al-Qaeda took responsibility for the attack. The blast put a 40-by-40 foot gash in the port side of the destroyer, taking the lives of 17 sailors and injuring 39 others. Three of the 17 victims — Chief Petty Officer Richard D. Costelow, Signalman Seaman Cherone L. Gunn and Petty Officer Second Class Class Kenneth E. Clodfelter — were laid to rest side-by-side in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. A fourth, Petty Officer Second Class Ronald S. Owens, is inurned in the Columbarium (Court 5, Section M1, Column 2, Niche 5).
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. The United States had experienced the assassination of a sitting president three times before (Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James Garfield in 1881 and William McKinley in 1901). But for the first time in history, the American people could watch the state funeral of a president live on television. On Monday, November 25, 1963, millions mourned President Kennedy as they watched his funeral, which concluded with his burial at Arlington National Cemetery. From St. Matthew's Cathedral, a funeral cortege made a three-mile march to Arlington, where Cardinal Richard J. Cushing, Archbishop of Boston, conducted the burial service. At the end of the service, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy lit the torch that would become the eternal flame. Today, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is buried beside her husband; other members of the Kennedy family, including Robert F. Kennedy and Edward Kennedy, lie in rest nearby.
During the first year after Kennedy's death, up to 3,000 people an hour visited his gravesite, and on weekends an estimated 50,000 people visited. Three years after Kennedy's death, more than 16 million people had visited the gravesite. The televised state funeral also led to a significant increase in demand for burials at Arlington National Cemetery.
On December 4, 1863, the U.S. federal government officially dedicated Freedman's Village, a model community for freed slaves, with a ceremony attended by members of Congress and other dignitaries. President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, as the Civil War entered its third year. The Emancipation Proclamation declared that "all persons held as slaves" within the Confederate states "are, and henceforward shall be free." As emancipated people traveled north to look for housing and work, camps established in Washington, D.C. faced overcrowding and sanitation challenges. Across the Potomac River in Arlington, however, Confederate General Robert E. Lee's former estate — portions of which were also serving as a Union cemetery — seemed to offer an ideal place for freedpeople to live and work on the land. Administered by the War Department, "Freedman's Village" provided temporary housing, food, education, medical care and employment training to more than 1,100 African Americans. An 1865 plan of the village depicts an organized community with over fifty residences, a hospital, a school, a home for elderly people and a laundry.
Predating Reconstruction, Freedman's Village was an early experiment in social welfare and the "uplifting" of formerly enslaved people. Results of this experiment were mixed. Although the War Department had intended for the model community to be temporary, it became semi-permanent; some residents thrived as small farmers, but others struggled to earn enough money to pay their rent. The federal government attempted to shut down Freedmen's Village as early as 1868. Residents fought eviction for the next several decades, until the government finally closed the settlement in 1900.
The former site of Freedman's Village is located near what is now Section 40 of the cemetery. Though little known, the story of Freedmen's Village shows how Arlington National Cemetery embodies African American history, the history of the Civil War and American social history generally.