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There are many questions that guests on our Arlington National Cemetery walking tour. Below are some of the most commonly asked.
Arlington National Cemetery FAQs:
At the turn of the 20th century, efforts were made by President McKinley to help with the reunification efforts. Confederate graves that had long been abandoned were disinterred and reburied in a new Confederate section. Though a US military cemetery, there are Confederates buried in Arlington.
Though it began as a cemetery for poor privates and freed slaves, through the years the honor associated with Arlington National Cemetery increased, leading it to be a chosen location of military men and women. After the assassination of beloved president, John F. Kennedy, the cemetery also became a tourist destination for millions each year who came to pay respects at the JFK, and now his brothers, memorials.
Kennedy is not the only, or the first President buried at Arlington. President and Supreme Court Chief Justice, William Howard Taft, and his wife, Helen Herron Taft were buried here in 1930 and 1943, respectively.
Arlington National Cemetery’s 624 acres has more than 150 years of history, not just of its own but through the stories of the men and women buried here, and before them – those who lived and worked here.
First President Buried at Arlington: President William Howard Taft
On March 8, 1930, at the age of 72, former President William Howard Taft dies after weeks of illness. On that same day, unexpectedly Associate Justice Edward Terry Sanford also died. Though most people know Taft as a President, this was not the only high ranking position he held during his life.
Taft’s resume boast quite a few career highs, more than one of which makes him eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. He had served as Governor of the Philippines, Secretary of War, 27th President of the United States and 10th Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He is the only man in U.S. history to have been both President and Chief Justice. His illness began only a few weeks before his death and caused him to retire from the bench of the Supreme Court.
When he left the presidency, it was in the face of defeat. His reelection campaign only garnered 8 electoral votes. But the nation rekindled their admiration for him when he was nominated as Supreme Court Chief Justice.
The funeral services were in keeping with tradition and full military honors. President Taft laid in State in the Capitol Rotunda until the afternoon. Though the East Room of the White House was offered for services, Mrs. Taft asked that the funeral service be held in a church. President Taft was a congregation member at All Souls’ Unitarian Church. It was President Taft who requested no eulogies in his funeral service and instead they read works of Wadsworth and Tennyson.
Mrs. Taft and their sons requested that the president be buried at Arlington National Cemetery and selected a spot in the northeastern part of the cemetery. At this point in the 1930s, it only had a few graves in the area.
A 14.5 foot tall granite Greek stele obelisk was sculpted by James Earl Fraser as the former President and Chief Justice’s headstone. This monument was paid for by the Taft family as a personal request. The War Department had placed an order for a marble headstone which would simple say President of the United States as his only accolade. His wife had this current monument made that listed both President and Chief Justice.
Thirteen years later, Helen Herron Taft died and was buried next to her husband. Two small foot stones record their initials.
The First President Buried in Arlington Cemetery: William Howard Taft’s Grave can be found in Section 30 just to the north of the Women in Military Memorial Museum off Schley Drive, by Custis Walk.
The founding of Arlington National Cemetery followed a tumultuous four years as the country was embroiled in civil war. While many people and events helped to establish Arlington, none were more influential in the effort than Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs. During the Civil War, Meigs served as the Quartermaster General for the Union Army. He saw to the outfitting of Union troops with food, supplies and ammunition, organized campaigns, and helped track the course of the war. As caravans of Union casualties continued to fill the streets and cemeteries of Washington, the government was in desperate need of land in which to inter these fallen soldiers. In 1864 the Office of the Quartermaster General was tasked with identifying the site of a new government cemetery. Meigs knew just the place—Arlington, which had been the home and estate of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
During his early years as a soldier in the Army Corps of Engineers, Meigs had studied and worked under General Lee, whom he regarded as an impressive leader and sharp engineer. However, in May 1861, when word spread that Lee had resigned his army commission and joined Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Meigs turned from comrade to adversary. Meigs considered the entire Lee family to be traitorous criminals, and executed his vengeance by encouraging the government to seize the Lee family property at Arlington to be used as a cemetery for Union dead. The Union Army occupation began in 1861, and by 1864, the army began burying soldiers along the Northern border of the Arlington estate. The government legally acquired the property in public auction in January of 1864, and Meigs began building his vision of a national cemetery.
The selection of Arlington is jointly credited to President Abraham Lincoln and General Meigs. The (perhaps apocryphal) moment of inspiration came when Lincoln and Meigs were visiting the military encampment at Arlington on May 13, 1864. As the Presidential carriage toured the grounds, Lincoln and Meigs observed laborers unceremoniously loading wagons with dozens of dead soldiers from Arlington Hospital, bound for burial at the Soldier’s Home in Northern Washington. Meigs supposedly stopped the caravan and ordered the soldiers to be buried immediately on the spot. The Washington cemeteries were overflowing with Union casualties, and Meigs had found his new cemetery site.
While Meigs was known for his deep military sense of propriety and patriotic duty, he was also a shrewd and calculating bureaucrat, and held deep resentment toward Lee. In an effort to make Arlington as uninhabitable as possible, should the Lee family attempt to return, Meigs directed the first burials of prominent Union officers to be as close to Arlington Mansion, the Lee family home, as possible. By June 1864, at least seven Union officers had been laid to rest on the borders of Mrs. Lee’s flower garden.
By the end of the war in 1865, over 12,000 Union soldiers were interred at Arlington. However, Meigs was still wary of the Lee family’s claims to the land, and constantly cautioned his superiors to make sure the government’s hold on the property was legally secure. To further entrench Arlington as a national cemetery, Meigs set out to locate and rebury thousands of Union soldiers, interred in battlefields, churchyards and wilderness throughout the country. The initially modest effort to populate Arlington blossomed into a patriotic duty to find, identify, and honor Union casualties. Meigs sought to rebury as many Union soldiers as possible, along with identifying their name, rank, and unit, to help families identify their loved ones. This campaign to recover the dead became one of the largest and most carefully orchestrated national efforts to date. “Such a consecration of a nation’s power and resources to a sentiment, the world has never witnessed,” observed Quartermaster Edmund Whitman of Meigs’s project. In 1870, when the reburial efforts ended, over 315,000 soldiers had been accounted for. For those bodies that could not be identified, Meigs designed a mass grave site to honor the anonymous Union dead, serving as the first memorial to unknown soldiers in the cemetery.
After most of the re-internments had been completed, Meigs set to embellishing Arlington National Cemetery with his own aesthetic vision. Throughout his career, Meigs had demonstrated an aptitude for engineering and architecture, and had strong design sensibilities. While developing Arlington, Meigs also supervised designs for the National Museum (now known as the Arts and Industries Building), the Washington Aqueduct system, an expansion of the Capitol Building, including a new dome, and the Pension Office (now known as the National Building Museum).
At Arlington, Meigs designed and commissioned mausoleums, statuettes, Tanner amphitheater, and the McClellan Arch, which framed the cemetery’s main entrance. In a move characteristic of Meigs’ well documented ego, he inscribed his name in gold on the south column below the arch. Meigs was involved in every step at Arlington—he chose plantings, directed workers in their repairs of the Mansion, and even dictated the composition of soil used to landscape the grounds. When the question of replacing wooden tombstones arose, Meigs recommended galvanized iron as a long lasting, cost effective and durable option. A nationwide headstone replacement program was enacted in 1873, but Meigs’s particular suggestion was rejected in favor of the marble and granite we see today.
Meigs’ final influences at Arlington involved securing his own family into the fabric of the cemetery. He claimed a beautiful hilltop plot just to the west of the Lee Mansion off Meigs Drive, in Section 1, Row 1. Meigs’ wife, Louisa, was the first to be interred there in 1879. Meigs also had his son, Lt. John Rogers Meigs, who had been killed in the Civil War, moved to their plot, along with many other relatives. Meigs’ last design for Arlington was his own massive white marble sarcophagus, elevated on a stone pedestal with the following self-composed epitaph, encapsulating the many roles he played in our National history: “Soldier, Engineer, Architect, Scientist, Patriot.”
Many of these sites are visited and discussed on our Arlington National Cemetery walking tour.
Robert E. Lee Memorial | Custis Lee Mansion
As you approach Arlington National Cemetery it is hard not to notice the mansion at the top of the hill inside the Cemetery. Arlington House, or to use its more official title, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, is one of the most arresting sites at the Cemetery, and one that is full of history and intrigue. Plus, the view from outside the house is amazing, its not A view of Washington, it’s THE view of the entire downtown Washington DC area.
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Arlington House has an incredible history, matching the cemetery surrounding it. The house has historical connections to so much of early American history, not just the Civil War, but the American Revolution as well. The house was built by George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha (Custis) Washington, and step-grandson of George Washington. Custis, or Wash, as he was known, built a thriving plantation overlooking Washington, DC and planned on filling it with his collection of Washington Memorabilia. The land that the house and the cemetery are built on was Wash’s inheritance from his father and grandmother, and immediately upon Martha’s death, he started to plan Arlington House. Wash and his wife, Mary Fitzhugh Custis had only one surviving daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis. She grew up at the plantation and married her childhood sweetheart, Robert E. Lee at Arlington House in 1831. 6 out of their 7 children were born at Arlington House.
When Robert E. Lee left the Union Army to join the Confederacy in 1861, his wife remained behind at Arlington House, unwilling to leave her family’s home. In May 1861 she received word that the Union was planning to occupy Arlington House, and managed to send most of her valuables away before she vacated. The house became the headquarters for the Army of the Potomac. In 1864, the Army confiscated the entire property, claiming that the Lee’s had not paid their taxes in person, a new law that was designed for exactly this purpose. Later that year, the land surrounding the house became a cemetery, making it impossible for the Lees to return to their home, even after the war. After their death their son sued the government, claiming they had obtained the house illegally, and won. The deed to the house and the land was given back to the Lee family, who promptly sold it back to the US Army. In 1955 Congress designated the house as a permanent memorial to Robert E. Lee.
Arlington House is an architectural marvel, even today. It was designed to resemble a Greek temple, but not just any old Greek temple, the temple of Hephaestus in Athens. Even when the house was constructed, houses were rarely built on this scale, with the grandiose outside portico being visible from miles away. George Washington Parke Custis,wanted the house to be visible from downtown Washington, which it actually still is. Interestingly, Wash was planning on it being a memorial to George Washington, that didn’t prevent him from skimping on the building costs. The huge columns in front of the mansion are designed to look like they are marble, but they are actually stucco covered with hydraulic cement and painted to look like marble and sandstone!
Extensive renovations continue to take place at Arlington House, preserving this beautiful historic home for the future. The rooms of the downstairs are set up the way they would have been when the Lee’s lived in the house, so that visitors can get a sense of the life that the Lees led there. You can also tour several of the out buildings, the summer kitchen and more. Along with the magnificent views of the city, it truly is one of the highlights of Arlington National Cemetery.
Here are the particulars for a visit to the House:
Hours: Arlington House is open different hours from the rest of the Cemetery. Open from 10am to 4pm in the winter and beginning April 1 will be open from 9:30am to 4:30pm.
Fees: It is completely free to visit the Cemetery and Arlington House. On busier days there may be a delay to enter the House, and there are restrictions on the number of visitors who can go upstairs in the House at any one time due to structural considerations.
How to get there: As always, metro is probably the best option, although there is a dedicated parking lot at the Cemetery. The Arlington Metro stop on the Blue line takes you to within steps of the Visitors Center for the Cemetery. From there, Arlington House is at the top of the Hill. You can grab a map of the Cemetery at the Visitors Center or simply follow the signs up to the House. Alternatively, take our Arlington Cemetery Tour for the full scoop on the entire Cemetery and Arlington House, Saturdays at 10am all year long, and Fridays at 10am beginning in April.