Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery

I first became aware of Arlington National Cemetery after President Kennedy was assassinated. Like so much of the country during those dark days, I watched the funeral on television. Growing up during the sixties, Arlington was ever-present, as many of the young soldiers who died in Viet Nam were buried there. Yet it wasn’t until a few years ago that I became aware that the site had originally been the plantation belonging to Robert E. Lee, the general who led the Confederate forces during the Civil War.

I’ve visited Washington, DC several times. On my most recent trip, I was able to visit Arlington. Several surprises were waiting for me. Lee’s house is still standing. For some reason, I thought that it had been destroyed during the Civil War. There are areas with grave monuments that I would have expected to see in a civilian cemetery rather than the more austere uniform markers found in the rest of Arlington. Most puzzling was the placement of some of the memorials. Especially the mass grave in what looked to me to formerly be a garden.

The answers to all of these mysteries are found in Robert Poole’s excellent book on the history of Arlington. I hesitate to use the word “history” which conjures up the idea of a dry tome filled with names and dates and battles. Mr. Poole’s book contains all of those but he tells his story in a more reader friendly manner.

Just because this is a history written for a popular audience doesn’t mean that it has been dumbed down at all. The author covers each major era in the history of Arlington, seemingly without omitting a single significant detail. He tells how the cemetery came into being, how the traditions we see today are the result of years of development some of them still evolving, and how and why burials were placed in the cemetery.

The story of Arlington National cemetery is as much the story of the military and government officials of their times as it is about our country. I’m sure that many readers will be surprised, as I was, to learn that Arlington was not always the revered place that it is today. After reading Mr. Poole’s first-rate account, it’s easy to understand how a need for burial space and one man’s near obsession with appropriating the property of a traitor became a national symbol and coveted place to spend eternity.

I’m looking forward to visiting Arlington again, this time with a better understanding of it and with this book tucked under my arm.

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