Arlington National Cemetery

This Spring Break, my in-laws flew over from England and rented a house in Vienna, Virginia.  We, therefore, travelled down to spend a few days with them in Northern Virginia.

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As you know, I love to visit cemeteries.  I had not been to Arlington National Cemetery since the summer of 1995 and, as such, my kids had never been.  I, therefore, decided that we should go visit Arlington National Cemetery given its significance.  I drew up a list of 40 graves that I thought we should aim to visit, 20 of which were prioritized, and I plotted them on a map according to the section and grave numbers.  Some of these were family graves but most were the final resting places of people of historic significance.  Despite all of my preparation work, however, my missions were largely not to be accomplished.  Mostly this was simply because of the vast scale of Arlington Cemetery.  It was created on land that had been the estate of Robert E Lee’s wife and covers over 600 acres.  There was simply no way we could ever hope to cover every section of the cemetery.  I, therefore, culled from my list any of the graves that were not plotted in the centre of the map.  The other factor that complicated my search for individual graves was the peculiar numbering system.  Sometimes it was easy to follow because the numbers were in clear consecutive order but, in other sections, the numbering system was erratic with graves in the 4000s being sited adjacent to graves in the 8000s and the 3000s nowhere to be found.  There absolutely has to be some logic to it but the puzzle confounded and defied me.  As such, we did not find a single one of the graves of Mr Pict’s family members, not even the one who is famous enough to have a Wikipedia entry.  Oddly enough, however, we did find the only one of my family members who is interred in the cemetery, Elizabeth Brown Levy, nee Stout.

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Arlington contains only two equestrian memorial statues and we happened to visit both of them.  One of them is for Field Marshall Sir John Dill, who was the first non-American to be buried in the cemetery.  The other is for Philip Kearny, a Major General killed during the Civil War.

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On the subject of the Civil War, of course we had to visit a number of the graves of prominent Civil War Generals because that is where the Venn diagram of my love of cemeteries intersects with Mr Pict’s interest in the Civil War.  These included George Crook, John Gibbon, William Starke Rosencrans.  We had hoped to locate Frederick William Benteen, since we had visited the Little Bighorn last summer, but we were unsuccessful.  My 9 year old, however, did find the grave of Dan Sickles.  He served in the Civil War, was a Member of Congress, and a Diplomat, but what the kids and I know him for is his murder of Philip Barton Key and his successful use of the temporary insanity plea, its first use in American judicial history.  We had visited the grave of his victim in Baltimore in 2017.  We also stopped by the grave of John Lincoln Clem, a drummer boy in the Union Army who holds the record as the youngest noncommissioned army officer in US history.  I asked my kids to imagine what it must have been like to experience war as a 10 year old, though I don’t think it is possible to really grasp it.

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We took the kids to pay their respects at the Tomb of the Unknowns.  We felt it was extremely important that the boys visit that site to appreciate the sacrifice these unidentified people represent, the symbolism, the poignancy, the tragedy of it all.

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We also visited the grave of Thurgood Marshall, Civil Rights lawyer and Supreme Court Justice.  I had hoped to make it to Medgar Evers’ but I was thwarted.  We also saw the grave of John Glenn, Senator and astronaut – the first American to orbit the earth and the oldest person to fly in space.  The connection for the kids was having been to Grand Turk in December since that was where John Glenn arrived back on earth following his orbit in 1962.  As someone who has an interest in pandemics and the history of disease, I was pleased to find the grave of Albert Sabin, the medical pioneer who developed the oral polio vaccine.  We also visited the oldest grave in the cemetery, that of Mary Randolph who died in 1828 and was buried long before Arlington was established as a National Cemetery.

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For most of our time in the Cemetery – with the noted exception of the Tomb of the Unknowns – we barely encountered other people.  Such a massive space can, of course, absorb masses of people.  The area that was most crowded, much more so even than the Tomb of the Unknowns, was the grave of President John F Kennedy.  It was packed with people and I had the distinct impression that many people clamber off of tour buses just to come see this grave site and then they return to their buses and move on.  Kennedy, however, is not the only President buried in Arlington: the last grave we searched for was that of President William Howard Taft.  Somewhat surprisingly, his memorial obelisk was more challenging to locate than one would imagine.  I persevered, however, because I have decided that one of my side travel missions will be to see the presidential graves.  The kids, however, were beyond flagging by this stage (my father-in-laws fitbit informed us we had walked 11,000 steps) so they were doner-than-done with our explorations of Arlington National Cemetery and ready to go back to the rental house to soak in the hot tub and not remotely receptive to the notion of visiting a whole load more presidential graves.

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20 thoughts on “Arlington National Cemetery

    • They have been visiting cemeteries since they were teeny tots so are used to it – and mostly tolerate it. Sometimes I do scavenger hunts for them but finding specific graves kept us busy enough.

  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing! Btw I too love reading the history of pandemics and disease… I’ve recently reread ‘Rats, Lice and History’ by Hans Zinsser. There are times when I wonder if narratives move through a population in a similar ways that pandemics do. Anyway – thanks for sharing!

    • Another thing we have in common! I read an excellent recent history of the 1918 flu epidemic recently. I have The Ghost Map lined up to read at some point too (but am currently reading a book about forensic science). The Black Death is my favourite.

      • The Black Death is a favorite of mine too! I did a series of paintings about that once-upon-a-time; chiefly about the sayings/poems used around that era as a way of (superstitiously) dealing with the plague. Such as the saying “Ring around the roseies, pocket’s full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” It was a saying to help promote what they, during the Black Death era, thought would help ward off the plague; a pocket full of sweet smelling flowers. I’ll have to check out “The Ghost Map”… thanks for telling me about it!

      • I once dragged Mr Pict and the kids to the village of Eyam which was the English village famous for shutting itself off from contact with others when they came down with plague. I, of course, had to visit the extant graves.

      • Of course you had to visit the graves! I would have had too also! The good news: whenever you make it to the SW Washington area of the Pacific Northwest there are several old cemeteries and the old Fort Vancouver – which was a working fort when this area was still British. 😉 The Civil War is talked about (and reenacted) from the Union point of view. Something for both you and Mr. Pict perhaps. Also, they reenact baseball games as they were played in the early 1800’s and on Halloween they give fort tours and storytelling by lamplight…. spooky! 😉

      • It is fun! There’s even a restaurant where you can eat dinner in “The Grant House” that was built for Ulysses Grant back in the day…. Will look forward to your further explorations!

      • I forgot my point with that last statement. Oops. Eyam inspired a stage play called ‘The Roses of Eyam’ which I read as a kid. That may have been where my pandemic fascination started.

      • Sounds interesting! I loved visiting Salem Massachusetts and learning about the Salem Witch Trials – including a tour of the judge’s house; the judge who decided to not allow “spectral evidence”. The idea of witches and the hunt for them (as it was done in the 1700’s) seemed almost to me like a pandemic….

      • I got into that whole history when teaching ‘The Crucible’. I listened to the podcast ‘Unobscured’ last year which reignited my interest. I’ve been to Salem but would like to take the kids. Mr Pict is related somehow to one of the judges and more directly to John Alden who was one of the accused.

      • Wow! That Mr Pict is related would add a bit to the fun of exploring Salem – when you come to it again! 🙂 – – Ah yes… “The Crucible”! Fond memories with that book. I know exactly where my copy is. That and “The Scarlet Letter” both. So you got to teach “The Crucible”??!! Wow!!! How cool!!! Wish we could sit and chat about that….

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