STORIES AMONG THE HEADSTONES
Arlington National Cemetery turns 150 years old
The third man to walk on the moon is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in the company of more than 400 Medal of Honor recipients, 10 Revolutionary War veterans, civil rights activist Medgar Evers, and Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert.
The hallowed grounds of the Northern Virginia graveyard are well-known as the site for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the final resting place of President John F. Kennedy, but as the cemetery turns 150 years old this month, officials say they’re hoping the milestone anniversary will not be only about commemoration but also education.
“The big thing for us is to get people off the beaten path, go to some of the areas of the cemetery they wouldn’t normally go to,” said cemetery spokeswoman Melissa Bohan. “We want to educate visitors here on the breadth and depth of Arlington National Cemetery, and the significant sacrifice so many people have [made].”
The anniversary commemoration began Tuesday, with a wreath-laying at the gravestone of Army Pvt. William Christman, for whom the first military burial was conducted at the cemetery.
Christman’s remains were the first in the ground on May 13, 1864, said curator Roderick Gainer, but “W.B. Blatt,” whose tombstone is next to Christman’s and who died one day earlier, was the first combat casualty buried in the cemetery. (Christman died of measles.) One row behind Christman’s tombstone is the stone for “Wm. McKinney,” whose family was the first to attend a burial in the cemetery.
Mr. Roderick said the cemetery’s first section was used because of its proximity to the Potomac River, and it was far away from troops still fighting the Civil War.
It’s that sort of history officials are hoping visitors to the cemetery will learn in the coming month. “More than 400,000 people are buried here,” Ms. Bohan said. “Each of them has a story. We’re hoping through these five weeks to tell some of those stories.”
To introduce visitors to the graveyard, beginning Monday, the cemetery is hosting 10 days of special guided tours. The tours cost $9 per person and highlight the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, the wars of the late 20th century, and the burial sites of soldiers who earned the Medal of Honor.
“We have 10 days of tours so visitors get a chance to understand we have different groups of people buried here,” Ms. Bohan said. “We have 407 Medal of Honor recipients here. That’s a significant story.”
Other events for the anniversary include a Decoration Day observance on May 30, and the first ever evening program in the Memorial Amphitheater, scheduled for June 13. The show is called “Arlington at 150 Observance Program: A tribute to Arlington’s Past, Present and Future.”
A wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is scheduled for June 16.
When the cemetery began accepting soldiers, the site consisted of about 200 acres — property taken from the site of Robert E. Lee’s house after he fled during the Civil War.
Today, the cemetery sprawls across more than 600 acres, includes several memorials and monuments, and is close enough to the George Washington Parkway to here the low rumble of commuter traffic. High above the cemetery, planes regularly roar by as they arrive at and depart from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
While the cemetery’s physical aspects have changed since Christman’s burial, officials said the duty of the cemetery has remained the same.
“Arlington National Cemetery has a very special place in the nation’s psyche,” said Jack E. Lechner, Jr., the cemetery’s deputy superintendent. “It’s not the people who work here, or the people who were put in charge. This cemetery is consecrated by the names of heroes.”
Apollo 12 astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad, the third man to walk on the moon, was buried with full military honors on July 19, 1999.