A Place for Reflection

It’s hard to imagine the United States without Arlington National Cemetery. That solemn garden of stone is an American icon, a “must see” on visits to Washington, D.C. Guidebooks enable visitors to pay their respects to famous veterans and presidents, and announce the time that the guard will change at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Mourning relatives, however, generally need no guides to find the white crosses that mark the graves of their loved ones.

Today we consider such cemeteries essential and common parts of our society, but before our costly internal conflict the government bore no responsibility for returning dead soldiers to their families or placing them in suitable resting places (story, P. 36).

Of course, before Arlington became a cemetery, it was a home—Robert E. Lee’s home. In 1864 the Union government started planting soldiers in his front yard, partially as a means of punishing the general who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia, and partially because the war had resulted in a ghastly harvest of bodies in blue. The government had to find somewhere to put them.

The enmity that led to the creation of Arlington National Cemetery has since dissipated, leaving all Americans with a solemn place to reflect on the cost of war and our heroic, and tragic, history. Certainly Robert E. Lee would approve of that.


Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here