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How Arlington National Cemetery Became the Resting Place for America’s ‘Heroic Dead’

On May 30, 1868, Gen. John A. Logan visited Arlington National Cemetery to speak at a ceremony for what was then called Decoration Day — and in doing so, set a precedent that holds to this day.

That event, organized three years after the end of the Civil War by the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the major Union veterans association that he ran, is considered the first national Memorial Day celebration ever to be held at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead,” Logan said, “who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes… We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance.”

He picked that day for the event thinking that by then, the “choicest flowers of springtime” would have bloomed, and could be used to decorate the graves of those who died fighting what is still America’s deadliest war. 

But though the connection between the history of Memorial Day and Arlington National Cemetery runs deep, the creation of the burial space wasn’t carefully planned. Rather, it was an act of desperation as the Civil War death toll mounted.

“It wasn’t by design. It was a need of a moment and the moment was the Civil War,” says Robert M. Poole, author of On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery. The Civil War lasted longer than expected and brought more fatalities than expected — more than the federal government could handle. Many of the wounded Union and Confederate soldiers were brought to Washington, D.C., for treatment, and many died there. “The location [of the cemetery] was considered a practical matter,” Poole says. “A lot of the fighting took place close to Washington D.C., and all of the cemeteries in the D.C. area filled up.”

In 1864, thousands died in the so-called “40-Days Campaign” in Virginia. The Quartermaster General of the Union Army, Montgomery C. Meigs, is considered the father of Arlington National Cemetery because he came up with the idea to bury these men on the plantation where Confederate General Robert E. Lee had lived until the Civil War broke out and his family fled.

The first burial there took place on May 13, 1864, for Private William Christman of Pennsylvania, who died of peritonitis, an infection he developed when he contracted the German measles. “No one knows why but it’s probably because he was a farm boy who he didn’t have the immunities that a lot of the city boys had,” says Poole. “He never saw a day of battle, but he’s one of the many Civil War soldiers who died, not in direct combat, but from disease — smallpox, measles, yellow fever, infection from wounds.”

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