As you leave the visitor's center one of the first signs you see is a plain white notice which bears the following message:




Our nation's most sacred shrine? More than, say, Independence Hall? Or the Statue of Liberty? The word shrine implies something religious or spiritual, in the sense that a shrine is a place where devotees worship the person, thing, or concept memorialized therein. A shrine also tends to be a concrete object, a public edifice whose significance may change over time. As old people and perspectives die and new ones take their place, the original sentiments associated with that material structure may mutate, often in concert with the views of the dominant populace. As a public space Arlington has existed longer than most in America, and in the course of its enduring and emminent presence it has reflected many symbols to many people. If quantity is the paramount criteria, then it may well be The Nation's Most Sacred Shrine.

Cornell professor Michael Kammen has found that Americans have often built public monuments "as a means of demonstrating a sense of continuity or allegiance to the past" (33). Despite its diversity of meaning, a dedication to the past has been the governing principle of Arlington since the early 1800s, when the mansion on the hill was the original Washington Monument. To later generations the house came to evoke quite a different past, that of the antebellum South; in order to suppress the tragic heroism that characterized the Lost Cause the northern-dominated Federal government transformed Arlington into yet another shrine to the past, whose crushing moral symbolism would attempt to overhwelm the property's Rebellious associations. The dedication of Arlington as a National Cemetery meant that the land would forever be used as a public monument to lives sacrificed for the national good. While this area was initially endowed with little prestige, as time passed it came to assume the characteristics of a holy place; Americans went there to express their allegiance to dead individuals, groups, or simply the more general concepts of patriotism or honorable military service. In the first century of its existence Arlington House and the National Cemetery of which it became a part were powerful symbols of America's immediate past, whose specific emphases shifted among individual, collective, and geographic legacies.

In 1778 John Parke Custis bought an 1,100 acre tract of land under the guidance of his adoptive father, George Washington. Overlooking the Potomac River, the thickly wooded and fertile land was where the young Custis planned to build his estate when the Revolution was over. Tragically he contracted "swamp fever" at Yorktown and died just weeks before Cornwallis' surrender; the undeveloped property in northern Virginia remained in trust for his six month old son, George Washington Parke Custis. Upon John's sudden death the baby and one of its older sisters were adopted by grandparents Martha and George. The General "again found himself in the position of role model" (Peters 4) for a young boy, and he took pains to impart upon "little Washington" the same high esteem for discipline and restraint he had cultivated in John.

Washington Parke Custis "led a glamorous existence" (Hinkel 10) at the heels of the greatest hero of the fledgling United States. Dignitaries both foreign and domestic made regular visits to Mount Vernon, and the boy was exposed to their stately presence as well as the patriotic grandeur of such events as his grandfather's carriage ride from their Virginia home to the new executive mansion in Philadelphia. Coupled with Martha's grandmotherly indulgence, it seems that this environment prevented "little Washington" from ever absorbing the General's lessons of personal conduct. As an adolescent Custis failed to complete his studies at three different colleges, and probably served as one of the greatest vexations in his stepfather's twilight years. When the old man died in 1799 the nation grieved deeply, but surely none wept harder than the young man who had grown up in his shadow. Upon his twenty-first birthday Custis assumed ownership of the lands purchased by his natural father, and since he was unable to purchase Mount Vernon from his cousin Bushrod Washington he decided that the tract overlooking the recently established Washington City would be an ideal place to transmute his grief into a shrine to the glory of the late general and president.

Although he originally wanted to name the property "Mount Washington", Custis was persuaded to change the name to Arlington in honor of the family's ancestral estate in the tidewater area. Construction of the mansion began in 1802, but due to lack of cash the wings of the house were built first, and the central hall was not completed until 1818. When the it was finished, the grand portico of eight massive white Doric columns stood out among the verdant hilltop to make it "the most conspicuous private house in America" (Kennedy 157).

During the periods of construction Custis lived in the north wing, and devoted much of his time to the purchase of George Washington's personal possessions. He spent as much as $4,500 on this endeavor (Kennedy 159), and acquired artifacts as mundane as corn drills and as priceless as a favorite punchbowl and the red-fringed tent the General used throughout the Revolution. Two milestones in Custis' life at this time were his marriage to Mary Fitzhugh in 1807, and the birth of Mary Anna Randolph in 1808. The only child to survive to adulthood, she was to carry on her father's legacy as a custodian of Washington's memory until she was forced to flee the property in 1861.

Even before Mary was born, however, Washington Parke Custis had distinguished himself as the enduring reminder of the late General's military and political service to their homeland. As a Federalist, Custis publicly denounced the War of 1812; but when the British invaded he still helped to defend the capital, firing the last volleys of artillery at the Redcoats before they swept over the field at Gaithersburg and towards the capital. He is also remembered as delivering a stirring eulogy for James Lingan, a veteran of the Revolution who was defending a Federalist newspaper with "Light Horse Harry" Lee when they were engulfed by a violent mob. (footnote 1)

The public dedication to his stepfather continued throughout Custis' long life. One of the annual events he became most famous for was the Arlington Sheep Shearing, which combined their mutual love of agriculture with partisan politics. A lifelong innovator in the breeding of sheep, Custis invited the neighboring farmers and other guests to enter their livestock in such contests as best wool quality, biggest ram, and so forth. But the festival did not merely celebrate the fruits of animal husbandry:

"The shearings became little Federalist rallies. He would set up the General's campaign tent down by the river and judge the sheep and the cloth there. Scores of guests would sit down at a long trestle table with floral decorations, plenty of food and wine, and a postprandial speech by the host appealing to patriotism, extolling industry, or just telling George Washington stories." (Kennedy 159)
The espousal of Federalist dogma was a certainty whenever Arlington's host took the podium, and he did so with such ubiquity he was nicknamed "the inevitable Custis".

Kammen writes that being "a self-appointed custodian of the past did not seem contemptible, yet it tended to mark a man as being quaint if not quirky" (71); Washington Parke Custis was both. The lowlands along the Potomac river on his estate were a favorite picnic spot for residents of Georgetown and Washington City, and when Custis espied a group he "would canter down from the mansion" (Peters 7) with his violin and entertain the people with music and of course, an immense mental treasury of Washington anecdotes. He would frequently invite his audience up to the house to see some of the artifacts, and occasionally gave away small trinkets or scraps of paper with the General's signature on it. In his later life he took up painting, and while he never developed the eye of a master his scenes of Washington's battles at Monmouth and other areas are still regarded for their detail and historical accuracy (Kennedy 163).

In 1831 Mary Anna Randolph Custis was married to Lieutenant Robert E. Lee in the main hall of Arlington House. Custis died in 1857, leaving the estate and all the Washington memorabilia to his daughter. His memories, those less tangible-- and perhaps more valuable-- possession, had fortunately been bequeathed to the public in his volume Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington. The events which surround this early period of Arlington's occupation clearly show that it served as a monument to George Washington well before construction of the familiar obelisk was even considered. The appearnace of the mansion as a Greek temple presiding over a city named in his honor provided a concrete association between Washington and the deific omnipotents of the past; Washington's apotheosis was further ensured by the "casual mythicization" (Kammen 70) heard in the regular orations of the temple's high priest and caretaker. In addition, Washington Parke Custis' enthusiasm in preserving the material and anecdotal remnants of his stepfather's life highlight his desire to keep the specific individual's memory alive in the hearts of the American people, and not just create an abstract godhead for his fellow citizens. Custis' shrine was devoted to the contributions of George Washington the military and political leader, but also to the Man who, thanks in part to his undiscipined stepson, was the most well-known and beloved individual of the nation's brief history.

Although the old man's passing signified that the estate's status as a semi-public temple to the Founding Father would diminish, Lee "readily shared his wife's custodial responsibility" (Peters 10) for the Washington artifacts. Unfortunately, in a few short years these responsibilities would be permanently disrupted. In April 1861 Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia, the Confederacy's primary military force. In May Mary Custis Lee left Arlington House, and sent a few portraits of George Washington to relatives in the South for safe-keeping. "No extensive transfer of valuables was undertaken" (Peters 20), and most of the memorabilia was packed away in the attic and basement rooms. Shortly thereafter Federal troops occupied the plantation; two forts were established and General Irvin McDowell moved his headquarters into the mansion. Apparently Mrs. Lee sent several letters to the new occupant of her home to impress upon him that "Arlington was ground hallowed to Washington" (Hinkel 19); while this message was appreciated by the commander, the hundreds of troops bivouacked on the property began a gradual process of ruining the forests and the rest of the land. More importantly, Custis' precious treasures began to disappear little by little. When McDowell realized this, he sent the remaining artifacts to the U.S. Patent Office, where they remained in storage for many years.

The house's association with one prominent individual from America's past had faded, but a substitute would soon take Washington's place. General Lee's military career kept him away from Arlington for most of his thirty year residence, and technically he never owned the property (Peters 13); nevertheless, the symbol of the Confederacy that he represented had become inextricably fused to the house by the summer of 1861. Heavy fighting in northern Virginia produced a constant stream of wounded Union soldiers flowing into Washington D.C., who had the tendency to linger in agony for a few days and then die. By 1864 the escalating body count was creating a serious logistical problem, for all of the ad hoc military cemeteries in the area had become filled to capacity. In the days before refrigeration, and especially in the humid swamp that was the District of Columbia, bodies had to be buried as quickly as possible. The war's end was nowhere in sight, and something had to be done. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton directed the Quartermaster General, Montgomery C. Meigs, to find a new spot to place to bury the endless influx of corpses.

Scholars consistently describe Montgomery Meigs as a self-important man who despite his birth in Georgia had developed an intense hatred for the South since the start of the war (Bigler, Hinkel, Peters). He served under then-Colonel Lee in the Engineer Corps in 1838, and although their exact personal relationship is unknown it seems likely that Meigs resented the superior ability and dashing good looks of his commanding officer. Even if this was not so, the building which was once a public temple of Washington had taken on a striking resemblance to an evil southern planter's mansion; in this new context the house looking down upon the Federal capital was "a defiance" (Hinkel 23) to many passionate Unionists in the city. Accordingly Secretary Stanton approved Meigs' recommendation that a section of the property around Arlington House be used as the military graveyard. The first soldiers were buried there in mid-May, 1864. The opening of the cemetery coincided roughly with the carnage of the Wilderness Campaign, and by the end of June 2,600 bodies had been put in the ground (Osborne 31). (footnote 2)

Obviously the intentions of the Quartermaster General to render the property uninhabitable were sincere. One year later the war was over, and over five thousand bodies had been planted in the sloping hills of Arlington. It was at this time that "the gigantic and gruesome task" (Osborne 31) of searching the surrounding countryside for shallow graves and unburied bones began. Of the total number of Civil War dead in the cemetery, about four thousand are unknowns. The graves were placed in neat rows and sections, with separate areas for colored troops and Confederate soldiers who had died as prisoners of war.

It is crucial to note that at this time the only men who were interred here were from families who were too poor to have the remains shipped home to rest among loved ones. The "funerals were frequently conducted without ceremony" (Bigler 28), as quickly and as cheaply as possible. The Army originally provided fragile wooden headstones, upon which names were misspelled and little other personal information was consistently provided. On a very real and immediate level, Arlington National Cemetery was simply the anonymous and inevitable product of the war machine. Between the mansion and the fields of the dead, the property which had originally been used to promote the shining legacy of a patriotic individual had become somewhat tarnished. If the Greek temple was associated with the attributes of any one individual, it was with the treasonous yet somehow heroic villainy of Robert E. Lee. The land that surrounded the house was consequently used to overshadow the memory of General Lee by associating Arlington with the enormous group sacrifice of those thousands who believed that America's union should be preserved. While the initial efforts of the Union to establish a shrine to collective military honor were largely successful, the two competing symbols of Arlington House and Arlington Cemetery served to polarize the area-- much as the nation itself would remain psycholigically divided for decades. (footnote 3)

The occasional sightseers who visited in the early years were probably awestruck by the place, simply due to the overwhelming number of graves. One of the largest and most toured cemeteries in America up to that time was the one at the Gettysburg battlefield, with some 3,300 dead; by 1870 there were over fifteen thousand soldiers interred at Arlington. When Iza Duffus Hardy toured the capital he took a detour from the monuments across the river and recorded his impressions of the cemetery and Arlington House, which had been abandoned by Federal officers at war's end. Two passages in particular serve as poignant expressions of the profound emotional effect Arlington had on people, while still retaining its undeniably sectional atmosphere. Hardy first described the Union cemetery:

"The beautiful park-like grounds are now a field of the dead. Up the hillsides by thousands and tens of thousands, stretch the long regular serried lines of tombstones. Here, line by line, in rank and file, at peace behind the battle, lies the silent army now. It is so hard to realize, looking upon these squadrons of the dead, still seeming drawn up in battle array, that every one of those cold white stones strikes down to the dust that was once a human heart, that throbbed with the passionate pain of parting, at leaving home and love, that thrilled at the trumpet's call, that beat with high hope and valour and gave its life-blood for the victorious cause that it held dear!" (15)
He concluded his essay with a sketch of Arlington House:
". . .the deserted mansion itself is as sad as any of the tombs that surround it. The grand old house is empty and ungarnished. . . The lofty rooms are spotless, speckless, carefully kept and unutterably forlorn. We wander from room to room through a desolate silence only broken by our own steps; the conservatories are barren of flowers; the only living thing we come upon is a dog sleeping in a patch of sunlight. More mournful than granite slab or marble cross, more eloquent than inscription carved in stone, the forsaken mansion stands, a silent monument o the Lost Cause." (16)
The surviving Confederate widows and veterans took great pains to honor their war dead, no matter how far away they might be (Kammen 118). But friends of the Rebellion were not wanted within Arlington's gates. When in 1868 a group of Southern women asked to place flowers at the Confederate graves, "they were curtly refused" (Hinkel 38) to enter the grounds. General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic ordered that the rebels be specifically ignored by the hundreds of volunteers who decorated Union graves that day. This sort of treatment led many of the Southern families to reclaim their lost sons; writing in 1899 John Ball Osborne documented that of the 377 Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery, 241 had been removed (32). This seems to indicate a desire on the part of Southern families to keep their dead off ground now held sacred to the enemy.

If Arlington House was to Northerners a stinging symbol of Confederate glory during the war, it was surely an even more agonizing symbol of lost glory to Southerners. The once- proud home of the beloved General Lee was a permanent war trophy of the Federal Army. Held captive by the silent white tombstones of Union heroes, its eminent visibility on the hilltop probably made the mansion an omnipresent insult to many Southerners. While the evacuation of the Confederate dead from the national cemetery would seem as a chauvinistic "obstacle to reconciliation", the "spasmodic outbursts" (Kammen 114) of the North's vindictive behavior after the war were by no means kinder gestures of forgiveness.

In spite of the overwhelming air of sectionalism that characterized the cemetery throughout the remainder of century, it was this period in which the grounds saw their transformation from an enormous potter's field to a locus of military honor. The half century after the Civil War was characterized by the proliferation of "monuments in honor of mighty warriors, groups of unsung heroes, and great deeds" (Kammen 115). This seems to be due to two factors: as the country returned to normalcy economic conditions allowed room for public and privately-funded memorials. In addition-- and perhaps more importantly-- most of the great heroes of the Civil War began to die off. Beginning with Robert E. Lee in 1870, most of the high command from both sides were dead by 1890. The passing of heroes who were either valiant saviors of the Union or tragic defenders of a dying culture had such an effect that they were immortalized at every opportunity. For the Federal officers interred at Arlington, their passings were no exceptions.

Between the ten year span of 1885-1895, twenty-six men who had received the rank of General during the Civil War were interred in the officer's section behind the mansion. As John Ball Osborne's summaries of the officers' service records indicate, most of these men received their promotions in the heat of battle or as rewards in its aftermath (Osborne 43-54). It would seem that the addition of these well-known presences to the anonymous dead brought a tangible, concrete source of heroism at a cemetery previously characterized-- due to the anonymity produced by the sheer number of enlisted graves-- by a less verifiable and consequently more nebulous form of honor. As the cemetery came to be associated with specific individuals, it subsequently became associated with the national service those individuals represented.

The officer's section further emphasized its commitment to individual heroism in its choice of funeral monuments: presumably by virtue of their rank, the men interred here were allowed to design their own. This privilege was so exploited by the families of the deceased that the section came to be described as "riotous" in contrast to the uniform marble stones that the enlisted graves were now being decorated with (Bigler 33). It is interesting to note that there is a preponderance of obelisks in this area, perhaps attempting to mimic the recently-completed Washington Monument plainly visible across the river. (footnote 4)

By 1910 the cemetery was full of Civil War generals, including Confederate General "Fightin' Joe" Wheeler, who had set an example for a sizeable number of southern soldiers by accepting what had become the privelige of burial at Arlington. Yet as it took a war to tear the country apart and create the National Cemetery, it took another war to bring the "severely riven" (Kammen 120) American consciousness back together. The Spanish-American War in 1898 drew volunteers from North and South, including veterans of the bitter conflict almost forty years before (Peters 251). The four words most popularly associated with this sabre-rattling conflict are "a splendid little war", and as it was marked by overwhelming victories, territorial acquisitions, and phenomenal press coverage there were few Americans who disagreed with this opinion. There were less than five hundred battle casualties of this conflict (one of the most decisive battles, at Manilla Bay, was won by Commodore Dewey without a single American death) but some two thousand died from yellow fever, typhoid, or other tropical maladies (Bigler 46). This provided an ample supply of heroes for interment at Arlington, which experienced its first boom in monument construction as a result.

In addition to the Spanish-American War Memorial (1902), the Rough Riders Memorial (1906), and a statue erected by the United Spanish War Veterans known as "The Hiker" (1965), the cemetery sports a memorial devoted to the event that touched off the war and catapulted the United States into a world power-- The U.S.S. Maine Memorial. The ship exploded in Havana Harbor in February 1898, and 260 men were killed. This caused the public to erupt in a media-influenced volcano of nationalism, and slogans such as "remember the Maine, to hell with Spain" (Peters 296) were widely circulated. About two hundred of the sailors lost in the explosion were buried in Colon Cemetery in Havana. The public clamored for their relocation to Arlington, but the bodies were not disinterred from foreign soil until the fighting in Cuba had ended in 1899. In 1910 Congress authorized that the wreck be salvaged, the remaining sailors' bodies be recovered, and a memorial to them be constructed on the cemetery grounds. Two years later sixty-five unidentifiable bodies joined their shipmates in a centrally-located part of the cemetery. On the seventeenth anniversary of the Maine's explosion, the memorial was dedicated. The original mast of the ship was preserved and mounted atop a platform resembling a battleship turret; on sides of this foundations were inscribed the names of those men who died onboard.

The effect of the Spanish-American War on the national psyche was not completely overwhelmed by the distorting tides of jingoism that washed over the country at this time. People realized that the war reunited the nation, and prefigured its dominant role in world affairs. Although the words of John Ball Osborne are surely colored by the loss of his brother William, who died of typhiod while serving in Cuba, the following excerpt from his 1899 guidebook to the cemetery speak vividly of the splendid little war's effect on the American consciousness in general and Arlington Cemetery in particular:

"And so it has come to pass that a very large contingent of the martyrs of the Spanish-American War repose at Arlington. But they did not die in vain; for they fought in righteous cause, and helped to liberate an oppressed people and win an empire, causing the flag of our country to be respected throughouth the world as never before; and, what is perhaps the chief glory, their patriotism knew no geographical lines within the limits of the Union, so that henceforth these new- made graves of Arlington, where the children of the North rest eternally beside comrades of the South, will symbolize a rehabilitated and solidified nation. Throughout the ages Arlington will continue to furnish a grand object lesson in patriotism and valor, and at the reville of Resurrection Day the slumbering array of patriots will burst their tombs asunder and emerge in glorious martial array." (73)

The spirit of reconciliation fostered by the Spanish-American War prompted Congress in 1900 to authorize the placement of a Confederate statue on the grounds of the cemetery. At this time all the remaining Confederate dead from the Washington area were reinterred in wide concentric circles in a special section. In 1906 approval was given for the construction of the Confederate Monument, and with the funds raised by the United Daughters of the Confederacy Moses Ezekiel was commissioned to create the memorial. A VMI cadet who fought at the Battle of New Market, Ezekiel did the work at cost. The cornerstone was laid in a formal ceremony in 1912, and on June 4, 1914-- the 106th anniversary of Jefferson Davis' birth-- the bronze sculpture was dedicated in a ceremony attended by veterans from both sides of the Civil War.

President Woodrow Wilson presided over the monument's dedication in 1914 and made a brief speech on the end of sectional conflict in America. He proclaimed to his audience that "this chapter in the history of the United States [is] closed and ended" (79), and although a seperate section for colored soliders would be maintined through the two World Wars, the president's words were not inaccurate. America would soon become involved in international affairs that would distract the average citizen from internal conflict, and thus a united national front would be displayed for many years to come.

If the merchandise sold at the gift shop is any indication of contemporary public memory and perception (which I suspect it is) the National Cemetery is remembered entirely for two things: The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Kennedy Memorial. The Tomb contains representatives from World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, making the Unknown Soldier a conceptual representative of the ideal national military service. Coupled with the almost overly-dramatized gravity of the honor guard which keeps a twenty-four-hour vigil at the Tomb, it is a captivating source of symbolic power for the cemetery today. The eternal flame is, however, even more striking in its ability to attract the thousands. Casual tourists and real-life pilgrims flock to the graves of John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert; in the full sense of the word the memorial is a shrine to a mythicized period of America's political past.

Both of these sites dramatically increased tourism, as well as requests for burial at Arlington (Peters 39, 87-102), which like the postcards on sale allude to their domination of Arlington's overall position in the American imagination. Perhaps this could be adapted to theories on the cult of celebrity; either way they are the subjects for other discussions. The mercurial symbolic nature of Arlington National Cemetery does, however, highlight the idea that it has consistently occupied a central position in the American mind. It is a public space which has been used over time to express particular visions of the past, and as such has been percieved and interpreted by the people in different ways. It is in essence, a nodal point of American culture.


Bigler, Philip. In Honored Glory. Arlington National Cemetery: The Final Post. Arlington, VA: Vandermere Press, 1987.

Hardy, Iza Duffus. "Arlington" Historic Buildings of America as Seen and Described by Famous Writers. Ed. Esther Singleton. New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1906.

Hinkel, John Vincent. Arlington: Monument to Heroes. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

James, Felix. "The Establishment of Freedman's Village in Arlington, Virginia." Negro History Bulletin 33 (1970): 90-93.

Kammen, Michael. Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture. New York: Vintage Press, 1993.

Kennedy, Roger. "Arlington House, a Mansion That Was a Monument." Smithsonian 16 (1985): 156-166.

Osborne, John Ball. The Story of Arlington. Washington, D.C., 1899.

Peters, James Edward. Arlington National Cemetery: Shrine to America's Heroes. Arlington, VA: Woodbine House, 1986.

Reidy, Jospeh P. "Coming from the Shadow of the Past: The Transition from Slavery to Freedom at Freedmen's Village, 1863-1900." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 95 (1987): 403-428.

Wilson, Woodrow. "Closing a Chapter." President Wilson's Addresses. Ed. George McLean Harper. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1918.

by Dan Backer
May 1996

American Studies @UVA