It was a beautiful day for a walk around Arlington yesterday. I’d come to the National Cemetery to take pictures for Meg Thompson’s upcoming Aftermath of Battle. Although into mid-November, temps hovered in the mid-sixties, and fall still canopied the headstones.
The cemetery invites reflection, and the weather served as collaborator, so I took my time exploring this most hallowed of our national ground. I visited the usual places–JFK’s grave, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington House–but I made special point to visit the original tomb for unknown soldiers: the Tomb of the Civil War Unknowns.
Beneath this stone repose the bones of two thousand one hundred and eleven unknown soldiers gathered after the war from the fields of Bull Run and the route to the Rappahannock. Their remains could not be identified, but their names and deaths are recorded in the archives of their country; and its grateful citizens honor them as of their noble army martyrs. May they rest in peace! September, A.D. 1866.
The monument rests just beyond Mary Custis Lee’s rose garden to the right-rear of the Arlington Mansion. Quartermaster-General Brig. Gen. Montgomery Meigs placed it there as an act of spite against the family for Robert E. Lee’s decision to throw his lot in with the Confederacy. While that seems harsh, I can’t forget how broken-hearted Meigs was; his own son, Lt. John Rodgers Megis, had been killed during the 1864 Valley Campaign. Meigs ultimately buried his son in sight of the mansion, in Row 1, Section 1. Meigs himself was later interred next to him.
The stones all have stories. The men and women now resting throughout the cemetery all have stories, too. As I stood in Arlington on the day before Veterans Day, I was reminded of my duty to tell them—to honor them and to teach their lessons to all of us.
Thank you, veterans, for your stories and lessons. And thank you, readers, for remembering what these men and women did for us. “Their names and deaths are recorded in the archives of their country”—and remembered here, too.