Editorial: Arlington National Cemetery turns 150

As we get closer to Memorial Day, we’ve been thinking about this nation’s Civil War.

It was just a few years after the conflict ended that communities in the north and south began to gather to offer prayers to fallen fathers, sons and brothers to decorate their graves with flowers. Remembering and honoring those who died while fighting for their country on this day isn’t the only way the nation has paid its respects dating back to the Civil War.

It was this terrible conflict, too, that spurred the creation of Arlington National Cemetery.

This week, 150 years ago, was when the first Union Army soldiers were buried in this land, set high on a Virginia hilltop bordering Washington, D.C. Pvt. William Christman, who had enlisted in the Union Army and served with the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, was the first soldier buried in Arlington — on May 13 — having succumbed to a case of the measles. Also interred on that day Pvt. William H. McKinney, with the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and Pvt. William Reeves of the 76th New York. McKinney died of pneumonia while Reeves died of wounds suffered just a week before, during the Battle of the Wilderness.

One day later, William Blatt of the 49th Pennsylvania Infantry, killed during the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, was interred. And on May 15, two unknown soldiers were buried there. They were the first of nearly 5,000 unidentified casualties of wars that now rest there.

Since then, according to information from the cemetery, “... is the final resting place for more than 400,000 active duty service members, veterans and their families.”

That now includes those who served during the American Revolution, as well as those who traveled to today’s conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Three members of the Kennedy family are buried there: John, Robert and Edward, as are a number of Supreme Court justices — and there is a burial ground for emancipated slaves with unmarked graves.

To fully understand its place in history and with the nation, it’s best to visit the cemetery, to walk its grounds and to see firsthand the monuments, markers and memorials.

Then you will see why National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said, “For 150 years, Arlington National Cemetery has defined how America commemorates and memorializes those who have fought for the freedom of its citizens.”

And that’s why we acknowledge that history some 150 years later.

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