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The History of Arlington National Cemetery


Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for veterans of every war and conflict in American history. Even though it has been more than 140 years since the first soldier was buried in the cemetery, more that 20 funerals take place there every day.

As Americans prepare to celebrate Memorial Day May 30th, we report on the history of the nation's largest military cemetery, located near Washington, D.C. in Northern Virginia.

Arlington National Cemetery is a place of inspiration where more than one quarter million men and women are buried.

Located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C on 248 rolling hectares, the cemetery had a very humble beginning. Hundreds of unknown soldiers and their families are buried here, often in unmarked graves because their survivors could not afford a headstone.

The land was originally purchased by the adopted grandson of General George Washington, who intended on erecting a memorial to America's first president. The house he built for that purpose became known as the Arlington House. It was at this location in 1861 that U.S. Civil War General Robert E. Lee wrote his letter of resignation from the U.S. Army.

Although Arlington National Cemetery is the most famous burial ground in the United States, Americans know very little about the ceremonies that take place here every day.

Joe Mercer, a Cemetery Representative says there are a lot of small details that make each funeral unique. "The ultimate goal would be for a family to come in, have a nice dignified service, and be able to think that their service was the only one that we had."

At sunrise, the cemetery staff has already been at work for an hour. In one day, crews will dig eight new graves, mow more than 50 hectares of grass, power wash more than 1,000 head stones, and set 23 more headstones.

They must do it unobtrusively because several funerals will take place throughout the day.

A funeral with full honors is one of the most powerful sights at Arlington National Cemetery.

At the end of the funeral procession is a rider-less horse, known as the caparison horse. It is a tradition reaching back to the middle ages. At that time when a commander was killed in battle, his boots were removed and jammed into his stirrups, backwards. The horse was then sent racing home, and when the horse arrived, the message was very clear - a commander had been lost.

It was not until the death of U.S. President John F. Kennedy that Arlington National Cemetery became a place of pilgrimage for people from all over the world. Shortly before he was assassinated, President Kennedy visited the Cemetery to see Arlington House.

Paul Fuqua was the president's tour guide. "The president didn't know the story of how the Memorial Bridge links Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, pulling the two sides of the Civil War together. He had never heard that story before, so we talked about that. And then he was standing about where I'm standing now, looking down between the two, and he said that it was so beautiful that he could stay up here forever."

Arlington National Cemetery historian Tom Sherlock said funerals for the thousands of soldiers who were buried before President Kennedy was laid to rest here paled in comparison to the funeral for a President. "Prior to his burial here, we averaged about a million tourists a year. The first six months after his burial here, there were nine million. Requests for burials went up 400 percent. It's amazing. The emotion that's still at that gravesite."

Arlington National Cemetery sits on land set aside as a memorial to George Washington. Now more than 225 years later, although it isn't the memorial originally planned, it is a memorial to the known and unknown men and women who have fought for America's freedom.

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