Book Review by Rebecca Taylor

On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery by Robert M. Poole. Walker and Co., 2009. – and –
Where Valor Rests: Arlington National Cemetery ed. by Rick Atkinson. National Geographic, 2007.

I am so glad I found these two books at the same time. I originally heard Robert Poole speaking about his book, On Hallowed Ground, on Book TV. He gave a tour of the cemetery as he told stories from his book, and it was fascinating. Luckily you can watch it, too at YouTube – Book TV which you will surely want to do after reading either of these books.. Note: a large number of Book-TV segments are now available on YouTube!

Where Valor Rests is an example of what National Geographic does best. This “coffee table book” uses glorious color photographs and striking graphic design to tell the story of one of our country’s most hallowed places. Combining historical photographs with views of today’s cemetery, it manages to convey the immensity of this country’s loss with intimate looks at single moments and monuments.

I was especially fascinated by the chapter on individuals who work at Arlington from Kendell Thompson, the National Park Service manager for the Lee home, to Louis Pack, a gravedigger, to Jesus Vasquez Gonzalez, who maintains the trees and shrubs. Of course, there are musicians from all of the services with the solo buglers responsible for playing the ever present Taps perfectly at the end of each internment.

There are also a wide range of active duty servicemen and women, including the elite unit known as the Old Guard, who escort each casket to its final resting place, and the members of the “firing party” who give the service member’s final salute. There are the pilots of the DC National Guard who fly the “missing man” formation over many services, and of course, there are the guards to the Tomb of the Unknown whose hourly shifts continue around the clock in all of the kinds of weather that Washington, DC can throw at them.

One group I didn’t know about was the “Arlington Ladies,” a group of about 50 volunteers who make sure that every service has someone in attendance. Begun over 30 years ago by the wives of the Military Chiefs of Staff , Arlington Ladies volunteer several days a month and attend as many as five funerals in a day. Says Alba Thompson, an Army Arlington Lady, “As one of the representatives of the Chiefs of Staff , I bring condolences to the next of kin, present them with a hand written note, and console them. It’s a great honor. I tell them to remember that long after we’re gone, thousands will know that their loved one was an honorable man.”

I, as most people, knew that Arlington was originally Robert E. Lee’s home and plantation. What I didn’t realize was that the property was actually part of the birthright of Lee’s wife, Mary Custis Lee, a descendant of George Washington Parke Custis, the stepson of Martha Washington, who was raised as the adopted son of George Washington. Mary was deeply attached to the land, and it broke her heart when after the war, the US Government refused to return the land to a  “rebel and a traitor” as Robert E. Lee was considered by many bitter Unionists.

Burial had begun on the Arlington grounds near Mary’s garden very specifically because the US Quartermaster Montgomery C. Meigs, who had known Lee at West Point, was determined that the land never be allowed to be returned to the Lees. Also established on the Lee property was Freedman’s Village, a camp for the many ex-slaves arriving in the Capitol in droves, seeking an escape from their masters and a new life in the North. After the war, General Lee, and after his death, Mary Custis Lee, and after her death, their oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, pushed their claims to the land all the way to the US Supreme Court. It took until 1883 to settle the issue once and for all. The family was finally paid one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to give up all claims to the property.

The first person buried at Arlington was Pvt. William Christman, a twenty-one year old from the 67th Pennsylvanian Infantry who was buried on May 13, 1864. Author Poole details a number of later internees from Fighting Joe Wheeler, a Confederate General who at age 61 led US troops, including Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War, to Pierre L’Enfant, the designer of the very Capital his grave high on a hill in Arlington overlooks. I knew that Pershing was called “Black Jack” Pershing, but I never knew that his nickname came from the fact that he commanded the Buffalo Soldiers in the Indian Wars.

Thorough out the second half of the book, much is written on the “unknown” soldiers from WWI to WWII to Korea to Vietnam and the assertion that with today’s modern DNA testing, we will never have another “unknown soldier.” One chapter tells the story of the Vietnam War’s “unknown soldier” and how he came to be identified and returned to his family almost 25 years after he died. The chapter on the ceremony and burial of President Kennedy was fascinating to me, who as a child visited the grave, before the “eternal flame” was eternal.

I also had never realized that Arlington was quite as close to the Pentagon as it is. On September 11, 2001, the workers were stunned to have the plane that hit the Pentagon come in so low that some literally ran, believing it was crashing into the cemetery. I also did not realize that shards of glass and plastic were recovered from Arlington’s grass, and that the FBI asked workers if they could see into the cockpit of the plane as it went over. Today 64 graves, representing the 189 who died that day, lie in Section 64 overlooking the building where they gave their lives.

Both books make compelling reading, and complement each other quite well. Both are available at the New Hanover County Public Library, and along with the BookTV video interview will give you greater insight into the history and future of our country’s premier military cemetery. I know that the next time I visit Washington DC, I will certainly make time for a visit across the Memorial Bridge to this “hallowed ground.”