Visiting Arlington Cemetery

Washington2-ArlingtonHouse

Who would have thought that Arlington Cemetery in Washington would be so fascinating? It’s just a bunch of dead people. I found the rows and rows of white gravestones mesmerizing.

Washington2-Arlington GravesWe walked from our hotel in the center of the city to Arlington, via the Memorial Bridge. It took over an hour. This bridge goes from the Lincoln Memorial to Arlington House, Robert E. Lee’s House.

We stopped at the visitor center long enough to learn that if we rushed, we could make the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Washington2-Changingofthe guardsA soldier in full dress uniform paces back and forth in front of the tombs of the Unknown Soldier – World War II, Korea and Viet Nam.

Exactly on the hour, a sergeant comes out with another soldier who is about to come on duty. He explains briefly what is going on and asks us to be quiet and respectful. With lots of rifle play and caressing of weapons, the two soldiers exchange places. We thought the ceremony was over but it wasn’t.

A small group of school children, all dressed up, come down the steps led by the sergeant. One is carrying a wreath with a banner across it containing the school name. The soldier removes the old wreath and the boy places the new wreath on the stand. Another solder is playing taps. We all put our right hand on our heart. A second school group does the same thing with another wreath. I guess it’s a big honor for the school to have their wreath displayed for an hour.

We wander further up the hill to Arlington House, the home of several prominent historical figures.  George Washington’s step grandson, George Washington Parke Curtis, was the first owner. Robert E. Lee, who married into the family, was the last owner. It pays to marry well-connected people.

From Arlington House, you can see the way we walked in – the bridge, the Capital, the Jefferson and Washington memorials. Pierre Charles L’Enfant who designed the city of Washington (1791-1792) is buried up here. The house itself is being refurbished. Though it’s now empty, visitors can walk through it. Lee had seven children and the second floor is full of bedrooms.  The third floor was a storage attic, now closed off to the public.

Washington2-VolunteerA volunteer ushers us in. She wears a different type of uniform and I take her picture.

Robert  E. Lee had a long career with the U.S. Army and was against secession. But when Virginia left the Union, Lee resigned his commission and went to Richmond to join the Confederacy. His wife and children left Arlington a month later when it was obvious that the Federal Government was going to take over the house.

There’s a small museum devoted to Lee’s life. It explains that the Memorial Bridge was built to unite Arlington (Lee’s residence) and the Lincoln Memorial across the Potomac River that divided South from North. After the war, Lee became president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia and died there in 1870. The site includes a small museum explaining the role of slaves and freemen at Arlington House.

Arlington National Cemetery was created in 1864 because the government had to have some place to bury all the dead. There doesn’t appear to be any mass graves here.

The children of former slaves help in directing the restoration. The National Park Service acquired Arlington House in 1933.

The Kennedy graves are directly below the Arlington House. The grave site is ostentatious and frankly over the top. An eternal light burns; Jacqueline Kennedy and their two babies are also buried here. Edward and Robert Kennedy lie nearby.

Most visitors come by Tourmobile and spend little time at Arlington. But we were on our own schedule and stayed over four hours.

After doing this visitor classic, we went to the Dept. of the Interior at 18th and C St. to see if there was anything to see in the National Park Service offices. The building has been under renovations since 2001. It was supposed to be the “world’s finest office building” when it was built in 1935 – 1937.

The guards were the least friendly I’ve encountered so far in Washington.

“No, the museum is closed for renovation,” he said. “What do you need?”

But we weren’t deterred. We went through security and walked into the NPS visitor center, open only until 3:30 P.M. I asked the clerk a couple of simple questions but she knew nothing. But there were pamphlets of all the National Park units and we helped ourselves to a bunch for parks we were going to visit and hope we would visit.        

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