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Published on: Monday, July 8, 2024 read more ...

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Historians Commemorate ANC's 160th Anniversary with a Special Tour

By Kevin M. Hymel on 5/20/2024

To commemorate the 160th anniversary of the establishment of a military cemetery at Arlington, ANC’s History Office led a public tour in Section 27 on May 13, 2024. Command Historian Dr. Stephen Carney and Senior Historian Dr. Allison Finkelstein described how the Civil War led to the cemetery’s creation and early development. 

In Section 27 of the cemetery, near the historic Ord and Weitzel Gate, Carney explained the history of the land prior to the Civil War. He spoke about George Washington Parke Custis, President George Washington’s step-grandson, who built Arlington House as a living memorial to the nation’s first president and later willed the house to his daughter Mary Custis Lee. When Virginia ceded from the United States in May 1861, the U.S. Army occupied the land due to its strategic value on high ground within artillery range of Washington, D.C. “We have been the caretakers of this property ever since,” said Carney.

During the war, Carney explained, the Army used the land as an encampment and headquarters and built three forts on the property as part of Washington, D.C.’s defenses. The federal government also established a Freedman’s Village—a settlement for formerly enslaved people that provided housing, schools, hospitals and social services—on land that now comprises the southern sections of the cemetery. While intended to be temporary, Freedman’s Village remained “a thriving community for almost 40 years,” Carney noted.

Finkelstein then led the group to the graves of the first soldiers buried at Arlington, where she spoke about the history of military burials in the United States and how Civil War military cemeteries were initially considered “Pauper’s Fields,” where soldiers were buried because their families could not afford to have their remains sent home.  

Carney highlighted four service members interred in Section 27: Pvt. William Christman, the first soldier buried at ANC on May 13, 1864; Pvt. William Blatt, the cemetery’s first battle casualty; Pvt. William McKinney, the first casualty whose family attended his funeral; and Pvt. William Reeves, the cemetery’s first drafted soldier. He noted that Christman and McKinney (like thousands of other Civil War soldiers) died from disease; McKinney’s family had come to visit him in the hospital, not suspecting they would be attending his funeral. Blatt perished after being wounded at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 10, 1864, part of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. Reeves, too, died during the Overland Campaign—which, Carney noted, marked a transition from an all-volunteer Army to one comprised of large numbers of conscripts.

The two historians discussed other topics, including the segregation of burials by rank and race after Arlington became a national cemetery (on June 15, 1864); formerly enslaved civilians buried in Section 27; and two Medal of Honor recipients. As Finkelstein concluded, “Section 27 represents what the Civil War was about: a nation torn apart over the issue of slavery; the soldiers who fought and died in horrible conditions on the battlefield and in retched, disease-infested hospitals; and the courageous people who seized their own destinies.”

Attendees found the tour engaging. Chris Leone, from Washington, D.C., appreciated how the historians “focused on such a breadth of types of burials just in this section.” Norman Gresley, who had driven in from Leesburg, Virginia, described the tour as “very eye-opening.” Charles McCullough, who attended after visiting the Bull Run Battlefield in Manassas, Virginia, stated that the tour “made it clear that we’re just touching the surface here, and we need to go and explore.”


Learn More

►  Arlington National Cemetery will continue to commemorate its 160th anniversary with a special public tram tour on June 15. For details and registration information, click here.

► Explore our Education Program at https://education.arlingtoncemetery.mil. Learning materials related to this blog article include: 

•  The Civil War

•  African American History at Arlington National Cemetery

•  Understanding Arlington

•  Medal of Honor