James Tanner Amphitheater
Section 26, near Sherman and Meigs Drives
The James Tanner Amphitheater, or the "Old Amphitheater," was the site of the first Memorial Day ceremony held at Arlington Cemetery on May 30, 1868. When General John Logan declared the day of remembrance for Union soldiers who had died in the Civil War — then called Decoration Day — President Andrew Johnson supported the order by allowing Federal employees to take leave to attend the ceremonies. Those who gathered to remember the Civil War dead listened to General James A. Garfield speak from a temporary stand erected for the occasion.
In 1873, on the fifth anniversary of the first Decoration Day celebrations, a permanent amphitheater was built on the site of the first ceremony. Designed by U.S. Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, a nationally acclaimed engineer, it was the first amphitheater to be constructed in a national cemetery. The architecture of Tanner Amphitheater — a radial pergola and elliptical stone walkway enclosed by brick piers supporting a wooden trellis — reflected the late 19th-century popularity of classicism, as well as the garden landscapes favored by the "rural cemetery" movement. Its modest structure resulted from a severe lack of federal funds during the decade after the Civil War. Construction was completed in 28 days, just in time for the Memorial Day ceremony that year. For the next four decades, presidents, commanders-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (a veterans organization for those who had served in the U.S. armed forces during the Civil War) and other dignitaries addressed tens of thousands who traveled to Arlington National Cemetery to honor America's fallen service members.
By the early 20th century, however, as Arlington National Cemetery became the nation's pre-eminent national cemetery, the modest size and design of the Old Amphitheater no longer seemed sufficient. A much larger, grander structure, Memorial Amphitheater, was dedicated on May 15, 1920. Despite the difference in scale, Memorial Amphitheater is structurally similar to its predecessor, with an elliptical plan surrounded by a colonnade and a rostrum on one side. On May 30, 2014, as part of the cemetery's 150th anniversary celebration, ANC renamed the Old Amphitheater in honor of James R. Tanner. Tanner, a corporal in the 87th New York Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, suffered a gruesome wound at the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862, which resulted in the loss of both legs. After the war, this wounded warrior became a stenographer and was present both at Abraham Lincoln's deathbed and during the trial of the Lincoln conspirators. He was an advocate for veterans' rights and served for a time as the Commissioner of Pensions, and later became the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic. Tanner is now buried a few yards from the structure that bears his name, in Section 2, Grave 877.
In the spring of 2019, ANC completed a major, multi-year restoration of the Tanner Amphitheater, in partnership with the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Training Center. This preservation effort assures that the amphitheater will remain as originally designed and built for the next 150 years. Colors dominate the restored amphitheater: metallic bronze capitals and bases set off the light tan columns, and a yellow rostrum base and ambulatory piers are the most noticeable change from the white that has decorated the structure for the past 100 years. In a few years, the wisteria will grow back to once again grace the structure in vines and purple blossoms. The work also made the amphitheater more weather resistant. Click here to read more about the restoration.