It was June 15, 1864, as the war dragged into its fourth year, when Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered the land turned into a military cemetery.
The location for the cemetery just happened to be the former estate of Robert E. Lee, who took command of the Confederate Army when Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861. The Union Army immediately seized and fortified the estate, then known as Arlington Heights.
But Stephen Carney, the cemetery’s command historian, said it’s misleading to suggest that the cemetery was established merely as a way to spite Lee.
The seizure of the estate was a military necessity, no matter who owned the property, Carney said. From the highest points of Arlington National Cemetery, it’s easy to see why the Union Army wanted it: To this day it offers a nearly unrivaled view of the capital in Washington, D.C., just miles away.
And in 1864, the need for a burial ground was pressing. Wounded soldiers sent back to Washington were dying in unsanitary hospitals at an increasing rate. The high casualties were partly due to a change in strategy: Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had assumed control of the Union Army, and was more willing than his predecessors to fight in Confederate territory.
That said, animosity toward Lee played a role in the cemetery’s location, said Matt Penrod, a park ranger at Arlington House, a National Park Service site within the cemetery that includes the Lee family mansion.
Initially, grave diggers buried the dead on the estate’s fringes. But Union quartermaster Gen. Montgomery Meigs, a native Georgian, did not respect Lee’s decision to lead the Confederate troops. Meigs ordered that graves surround the mansion, ensuring that the Lees would never want to return.
“It’s the dead themselves that get the ultimate revenge against Lee,” Penrod said, adding that the loss of the home “definitely bothered the Lee family a great deal.”
Today the cemetery draws nearly 4 million visitors a year. Most are tourists visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Eternal Flame at President Kennedy’s tomb. But Arlington is also a working and busy cemetery, hosting roughly 30 burials a day.
Tourists and mourners share the cemetery in a unique way. Schoolchildren who are talking and laughing as they tour the cemetery typically go quiet and maintain a respectful distance when they encounter a funeral procession.
The military funerals can be emotionally overwhelming to behold. Though some are for older veterans, they also include young service members recently killed in action.
“You’re seeing lives cut short. That grief is very raw,” said cemetery spokeswoman Jennifer Lynch, who attends numerous services.
The cemetery serves as a resting place for service members from every conflict in U.S. history, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers from the American Revolution were reinterred at Arlington after their grave sites were displaced by a development project in Georgetown.
In addition to U.S. presidents, others buried here include Supreme Court justices, astronauts, war heroes, sports figures and celebrities, including baseball inventor Abner Doubleday, boxer Joe Louis and actor Lee Marvin. All three were veterans.
“There are 400,000 individuals with all these incredible stories,” Carney said. “If you want to play historical sleuth, you can just pick a name on a headstone, and everyone has an incredible story.”