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A Military Cemetery

Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.
Gen. John J. Pershing

Rows of Gravestones, Los Angeles, California

United States National Cemetery is a designation for 146 nationally important cemeteries in the United States. A National Cemetery is generally a military cemetery containing the graves of U.S. military personnel, veterans and their spouses but not exclusively so. There are also state veteran cemeteries. The best known National Cemetery is Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington County, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C..

Some National Cemeteries, especially Arlington, contain the graves of important civilian leaders and other important national figures. Some National Cemeteries also contain sections for Confederate soldiers.

Experts estimate that approximately 40 percent of Civil War dead were not able to be identified. This was due to the unprecedented number of men being killed during the battles, which meant many of the dead were simply abandoned as troops had to march to the next battle before they could bury their fallen comrades.

Arlington National Cemetery sits on land that used to be owned by Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate Army. The Union confiscated the 1,100-acre Virginia estate from Lee, and President Lincoln then gave permission for it to be turned into a cemetery. According to some accounts, the idea was that if Lee ever decided to return, he would have to look out at the graves of those killed by the war he helped to create. Lee's oldest son sued the federal government after the war and won back the estate, but because it was now a cemetery, he sold it back to the government for $150,000.

The National Cemetery Administration of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs maintains 130 of the 146 national cemeteries. The Department of the Army maintains two national cemeteries, Arlington National Cemetery and United States Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery. The National Park Service maintains 14 cemeteries associated with historic sites and battlefields. Additionally the American Battle Monuments Commission maintains 24 American military cemeteries overseas.

In the summer of 1862, George F. Root was putting the finishing touches on the words and music of the Battle Cry of Freedom that would be adopted as a national anthem (in different versions) by both the Union and the Confederacy. (The Union version was used as the campaign song for the Lincoln-Johnson ticket in the 1864 presidential election. The song was so popular that the music publisher at one time had 14 printing presses going at one time and still could not keep up with demand. It is estimated that over 700,000 copies of this song were put in circulation.)

Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier

Throughout history, many soldiers have died in wars without their remains being identified. In modern times, nations have developed the practice of having a symbolic Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that represents the war grave of those unidentified soldiers. They usually contain the remains of a dead soldier who is unidentified (or "known but to God" as the stone is sometimes inscribed) and thought to be impossible ever to identify, so that he might serve as a symbol for all of the unknown dead wherever they fell. The anonymity of the entombed soldier is key to the symbolism of the monument - since their identity is unknown, it could theoretically be the tomb of anyone who fell in service of the nation in question, and therefore serves as a monument to all of their sacrifices. Much work goes into trying to find a certain soldier, and to verify that it is indeed one of the relevant nation's soldiers.

World War I (1914-18) is sometimes called the first modern war. For many historians, this neutral label actually refers to the introduction of more efficient ways of doing battle: artillery, tanks, poison gas, air battles and better bullets. The conditions of this war resulted in, not only mortality numbers that far eclipsed any other armed conflict, but also a greater number of "unknowns" - bodies that were buried without being identified or never recovered from battle. Perhaps it was the unique pain of these losses that influenced countries to establish memorials to these unknown soldiers, and to the families that would never have the comfort of knowing that their deceased loved ones had been "brought home".

Reverend David Railton, MC, MA, had lived surrounded by war and death as a military chaplain with the English troops during WWI. But one grave he found in a French garden in 1916 haunted his thoughts. It was only a rough wooden cross with the words "An unknown British Soldier, of the Black Watch" (also known as the Royal Highland Regiment). Possessed with the idea of returning an unknown soldier to England, Railton wrote to Lord Douglas Haig, Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, but received no response. After peace was declared, the chaplain, accustomed to conducting services with a muddy bucket covered by a tattered Union Jack as an altar, returned to a more traditional parish: St. John the Baptist Church at Margate. Still unable to forget the nameless graves, Railton wrote to Bishop Ryle, the Dean of Westminster, who approved the idea of honoring the unknown dead in 1920. The idea might have been stopped forever by King George V's opinion that it was in poor taste, if Prime Minister David Lloyd George hadn't been searching for a "unifying national symbol" to help heal Britain after the devastating war.

The long journey home began on 7 November 1920, when one unknown English soldier was brought from each of four battlefields- Aisne, Somme, Arras and Ypres - to a chapel near Arras, France. Accompanied by Colonel E.A.S. Gell, Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt, ignorant of which coffin came from which battlefield, chose one to be designated the unknown. The other bodies were reburied while the unknown was prepared for honors. The coffin, inscribed "A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country" and accompanied by a crusader's sword from the Tower of London collection, returned to British soil on the HMS Verdun.

On 11 November 1920, two years after the conclusion of WWI, the casket was drawn through the streets of London on a gun carriage pulled by six black horses to the burial place of the country's royalty, statesmen, artists and scientists. The coffin passed through an honor guard of 100 veterans who had earned the Victoria Cross into Westminster Abbey. Although a three day viewing had been planned, more than 1.25 million people arrived to pay their respects, and the viewing was extended to seven days. The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, covered by black Belgian marble, contains the soil of France and is the only grave in Westminster Abbey that visitors are forbidden to walk over.

Around the main inscription, several Bible verses were placed: The Lord knoweth them that are His (2 Timothy 2:19), Greater love hath no man than this (John 15:13), Unknown and yet well known, dying and behold we live (2 Corinthians 6:9) and In Christ shall all be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22).

Francois Simon, a French printer, is credited with encouraging the French to establish a French tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1916. Simon was said to receive his inspiration from Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War that included the line, "Among these is carried one empty brier deck for the missing, that is, for those whose bodies could not be recovered." In 1919, the Pantheon was chosen as the final resting place, but a letter writing protest resulted in a change. On 10 November 1920, several bodies from major battlefields (the number varies in different accounts) were brought to the Citadel of Verdun where Auguste Thien, a young soldier who had been called into service at the end of the war, selected the unknown. The coffin was transported first to the Pantheon then to the first floor chapel of the Arc de Triomphe on 11 November 1920, - at the same time as the British unknown was making its way to Westminster. On 28 January 1921, the unknown was moved to its permanent resting place at the base of the Arc. The tomb is inscribed "Ici repose un soldat francais mort pour la patrie 1914-1918" (Here lies a French soldier who died for his country 1914-1918). The sides are marked by significant dates "4 September 1870 Proclamation of the Republic" and "11 November 1918 Restoration of Alsace and Lorraine to France". November 11 was declared a national holiday and, in 1923, Andre Maginot, Minister of War, lit the first eternal flame at the tomb. The Committee of the Flame continues to reignite the flame each evening.

Italy's General Giulio Douhet first introduced the idea of a tomb honoring Italy's unknown soldiers after similar internments in England and France. Soldiers of the war also petitioned the government. In late October or early November 1921, Maria Bergamas of Gradisca d'Isonzo chose the unknown from 11 unknown soldiers. Bergamas, whose only son was killed and whose body was never recovered, was chosen to represent all those who were mourning soldiers buried in unmarked graves. From Aquileia, the unknown was brought to Rome on 4 November 1921. He was interred at the Monument to Victor Emanuel II, the king known for unifying Italy. Sometimes called the "Altare della Patria" or "Altar of the Fatherland", the tomb designed by Alberto Sparapani wasn't completed until 1924. The tomb includes both an eternal flame and a two-man guard.

Five unidentified Belgian soldiers' remains from the battlefields of Liege, Namur, Antwerp, Flanders and Yser were brought to lie in state at the Bruges railway station. On 10 November 1922, Raymond Haesebrouch, a crippled veteran, selected the unknown soldier. The next day, eight one-armed Belgian veterans accompanied the casket to the "Colonne des Congres" or Congress Column in Brussels. The column, topped by a statue of King Leopold I, the nation's first king, is a symbol of Belgian independence and the congress that created the Belgian constitution in 1830. It is surrounded by four statues representing freedom of the press, religion, education and association. The casket was interred in a vault in front of the column. In Dutch and French, "Here rests an Unknown Soldier who died for His Country 1914-1918" was written on the vault.

On 13 May 1923, 10 oak coffins containing unidentified Romanian soldier remains from Marasesti, Marasti, Oituz, Targu-Ocna, Jiu, Prahoua, Bucharest, Dobrogea, Ardeal and Basarabia were brought to the Assumption of Mary Church in Marasesti. Amilcar C. Sandulescu, a war orphan and class leader at Dimitrie A. Sturza Military High School, chose the unknown. He knelt before the fourth coffin and said, "This is my father". The next day the others were buried at Heroes Cemetery in Marasesti. The chosen unknown traveled by train to Bucharest, where King Ferdinand awaited him at the railway station. In Bucharest, the coffin traveled to the Mihai Voda Church on a carriage pulled by eight horses. There, the coffin lay in state until May 17, when the unknown was buried in a simple crypt in "Parcul Carol" or Carol I Park, built to commemorate the reign of King Carol I. The stone slab, decorated with flower sculptures, reads: Here lies at rest happily unto the Lord the Unknown Soldier, Extinguished from life in the sacrifice for the unity of the Romanian people. On his bones lies the land of united Romania 1916-1919. At noon, the siren of the Army Arsenal and the church bells rang, signifying that the unknown had been laid to rest, and citizens throughout the city observed two minutes of silence. An eternal flame was added in 1927 and a cross in 1934.

In 1923, a group of unknown Varsovians placed, before Warsaw's Saxon Palace and the adjacent Saxon Garden, a stone tablet commemorating all the unknown Polish soldiers who had fallen in World War I and the subsequent Polish-Soviet War. This initiative was taken up by several Warsaw newspapers and by General Wladyslaw Sikorski. On April 4, 1925, the Polish Ministry of War selected a battlefield from which the ashes of an unknown soldier would be brought to Warsaw. Of some 40 battles, that for Lwów was chosen. In October 1925, at Lwów's Lyczakowski Cemetery, three coffins were exhumed: those of an unknown sergeant, corporal and private. The coffin that was to be transported to Warsaw was chosen by Jadwiga Zarugiewiczowa, mother of a soldier who had fallen at Zadwórze and whose body had never been found.

On November 2, 1925, the coffin was brought to Warsaw's St. John's Cathedral, where a mass was held. Afterwards eight recipients of the order of Virtuti Militari bore the coffin to its final resting place beneath the colonnade joining the two wings of the Saxon Palace. The coffin was buried together with 14 urns containing soil from as many battlegrounds, a Virtuti Militari medal, and an erection act. Since then, except under German occupation in World War II, an honor guard has continuously been held before the Tomb.

Despite the optimistic promise that the Great War was "the war to end all wars", they have not been years of peace. Subsequent wars, as well as significant dates in their history, have prodded over a dozen nations throughout the world to imitate countries and establish memorials honoring their unknown soldiers. For the Canadian Royal Legion, it was the upcoming millennium that led to the proposal of a Canadian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. An unknown Canadian soldier selected from a cemetery near Vimy Ridge was escorted back to Ottawa by plane on May 25, 2000. He lay in state at the Hall of Honour in the House of Commons for three days, and then was buried at the National War Memorial in downtown Ottawa. Mary-Ann Liu, designed the brass sculpture on top of the three tiered granite sarcophagus, which includes a medieval sword, WWI helmet and maple and laurel leaves. Carved into the south side are the simple words: The Unknown Soldier.

It was the second summer of a terrible war that few had believed would last more than several months. Thousands had already died at places like Wilson's Creek, Bull Run, Shiloh, and Fort Donelson. On July 17 of that year, Congress enacted legislation that authorized the President to purchase "cemetery grounds" to be used as national cemeteries "for soldiers who shall have died in the service of the country."

Fourteen cemeteries were established that first year, including one in the sleepy Maryland town of Sharpsburg where 4,476 Union soldiers were laid to rest after the one day of terrible slaughter that was the Battle of Antietam. (By way of comparison, approximately 3,000 Americans, British and Canadians died on June 6, 1944, in the invasion of Normandy).

By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been buried in 73 national cemeteries. Most of the cemeteries were located in the southeast, near the battlefields and campgrounds of the Civil War. After the war, Army crews scoured the countryside to locate the remains of soldiers who had died in battle.

They were buried with honor in the new national cemeteries, which were enclosed by brick walls and entered by means of ornate gates. Tragically, however, the identities of nearly half of those who died in service to the Union and are buried in national cemeteries are unknown.

The National Cemetery Administration has evolved slowly since the initial period of great challenge associated with the Civil War. All honorably discharged veterans became eligible for burial in 1873. Cemeteries associated with military posts on the western frontier, such as Fort McPherson, Nebraska, were added to the system in the late 19th century.

In the 1930s, new national cemeteries were established to serve veterans living in major metropolitan areas such as New York, Baltimore, Minneapolis, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Antonio. Several, closely associated with battlefields such as Gettysburg, were transferred to the National Park Service because of their value in interpreting the historical significance of the battles.

In 1973, Public Law 93-43 authorized the transfer of 82 national cemeteries from the Department of the Army to the Veterans Administration, now the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Joining with 21 VA veterans cemeteries located at hospitals and nursing homes, the National Cemetery System comprised 103 cemeteries after the transfer.

Recognizing the need for a federal agency to take the lead in honoring U.S. servicemembers who died on foreign soil, Congress enacted legislation in 1923 to create the American Battle Monuments Commission. The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains and oversees American cemeteries and monuments around the world. They are commemorative sites honoring our nation's war heroes.

The commission directs the administration and operation of 24 American military cemeteries and 25 monuments and memorials located in 15 countries, including three memorials in the United States. The commission is an agency of the executive branch of the federal government. The commission maintains the sites with appropriated funds, and employs about 300 foreign nationals.

Its mission also includes designing and constructing new cemeteries and monuments. For instance, the commission designed, planned and raised money for the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., which was turned over to the National Park Service shortly after it opened on April 29, 2004.

The primary focus of the commission is World War I and World War II, but it also maintains a cemetery in Mexico City from the Mexican-American War (1846-48) and a cemetery in Panama that includes many U.S. troops and civilians who died of yellow fever while building the Panama Canal.

There are 124,917 American war dead interred in foreign cemeteries: 30,921 from World War I, 93,246 from World War II, and 750 from the Mexican-American War. The families of those killed during World War I and World War II had the option of bringing the bodies of their loved ones back to the United States for burial. But 39 percent allowed the remains to be buried overseas at American cemeteries.

In 1949, the next of kin again had the option of repatriating the remains or leaving them overseas. Sixty-five percent opted to move the remains back to the U.S.

The American cemetery in Normandy, France, is the commission's most famous and most visited site. The Normandy cemetery, along with all the other sites, are a reminder to all people of what the U.S. has done for the cause of freedom. The United States has willingly sent its young men and women to these foreign countries when asked to restore their freedom.

In Tunisia, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld became a "legend" with the folks who work at the commission. As he was being escorted through he saw a cigarette butt on the ground and, without saying anything, he bent down, picked up the cigarette butt and put it in his pocket. He may not have made much of it, but it was watched by a lot of people who were exceptionally moved by the thoughtfulness of that act.

On November 11, 1998, the President signed the Veterans Programs Enhancement Act of 1998 changing the name of the National Cemetery System (NCS) to the National Cemetery Administration (NCA). Today, there are 141 national cemeteries in all. VA, through its National Cemetery Administration, administers 125 of them. Two national Cemeteries-Arlington and Soldiers Home-are still administered by the Army. Fourteen national cemeteries are maintained by the Department of the Interior.

The idea of a memorial to honor the unknown dead was suggested to General Peyton C. March, the Army Chief of Staff, by several people after the French plans were made public in 1919. March rejected the ideas of both Brigadier General William D. Commor, the commander of the American Forces in France, and Mrs. M.M. Melony, the editor of Delineator because he believed that the relatively few unknown American dead (compared to those of Britain and France) would eventually be identified. He also suggested that the US had no unifying national monument comparable to Westminster Abbey or the Arc de Triomphe.

In December 1920, during the twilight of President Woodrow Wilson's term, Congressman Hamilton Fish Jr. of New York introduced Public Resolution 67 to return an unknown soldier from France for burial at Arlington Cemetery. It was quickly approved and 11 November 1921, was chosen as the ceremony's date and declared a national holiday.

On 23 October 1921, unknowns from the four American cemeteries - Aisne-Maine, Meuse- Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel - arrived at the city hall of Chalonssur-Marne. The next day Sgt. Edward F. Younger indicated his choice of the unknown by placing a spray of white roses (that were later buried with the unknown) on one of the caskets.

The remaining soldiers were reburied at Romange Cemetery, the unknown was moved to Paris by train and then to the USS Olympia, Admiral Dewey's old flagship, for the trip home. While lying in state at the Capitol on President Lincoln's catafalque for two days, the unknown received approximately 90,000 visitors.

Hundreds of people, ranging from Supreme Court justices and state governors, to members of the American Library Association and Red Cross, accompanied the unknown, on a horse-drawn cassion, to Arlington on the morning of November 11.

All the mourners walked from the Capitol to the White House with the exception of former President Wilson, by now in failing health, who rode in an open carriage. More than 100,000 people attended the burial service, conducted by Bishop Brent.

President Harding offered a eulogy, Congressman Fish laid a wreath at the grave and Chief Plenty Coos, Chief of the Crow Nation, after offering a prayer, unexpectedly lay his war bonnet and coup sticks at the gravesite. Covered with a layer of French soil, the unknown was buried as a bugler played "Taps" and a 21 gun salute was offered.

Several changes were made to the tomb in the following years. Concerned that some visitors were not showing respect to the gravesite, the military added a daylight hour guard in 1926. A decade later the 24-hour honor guard began.

Although originally a simple base, a 50-ton piece of Colorado marble sculpted by Thomas Hudson Jones was added in December 1931. The box-shaped memorial has three figures: Peace, Victory and Valor carved on one side and the words "Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known but to God". The phrase became the traditional phrasing for the stones of all unknown American soldiers in cemeteries throughout the world.

Jodi M. Webb. Honoring The Unknown Soldier. History Magazine. October/November 2008.


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