When my eldest son was a baby, I would often tuck him into a stroller and walk through the quietude of Arlington National Cemetery. Last weekend, when Will was home for CRR’s significant birthday, we walked it again. It is a wondrous place – acres of rolling hills with ancient trees standing vigil over 300,000 graves of those who fought for their country.

The first were buried exactly 150 years ago, in May 1864, in the throes of the Civil War. In bitter revenge for Robert E. Lee’s decision to lead the Confederate army, the Union seized his Arlington estate for unpaid taxes. The mansion, atop a hill that overlooks the capital across the Potomac River, would never again be home to the Lee family. Instead, its lush grounds became the final resting place for Union dead.

No one was angrier at Lee than Gen. Montgomery Meigs, the Union Army quartermaster and a fellow West Pointer who had once served under Lee. It was Meigs who ordered the Lee property to become a cemetery, and it was Meigs who directed the first gravesites to border Mrs. Lee’s gardens. Meigs built the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to house the remains of 2,111 unknown soldiers – Confederate and Union — from the Battle of Bull Run. And after the war Meigs chose his own gravesite, a stone’s throw from the Lee mansion.

Nearby is Abner Doubleday, a Union general who did or didn’t invent baseball, depending on which account you believe.

Marshall's grave (photo credit: Will Raasch)

Marshall’s grave (photo credit: Will Raasch)

Closer to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, there is a section heavy with World War II luminaries. Gen. George Marshall, who steered the military through the war and then developed the European rehabilitation plan that carried his name. Behind Marshall lies Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith, chief of staff to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. A few sites over: Gen. Matthew Ridgway, commander of the airborne paratrooper assaults that helped win the war.

And on and on. A walk through Arlington is to relive America’s hard-fought history, one soldier at a time. On Monday, the cemetery will be filled with tourists and VIPs and family members to commemorate their courage and sacrifice. On Tuesday, it will once again fall mostly silent.

As we walked toward the exit, we passed seven soldiers at attention, a respectful distance from a family burying a loved one. A few minutes later, we heard the 21-gun salute, a last tribute.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

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