Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On Hallowed Ground

Robert M.  Poole’s On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery traces the history of Arlington from its inception during the Civil War up until the last World War I soldier’s remains were buried there in 2006. [I won’t mention too much about how the angry Union quartermaster held a grudge against Robert E. Lee and determined that when the war was over that Lee’s home would be un-inhabitable for him to live in again.]

Thorough, well-researched, full of interesting facts, stories, and anecdotes, Poole’s ability to maneuver  through Arlington’s history by interweaving it with America’s war history shows that he is a true historian, ably sifting and sorting as needed to tell this compelling and rich story.

To anyone interested in how the American military funeral evolved to its current level of strict rules, traditions, and decorum will find Poole’s descriptions of military funerals, his details on the lives and deaths of individual fallen soldiers from every American conflict, and the behind the scene politics of the hallowed ground itself worth reading.  I found so much of  the work interesting that I took notes [huge nerd, I am] -- here is a partial list of what I recorded:

---“Taps’ played for the first time in 1863 for a Union soldier and spread informally, appeared in Drill Regulation in 1891

--- two out of five Civil War soldiers were unidentified at burial

--- In 1862, because of the inundation of war causalities in Washington alone, Lincoln signed a bill to designate fourteen cemeteries for burial of the war dead

--- Grave marker 5232 in Arlington is three amputated legs

--- Decoration Day began in May of 1868, later became Memorial Day, the nation still so divided that the Confederates were not included

--- After the Spanish American War, the US pledged to bring dead service men home from overseas instead of burying them on foreign soil, if their next of kin requested repatriation

--- the “dog tag” [1901] evolved from the “burial bottle” where comrades wrote out the name, rank, and organization for each deceased serviceman, corked the paper in a bottle, and wrapped it into a blanket with the remains to preserve the dead soldier’s identity

--- McKinley [1900] authorized that Confederates could be buried at Arlington, their grave markers pointed [the myth to keep Yankees from sitting on them] -- they were buried in a concentric circle in a new section, instead of being in lines like the Union dead

---  46,000 WW1 war dead were returned to the US from Europe -- 5800 in national cemeteries, 5241 to Arlington, 30, 000 stayed in Europe to lie in military cemeteries ceded to the US by the allies

---  Arlington created the first of four tombs for the Unknown Soldier; guard posted at the tomb round the clock for the first time in 1937

--- the Lee Mansion, which had fallen into disrepair, was renovated in the 1920s; one of Lee’s former slaves, James Park, was an integral part in its authenticity

---  by 1955, the war dead in Arlington went from 44,000 to 70,000 -- all but 3% of Americans identified in WW2

Okay, that’s enough, but I do want to tell a story that was new to me, and I thought I had read almost everything about John F. Kennedy. 

In March of 1963, President Kennedy made an impromptu tour to Arlington, his first and only. At the end of a tour that lasted over two hours, Kennedy stopped and stood on the top of a hill, the sloping, green lawn of Arlington in front of him. He told the National Park service employee, who had given him the tour, that “[he] could stay here forever.” Six months later, he lay buried there.

After Kennedy’s death, Arlington was never the same -- and you know, in some ways, I don’t think we were either. This book is really not just for history buffs -- it’s for Americans.

I am almost finished with Patricia O' Brien's The Glory Cloak, a historical novel based on the lives of Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton. This is a simple read -- good story -- and dovetails nicely with Poole's book.

Then, I think I will take another route -- I am about amputated out. :)

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