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July 14, 2006
Historical walks begin at cemetery
by Mary Concannon
 Courtesy of the Pentagram

The first of a series of history walks was held Wednesday at Arlington National Cemetery. Fort Myer Historian Kim Holien led about 20 people on the walk, designed to allow civilians to "learn the story behind the story" of the cemetery.

Holien first stopped at the monument dedicated to the union troops of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery. These troops were the only ones to return after the Civil War to commemorate their service in Washington.

Next on the list of facts dealt with Montgomery C. Meigs, the man who gave the order to start Arlington Cemetery during the Civil War, and the mystery of his son's death.

Meigs' son John was 21 years old when his life came to an end and there were many questions surrounding his death, mainly if he was murdered or died in battle.

It is also disputed whether the cemetery was started because John had died and his father wished to bury him there with the idea of General Robert E. Lee never returning, or if there were already Soldiers buried before his death.

Regardless of the answer, there is a dedication to John Meigs with a bronze imitation of exactly how he was found the day he died -- a very interesting part of Arlington Cemetery few know to look for.

As the tour continued through the cemetery, Holien discussed the original amphitheater and the importance of the tomb located behind it.

"Fort Myer and Arlington National Cemetery are areas rich in American history. We're fortunate to have a sage historian like Kim Holien who can share with us their significance," said Garrison Commander Colonel Thomas A. Allmon. "We are using these historical walks as part of our physical fitness program. Walking is a good low impact exercise that gets people out of the office and reduces their stress levels."

The tomb that lies behind the amphitheater was the original "Tomb of the Unknown Soldier." This is where 2,111 Union Soldiers and perhaps a few Confederates lie. In 1921, the present day "Tomb of the Unknown Soldier" was opened and the Civil War tomb lost its intrigue, but not its importance to the cemetery and American history.

Another main attraction on the cemetery grounds is the Custis-Lee mansion. Contrary to popular belief, Robert E. Lee never owned this house, Holien explained. It was his wife who inherited it. Due to his father's debt and bankruptcy, a pre-nuptial agreement was issued stating that the house was to never be in Lee's name.

Located inside the mansion is a famous room. The decision room is where Robert E. Lee paced for hours deciding whether to join the Confederate army of his Virginia or the Union Army as requested by President Lincoln.

Over 100 years later, in March of 1963, President John F. Kennedy entered that same room with many Cold War questions on his mind. After leaving the front of the house, he looked at the beautiful view of Washington and, according to those present, said, "Oh what a beautiful sight, I could stay here forever."

This quote would be remembered again in November when tragedy struck in the form of his assassination in Texas. Kennedy's remark about Arlington was taken to heart and it was settled that he would remain in Arlington forever, for according to his mourning widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, "he belonged to the people."

Pierre Charles l'Enfant, the man who designed Washington, is also buried in Arlington. He lies in front of the Custis-Lee mansion with his grave overlooking the city he designed.

Another little known fact mentioned during the walk was the largest tract of virgin wood in the United States lies behind the Lee mansion and the slave quarters. Human hands have tainted none of these oak trees; many are close to 300 years old.

The next tour will be in August and will include the Tomb of the Unknowns. For more information, contact Holien at holienk@fmmc.army.mil.

Posted: 15 July 2006