ARLINGTON, Va. -- Arlington National Cemetery's hallowed ground honors American soldiers from many different wars. But as Arlington marks its 150th anniversary this year with tours and events, historians note that its roots are firmly planted in the Civil War.
It was June 15, 1864, as the war dragged into its fourth year, when War Secretary Edwin Stanton ordered the land turned into a military cemetery for the increasing numbers of dead soldiers.
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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 a few 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, park ranger at Arlington House, a National Park Service site within the cemetery that includes the Lee family mansion.
Initially gravediggers 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 John F. 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. While 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 aresting 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."
A variety of events are planned to mark the 150th anniversary, including tours on topics such as World War I. Events culminate with a first-of-its-kind, free nighttime concert in the cemetery's amphitheater on June 13, and a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Events to mark Arlington Cemetery anniversary
Arlington National Cemetery has planned a series of events to commemorate its 150th anniversary in May and June. The first military burial occurred May 13, 1864, for Union Pvt. William Henry Christman of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry. It was officially designated as a military cemetery on June 15, 1864.
Tickets for "Arlington at 150" tours are available for purchase by (202) 488-1012, anctours.com/Arlingtonat150.php or on-site the day of the tour in the Welcome Center.
Tickets are $9 for those events requiring tickets; other events are free.
May 20: Special Guided Tour: Uncle Sam's Little Wars, 2 to 5 p.m. (Ticket required)
May 21: Special Guided Tour: World War I: Bringing our Heroes Home, 2 to 5 p.m. (Ticket required)
May 22: Special Guided Tour: World War II: The Greatest Generation, 2 to 5 p.m. (Ticket required)
May 23: Special Guided Tour: U.S. Military and the Cold War, 2 to 5 p.m. (Ticket required)
May 30: Renaming ceremony for the Old Amphitheater, part of the Decoration Day Observance co-hosted with the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, 5 p.m. (Free)
June 2: Special Guided Tour: The American Civil War, 2 to 5 p.m. (Ticket required)
June 3: Special Guided Tour: World War I: Bringing Our Heroes Home, 2 to 5 p.m. (Ticket required)
June 4: Special Guided Tour: Late 20th Century to the Present, 2 to 5 p.m. (Ticket required)
June 5: Special Guided Tour: Monuments and Memorials, 2 to 5 p.m. (Ticket required)
June 6: Special Guided Tour: Medal of Honor, 2 to 5 p.m. (Ticket required)
June 13: "Arlington at 150" Observance Program: A Tribute to Arlington's Past, Present and Future; Memorial Amphitheater; 8:30 p.m.; preshow starts at 8 p.m. (Free)
June 16: Wreath Laying Ceremony at the Memorial Amphitheater, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 9 a.m. (Free)