Arlington Cemetery and the Pentagon

The Great Tours: Washington, D.C.‚—Lecture Eight Guide

Defense plays an integral role in any nation, and the United States Department of Defense is one of the central pillars of our government. Arlington Cemetery and the Pentagon are two of the most recognized landmarks in the country. Take a tour of these and other nearby military memorials.

In this guide, we will discuss:
• Visiting Arlington National Cemetery
• Arlington House
• The Memorial Amphitheater
• The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Background of Arlington National Cemetery

The history of Arlington National Cemetery is inseparable from the history of the American Civil War. When that war began on April 12, 1861, Arlington Plantation, as it was then known, was the home of General Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Custis Lee. Their 1,100-acre plantation stretched along almost two miles of riverfront on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, and it featured a mansion.

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Within two weeks of the start of the war, Virginia had seceded, and Lee had resigned his commission to the U.S. Army. By the end of April, he was serving the Confederate government in Richmond, Virginia. Back in Arlington, the Confederate-aligned forces of the Virginia militia set up camp at Lee’s mansion.

On May 24, 1861, Union troops had seized control of the plantation. The mansion became General Irvin McDowell’s headquarters. The soldiers destroyed the gardens and groves, using the lumber to build fortifications and barracks. The property remained in Union hands for the rest of the war.

The Civil War is to this day America’s most deadly military conflict. More than 600,000 men lost their lives. By halfway through the war, the existing military cemeteries in D.C. and Alexandria were quickly running out of room. In 1864, the Union Army quartermaster proposed setting aside 200 acres of the Custis-Lee property as a new military cemetery.

The first soldier to be buried here was Private William Christman of Pennsylvania, who was interred on May 13, 1864. Today, more than 150 years later, there have been over 400,000 interments, with almost 7,000 new burials every year of veterans and their family members. The graves are visited by 3 million people every year.

Visiting Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery Welcome center entrance
The Arlington National Cemetery Welcome Center entrance

The Welcome Center is the first place most visitors stop at on their tour of the cemetery. Inside, you will find historical exhibits, maps and pamphlets, and information services for visitors seeking a particular grave. (The cemetery has an official smartphone app called ANC Explorer, which also helps visitors to find specific graves and memorials.)

From here, there are a number of ways you can enter the cemetery. This course recommends going back out to Memorial Avenue and visiting the monument at the end of the street—the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. This is also a museum and research center devoted to the 3 million women who have contributed to U.S. military efforts, both as active and reserve duty service members and as civilian or uniformed support staff.

From the reflecting pool in front of this memorial, you can turn either north or south to enter the cemetery gates. Turning north leads you to the smaller portion of the cemetery and the area closest to the Custis-Lee mansion.

At the first intersection, you will find two graves of note. To your right is the gravesite of World War II veteran and civil rights activist Medgar Evers. To the left, you will find the grave of one of two presidents buried here at Arlington: President William Howard Taft. You can then follow the signs uphill to the memorial of the second president to be buried here: President John F. Kennedy.

Just uphill from the Kennedy gravesite is the Custis-Lee mansion. Along the path toward the house, you will see many of the original Civil War-era graves. You will also see a monument erected above a vault containing the remains of 2,111 soldiers from both sides of the conflict who died at the battles of Bull Run and Rappahannock. Almost directly in front of the mansion is a table tomb that marks the grave of Pierre L’Enfant, a veteran of the American Revolution and the early planner of Washington, D.C.

Arlington House

Alrington House, Robert E. Lee memorial
The Arlington House

The mansion is a National Park Service site administered separately from the cemetery. Formally, it is known as Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial. Inside, the first floor of the house is more or less divided into private spaces on the north side of the house and public or entertaining spaces in the center and south side of the house.

Behind the mansion are two small buildings that served as slave quarters. The north quarters included the mansion’s summer kitchen. This was also the home of George Clark, the plantation cook, and the carriage driver, known as Daniel. The building to the south was the home of Selina Gray, Mrs. Lee’s lady’s maid. She lived in a single room with her husband Thornton and their eight children.

The Memorial Amphitheater and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Soldier on guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, marching
The Tomb of the Unknown Solider was founded in 1921, when the body of an unidentified World War I American soldier was buried there.

To the south of the mansion are the Memorial Amphitheater and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The amphitheater serves as the cemetery’s chapel, where memorial and funeral services for many of the interred have been held.

The Tomb of the Unknown Solider was founded in 1921, when the body of an unidentified World War I American soldier was buried there. This soldier was later joined by the remains of unidentified soldiers from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. However, in 1998, the remains of the Vietnam soldier were disinterred and identified by DNA evidence as the Air Force’s Michael Joseph Blassie. That tomb is now vacant, and its crypt cover is dedicated to all veterans of the conflict.

The tomb is guarded 24 hours a day by volunteer sentinels from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, which is headquartered at nearby Fort Myer. Any soldier who serves as a sentinel must meet a strict set of physical requirements and must study the history of the ceremony.

A changing-of-the-guard ritual takes place here once per hour in fall and winter and once every 30 minutes in spring and summer. At the end of each shift, a relief commander announces the changing of the guard, salutes the tomb, and asks any spectators to stand and remain silent throughout the ceremony.

Surrounding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are a number of significant memorials, including:

  • A memorial to the Rough Riders cavalry unit that served in that war.
  • A memorial to the veterans of the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.
  • A memorial to the nurses who have served in the U.S. armed forces.

Other Memorials

Marine Corps War memorial statue with american flag waving
The Marine Corps War memorial is just north of the Arlington National Cemetery.

There are a many other memorials on and around the land that used to be Arlington Plantation. Just to the north of the cemetery is the Marine Corps War Memorial. Visitors who want to learn more about the history of the Marine Corps might consider taking a trip to the National Museum of the Marine Corps, which is found about 30 miles south of D.C. in Triangle, Virginia.

On the grounds near the Marine Corps Memorial is a large, modern bell tower called the Netherlands Carillon. It was a gift from the people of the Netherlands to the people of the United States, in recognition of their assistance during and after World War II.

Two more memorials of note are found south of the cemetery: the Air Force Memorial and the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial. Additionally, another 9/11 memorial is located nearby, inside the Pentagon. This memorial, called the America’s Heroes Memorial, is located in the Pentagon’s outermost ring at the point of impact of the plane used in the attack. It consists of a memorial room, where you will find a book of photographs and biographies of the victims, and a small chapel.

In order to visit this memorial, you will need to take a tour of the Pentagon itself. Because it is the headquarters of America’s Department of Defense, tours of the Pentagon are highly restricted.

Reservations must be made between three months and two weeks of your planned tour date. Every entrant must pass a security screening, and visitors over the age of 18 must present a current, valid photo ID to enter. You should arrive about an hour before your scheduled tour to ensure you have enough time to pass through security. There is no public parking at the Pentagon; the closest parking is several blocks away. Public transportation is much more convenient. Buses and the Metro can drop you off at the Pentagon’s visitor’s entrance.

Use these online resources to help plan your trip.
Visit Arlington Cemetery
The National Museum of the Marine Corps
Visit the Pentagon