On May 13, 1864, a Confederate prisoner of war was buried on the grounds of Arlington House, now Arlington National Cemetery . The prisoner, who had died at a local hospital, was the first soldier buried at the cemetery, located on the Potomac River opposite Washington, D.C. It now contains the graves of soldiers from every war in which the United States has participated, including the American Revolution.
Arlington House was built in 1802 by George Washington Parke Custis, step-grandson and adopted son of George Washington. In 1831, Custis’s daughter, Mary Anna married Lieutenant Robert E. Lee in the main hall of the mansion. The couple resided there until 1861, when Lee took command of Confederate troops in the Civil War. After Lee’s departure, the Union Army transformed Arlington House, also called the Custis-Lee Mansion, into a military headquarters and the grounds into a camp. In 1864, the estate was declared a military cemetery by order of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
Lee’s eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, challenged the government’s assumption of the property for years, eventually securing $150,000 in compensation. In 1925, the U.S. War Department began restoring Arlington House to its pre-war condition. Today, it is maintained by the National Park Service as a memorial to Robert E. Lee.
More than 400,000 active duty service members, veterans and their family members are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Memorial Day is honored at Arlington National Cemetery by the placing of a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The President of the United States generally does the honors on Memorial Day and Veterans Day; wreath-laying ceremonies are also held for other occasions. This tomb, with its white marble sarcophagus, rests above the grave holding the remains of an unknown serviceman from World War I. West of the crypt for the World War I unknown are three other crypts: one holds an unknown from World War II; another holds an unknown from the Korean War. A third crypt, now empty, once held an unknown serviceman from Vietnam who was later identified after DNA testing. Other memorials at the cemetery include the mast of the U.S.S. Maine, a monument to Robert Peary, and the graves of John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and many other notable people.
- Visit the Today in History entries about Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
- Listen to stories of U.S. Veterans in the Veterans History Project. Volunteer to record the stories of veterans in your community.
- See the Today in History features on other American landmarks, including The White House, The Washington Monument, and The Statue of Liberty.
- Search across Library of Congress photographs collections for Arlington Cemetery, Arlington House, and Custis Lee to see more images. Good individual collections to search include:
- Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives
- Harris & Ewing Collection
- Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive
- Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey
- Horydczak Collection
- National Photo Company Collection
- Panoramic Photographs
- Stereograph Cards
- Visit the Arlington National Cemetery website.