ARLINGTON, Va. - Army Pvt. William Christman-part of the Pennsylvania Militia, which is now the Pennsylvania National Guard-carries the distinction of being the first Soldier interred at Arlington National Cemetery. As a way to both honor his service and mark the start of commemorating Arlington's 150th anniversary, several of his descendents joined cemetery officials and others in a wreath laying ceremony Tuesday at his gravesite.
"I'm just awestruck," said Jim Christman, Pvt. Christman's great grand nephew. "This place is a place of honor. I get caught up and a little emotional with it but I'm happy to be a part of it."
Pvt. Christman, who hailed from Tobyhanna Township in the Poconos area of Pennsylvania, enlisted in the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment in March 1864 as a way, say some, to honor his brother who was killed earlier in the Civil War.
"His brother, Barnabus, was killed in action in Virginia," said Barbara Christman Page, Pvt. Christman's great grand niece. "We don't know for sure, but we feel by looking back that he joined partly in tribute to Barnabus and partly to help his family because they were experiencing some difficult times up in the Poconos and his family was very, very poor."
Pvt. Christman, like many other Civil War casualties, died from disease rather than combat wounds.
"He never got to battle," said Christman Page. "He became ill shortly after his unit got here and he was hospitalized with measles. During the course of that hospitalization he developed peritonitis, which is an inflammation of the bowel, and he never survived."
Christman Page only recently found out about her family's connection to the cemetery - and history - while researching her family's past.
"It was probably about a year ago that we found out about him," she said. "We've been very lucky that the historical society of Tobyhanna Township had started looking at Civil War veterans and when they started they found Pvt. Christman's name and that's when we started to learn more about it."
For Christman Page and other family members, it was both exciting and interesting news to hear and it shed light on areas of the family's past thought to have been lost to history.
"My grandfather, who was Pvt. Christman's nephew, was a man of few words and never told us about him," said Christman Page. "But through the historical society we've gotten to learn about some of the circumstances of Pvt. Christman's early years and of his becoming a Soldier."
During the ceremony, family members also placed on Pvt. Christman's headstone a rock from the original Christman family home in Pocono Lake, Pennsylvania. That home - a simple, two-story farmhouse - was built using funds received by the family as a result of Pvt. Christman's military service, said Christman Page.
That rock will then be placed into the cemetery's archives collection, said cemetery officials, becoming another way the Christman family is linked with the cemetery.
For some family members, the most impressive element was simply knowing that Pvt. Christman's service wasn't forgotten.
"He's a family member who answered the call back during the Civil War," said Christman, the great grand nephew. "What's nice is that Arlington didn't forget him. On their website they mention him. Just reading that and thinking that my family is a part of that (history)…I'm just glad to be a part of it."
Pvt. Christman was interred in the cemetery on May 13, 1864, and was one of three burials that day. The following day Army Pvt. William Blatt, another Pennsylvania Militia member who served with the 49th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, was interred, becoming the first combat casualty to be buried at the cemetery.