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NEWS | May 13, 2014

Arlington National Cemetery, 150 years old today, linked to National Guard Soldiers

By Bill Boehm National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. - Arlington National Cemetery was established 150 years ago today with the burial of two Soldiers, both members of what would become the Pennsylvania National Guard.

During some of the busiest months of Civil War maneuvering in the Mid-Atlantic states, Pvt. William Henry Christman became the first Soldier laid to rest there.

Attached to the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, Christman, 19, served with the Pennsylvania militia, known today as the Pennsylvania National Guard.

As was common in the Civil War, Pvt. Christman did not fall in combat. He died in a Washington field hospital due to the effects of peritonitis, inflammation of the abdomen wall. Records show he contracted measles on April 22. Poor sanitation and lack of medical skills to treat the illness undoubtedly contributed to his death.

The interment for Pvt. Christman took place on the grounds of the Lee-Custis mansion, also known as Arlington House. Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of Confederate Army, had lived there on bluffs overlooking the Potomac River.

Christman was buried with no formal ceremony or honors - a far cry from today's ceremonies at the cemetery.

Later that same day, the second Soldier was buried at Arlington Cemetery. Pvt. William H. McKinney, 17, from the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, also a militia unit, served in central Virginia during the Wilderness Campaign. Pvt. McKinney died of pneumonia. His was the first time a fallen veteran's family was present for the burial.

The necessity of managing the accumulation of fatalities for the Union army during the height of the Wilderness Campaign in May 1864 made the establishment of a large tract of land in northern Virginia necessary. Nearby Alexandria and Washington cemeteries were already full, so Col. Montgomery Meigs, the Army quartermaster general, sought alternative sites.

The Lee-Custis property proved a viable choice, even though a personal affront to Meigs motivated his choice of Arlington House as the new cemetery site. After receiving his commission from the U.S. Military Academy, then-Lt. Robert E. Lee served as Meigs' commanding officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Meigs felt a sense of betrayal on the part of Gen. Lee.

Many felt his motive to establish the burial ground from an urge to punish the family for their allegiance to the Confederacy. Meigs later became the first superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery, a position he would hold for another 20 years until he retired.

The time preceding the establishment of the Cemetery also has roots in National Guard history. Gen. Lee's resignation from his U.S. Army commission forced the Lee family to abandon the Lee-Custis Mansion. The presence of this estate that overlooked Washington D.C. from the high bank of the Potomac River prompted the first presence of state militias to aid the defenses of Washington in what is now Arlington County, Virginia. President Abraham Lincoln's first call for troops on April 15, 1861 yielded 75,000 troops.

This call-up proved critical in dictating the strategies employed by the Union army in the early days of the War. The 8th New York State Militia, now known today as the 1st Battalion, 258th Field Artillery, New York National Guard, holds the distinction of being the first unit that headquartered at the Lee-Custis Mansion in June 1861.

The 8th New York later served at the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 and at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. This unique distinction stems from the fact that state term of service for Citizen-Soldiers only lasted three months; when called upon, the state of New York mustered the 8th Militia again in 1863 to aid the Union defense at Gettysburg.

Another state unit, the 145th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, occupied a rotation while positioned among the defenses of the national capital at the time that the first burial took place at Arlington. The unit quartered at Fort Tillinghast, which stood adjacent to the cantonment now known as Fort Myer (known then as Fort Whipple). The 145th patrolled the area around what is now the Arlington National Cemetery, as did other state units in the region at the time. Their duty proved only temporary to the whole Union effort, as the unit mustered out of service in August 1864.

As the grim task of properly handling fatalities became a gnarling reality in the Civil War, other burials took place with greater frequency at the former Lee estate. Haphazard record keeping at far-flung graveyards made it hard to track the dead Soldiers.

But the Department of War and the Army Quartermaster Corps tried to uphold a sense of duty in the days after the Civil War by leading efforts to rebury hundreds of Soldiers who had fallen on the many battlefields, some far away from Arlington itself.

The role of Arlington National Cemetery evolved from the utilitarian burials in its early daysand became known worldwide for the reverence and ceremony bestowed upon fallen veterans of American wars and campaigns. Yet still, the National Guard firmly holds a strong tie to the early days of the establishment of the cemetery, a fact known by few outside the inner circle of historians and those knowledgeable about the fabric of the institution.

The Citizen-Soldiers of the Civil War made up the majority of the fighting units that the federal government raised. These men were recruited on what were typically limited enlistments. Their brethren later continued to serve in the nation's conflicts overseas with distinction. Their service and sacrifice should be remembered here at Arlington National Cemetery during this sesquicentennial commemoration, the hallowed ground for American veterans.