It is the right of anyone killed in action in any branch of military service, or who served for 20 years, to be buried at Arlington, along with their spouse. It’s ironic, then, that the cemetery started almost as an act of Civil War vengeance: in 1861 Union forces seized the estate of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and in 1864 they began burying soldiers close enough to Arlington House to make sure that Mr. and Mrs. Lee could never take up residence again. However, time has worked its healing magic and transformed Arlington into a place of honor and memory.
Built in 1802-16, Arlington House is now a museum (open 9.30am–4.30pm daily) and appears as it did in Lee’s time. Entranced by the view, President Kennedy was said to have murmured, "I could stay here forever." And shortly afterwards he took up residence in the cemetery, to be joined later by Robert F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
By an imposing marble amphitheater is the Tomb of the Unknowns, including unidentified casualties of US conflicts up to Vietnam. Today, the Pentagon keeps DNA samples of all military personnel, making it unlikely that future remains will be unidentifiable. The changing of the guard on the hour (every hour between October and March, every half hour from April to September) remains moving in its reverent precision. Horse-drawn caissons still bear the remains of troops qualified for burial, from the dwindling veterans of World War II to those killed in Afghanistan.
Tombs range from unadorned white headstones, such as that of actor Lee Marvin, to sculpted personal memorials, like the one to the former world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (both men were veterans of World War II) that sits next to it. The Tourmobile route naturally features celebrity sites, but strollers can discover more obscure, but often just as interesting, memorials and tombs. Memorials include the mast of the battleship Maine (whose explosion in Havana harbour sparked the Spanish-American War), the monument to the Navajo Code Talkers (whose language baffled Japanese codebreakers during World War II), and commemorations of the Space Shuttle Columbia casualties.
At the north end is the Netherlands Carillon, a Dutch thank you for their liberation from the Nazis. Beyond is the US Marines’ Iwo Jima Memorial, a giant re-creation of the celebrated photo of the raising of the flag during the 1942 battle.
The Women in Military Service to America Memorial is inset behind the original Main Gate wall to create a light-flooded arch with 16 display niches. Three photo displays survey women at war from the earliest days to the present.
Arlington Cemetery’s visitors’ center is just past the entrance on Memorial Avenue, close to the Metro station. Here you can locate particular graves or pick up maps to wander the cemetery on foot (note that some significant graves are a kilometer or more uphill).