Archives Experience Newsletter - November 9, 2021
There is no more solemn place in Washington, D.C., than the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. Visitors stand on the edge of the memorial to watch members of the Old Guard pace twenty-one steps from one side of the tomb to the other, with absolute precision, in solitude, and in silence. The twenty-one gun salute represents the highest military honor and is fitting for the tomb representing the service members who made the ultimate sacrifice to their country. The memorial stands as a reminder that unknown does not mean unrecognized.
We are grateful to the veterans who support and lead teams on the Archives staff. Their service to the American public continues beyond the armed forces. This Veterans’ Day, we join the country to honor all the men and women who have served our country and to mark the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This newsletter offers the stories and records behind the most recognizable symbol of selfless sacrifice.
National Archives Foundation
The property that Arlington National Cemetery inhabits has tantalizing connections to both George Washington, the first President of the United States, and Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia against federal troops during the Civil War. The land originally belonged to George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s grandson and George Washington’s step-grandson. Mary Anna Randolph Custis, who was married to Robert E. Lee, inherited the property from her father in 1857. The Lee family fled the estate in 1861, shortly after the Civil War began, and federal troops occupied it shortly thereafter.
As the war dragged on, the number of military dead skyrocketed. In 1864, Private William Christman became the first soldier to be buried on the Arlington property; his record of death and interment can be found here. Thousands more were interred there by the end of the war.
The Lee family eventually received payment for Arlington, the ownership of which then passed to the War Department. More than 400,000 soldiers are interred at Arlington.
Known But to God
The best-known monument in Arlington National Cemetery is undoubtedly the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In 1920, Hamilton Fish, Jr., a Congressman from New York and a veteran of World War I, proposed the construction of a tomb in Arlington to honor U.S. soldiers whose identities are not known. The legislation Fish proposed aimed “to bring home the body of an unknown American warrior who in himself represents no section, creed, or race in the late war and who typifies, moreover, the soul of America and the supreme sacrifice of her heroic dead.”
The tomb received its first soldier, who fought in World War I and who had been exhumed from a French military cemetery, on November 11, 1921.
President Warren G. Harding spoke at the funeral.
At that time, the tomb was just a marble slab, but in 1932, a sarcophagus designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones was completed atop the tomb. The sarcophagus was built of Yule marble quarried in Colorado by the Vermont Marble Company.
The north and south sides are decorated with three wreaths, and the east side with three figures that represent valor, peace, and victory. The west side bears the famous inscription: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” In the century since its construction, the tomb has become the final resting place of remains of soldiers who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
Unknown No More
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier may never receive any more fallen soldiers. Since 1992, after the Persian Gulf War, the military has required soldiers to provide DNA so they can be identified should they be incapacitated or killed during their service. Consequently, the chances of any soldier being unidentifiable have dropped precipitously.
This issue came to prominence in 1998, when DNA analysis determined that Air Force Lieutenant Michael Blassie, who represented those who fell in the Vietnam War, was buried in the tomb. Blassie had been shot down during an airstrike on an artillery base near An Lộc, Vietnam, in 1972. Only small fragments of Blassie’s body were recovered and consequently were classified as “unknown.” When he was interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day, May 28, 1984, identification techniques had advanced to the point that Blassie’s remains were the only ones from the Vietnam War that were still unidentified.
After DNA analysis confirmed his identity, Michael Blassie was reinterred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri, close to St. Louis, where he grew up and where his family still lived.
Changing of the Guard
The Third U.S. Infantry Regiment, known colloquially as the “Old Guard,” is charged with ceremonial duties throughout the military district of Washington, including at Arlington National Cemetery. The regiment is the oldest active-duty regiment in the U.S. military, having been established in 1784.
One of the regiment’s most important and public jobs is to guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In a precisely timed and orchestrated ritual, the soldier who guards the tomb walks back and forth in front of it on a special rubber mat that measures sixty-three feet in length. Armed with a rifle, the soldier takes twenty-one steps to walk the mat in each direction. The sentinel performs this duty in utter silence.
On the day in 1921 that the first soldier was interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, President Warren G. Harding addressed the assembled crowd who had come to honor the dead. Since that time, and regardless of their political party, Presidents have participated in wreath-laying ceremonies at the tomb. The National Archives is the repository of scores of images of such ceremonies. Here are some selections: