Arlington National Cemetery Bivouac of The Dead

Arlington National Cemetery

 - Bivouac of the Dead -

Photos & Material by Dan Brodt

(All photos are copyrighted unless otherwise noted. Permission must be had to use any photo that is not documented)

 Arlington began internments shortly before becoming the Nation's National Cemetery. The aftermath of the war left the processing of the bodies at a stalemate. If this backlog of human disposal didn't create a public health hazard, the public relations aftermath would surely rise to the level of complete legislative embarrassment.

 Arlington's transition from a plantation to a cemetery was not seamless in any way, shape, or form. Events of the war, the passage of time, and the utter logistical mismanagement of this transition allowed Arlington's first burial to be recognized as a crime of indifference not an honor.

 Private William Christman, of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, was just 21 years old when he was buried on May 13, 1864. The "Forty Days" campaign between Lee and Grant was at its pinnacle. As mentioned in the previous chapter, "The Beginnings", Private Christman was buried in the least selective area of the cemetery, a pauper's burial at the least. The view of the estate was far more important to the Union than the graves of the first burials.

 James Parks, a slave at the Lee mansion and witness to Lee's departure to Richmond in 1861, was still part of the Arlington landscape when the first burials took place. Parks was in charge of digging the cemeteries first graves and he had much trouble keeping up with the continuing stack of coffins piling up on the property. The Lower Cemetery was for the lower status of individuals to be interred, the true definition of a potter's field.

   

Unknown Soldier

Enlisted military personnel had no right to occupy the lofty green acres nearest the mansion. This right was reserved for Union officers only at this time. One's social status reflected the placement of the soldier's remains. Rebel soldiers were buried alongside their enemies.

Even freedmen would occupy the same grounds. Those selected Colored Troops would be buried a few rows away from the first military burials. These colored troops were fighting for their freedom, yet were buried by race.

The indignation did not stop for these men despite the promises of the Union army recruiters. The politics of race was a hidden asset of the Union army.

 Officers received far better choice of burial sites. Brigadier General Meigs instructed his subordinates to surround the Lee mansion with the headstones of Union officers.

 

Another slight to the Lee's, especially Mary Custis Lee. Captain Albert H. Packard of the 31st Maine Infantry was buried on May 17, 1864. Captain Packard became part of Mrs. Lee's garden adornment. By the middle of June, other Union officers graced the borders of Mrs. Lee's famous garden, a place where she could retreat from the toils of maintaining the estate and dealing with the onslaught of Union logistical oversight. Such was Meigs way of ensuring that Mrs. Lee's garden would become the resting place of more than flowers.

Memorial Amphitheater

 

 The geographical and topographical location of Arlington House made it close to hospitals but far enough away to lessen the impact that the Country was still at war. It should also be mentioned that the members of the Custis family, the family slaves and occupants of "Freedman's Village" also were buried there.

Freedman's Village

 

 Meigs craftiness in his master plan for Arlington House began way before the property became the nation's national cemetery. Meigs always insured that credit was given to President Lincoln so as to deflect attention away from himself.

 Meigs invited President Lincoln to join him in a tour of the cemetery. Meigs staged an event where the carriage ride with Lincoln would encounter a massive amount of dead soldiers awaiting the trip to be buried at Arlington across the river. And so goes the legend of the beginnings of Arlington National Cemetery.[1]

 Research on this event sheds some discord on the accuracy of the legend. The reader may get the impression that the first burials came from the Lee estate and en mass. Not so!

 

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1 J. Howard Avil, "United States National Military Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia:, 1903

 

 Internment's, in fact, over a period of days burials were not caravans of coffins in an assembly line of burials. Far from that myth. Meigs, after-the-fact practices were well known and accepted. Meigs and his boss, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton who had an equally disdain for Lee, decided to separate the soldiers from the Lower Cemetery of contraband and slaves and move and rebury them closer to the hilltop mansion. An order issued by Stanton gave Meigs the control of a new parcel of land expressly suited to a military cemetery. This Stanton-Meigs conspiracy was applauded and endorsed by all loyalist newspapers. The Washington Morning Chronicle reported: "the grounds are undulating, handsomely adorned, and in every respect admirably fitted for the sacred purpose to which they had been dedicated. The people of the entire nation will one day, not very far distant, heartedly thank the initiators of this movement."[2] Little did Meigs realize that his orders for the internments of soldiers closer to the mansion had gone unobeyed. The engineer and architect he assigned to Arlington, Edward Clark, had ignored Meigs' orders to cloister the burials around the Lee mansion. In fact the Lower Cemetery was still being used for new burials. This infuriated Meigs to no end!

 Meigs blamed General Rene E. DeRussy the onsite administrator at Arlington. Meigs decided to remove, albeit throw out, DeRussy and his staff and replace them with chaplains. This was again again a backhanded conspiracy to quell public criticism of the mishandling of the burials by Arlington's officers. So Meigs flanked the opposition and criticism by moving chaplains and a puppet of Meigs, one Captain James M. Moore.  Captain Moore moved his entire family into the mansion. The chaplains were then tasked with the daily administration of the burials. Now Meigs had his original wish fulfilled. This would fill Mrs. Lee's garden with bodies not blooms.

 Then came a tragedy in the last autumn of the war that made the thousands of casualties arriving daily an afterthought. The son of BG Meigs, Lt. John Rodgers Meigs, 22, was killed.

Lt. John R. Meigs

The accounts of Lt. John R. Meigs death were never really determined. Whatever the reason Lt. Meigs body was returned to Washington with solemn honors. President Lincoln, Edwin Stanton and other assorted dignitaries gathered for the funeral. Meigs son was buried in the family cemetery in Georgetown. This final clash of the war lessened in its intensity and subsided in its rancor.

 Arriving, Lee slowly made his way back to Richmond where his wife and daughters were living. Coincidentally on the day, April 15, 1865, Lincoln died and Union troops occupied Richmond. It had been almost four years to the day that Lee bid farewell to the Union. He lost everything: Arlington House, his job, his investments, stripped of his right to vote and the ultimate humility, a prisoner of war on parole. The Confederacy was on the run. Jefferson Davis was captured and imprisoned. Both Lee and Davis had been indicted by a federal grand jury for treason.[3]

 Meigs, Lee's most adamant adversary, wished to make Lee the pinnacle of his wrath.

Tomb of Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs

 

Not only did Meigs blame Lee and the Confederacy for his son's death but also Meigs fumed as word of Appomattox arrived.

Lt. John R. Meigs Tomb

 

Justice had escaped Meigs and many in Congress. The prospect of a national reunion set forth by President Lincoln, malice toward none and charity for all, provided fodder for all of Meigs and his co-conspirators continued hatred for all things Southern.

 General Grant, tenacious in battle but most gracious in victory, felt that if given a chance the Confederacy would yield and become useful citizens. Grant urged all his subordinates to put the war behind them, go home and rebuild a broken country. This attitude by Grant calmed most of the raw anti-Union sentiment in the South thus possibly saving Lee from the charges of treason. Lee's request for a presidential pardon and the return of his citizenship was postponed for months. Some speculated that the delay was intentional, other a bureaucratic oversight. Lee's oath of allegiance dated October 2, 1865 disappeared into the State Department's files for over a century. A researcher discovered the duly notarized document and fixed with Lee's almost indistinguishable signature, in a dusty box in the National Archives in 1970. It took Congress an additional five years to restore Lee's citizenship by President Gerald R. Ford in 1975 at a ceremony at Arlington House.[4]

 Lee had given up any realization of ever retaining Arlington House. The Lee family looked elsewhere to live. Finally Lee agreed to become the President of a tiny college, Washington College, set deep in the Shenandoah Valley far from Richmond and Washington. Lexington, Virginia was just the place suited to the Lee's retreat from the disdain of the Union. The old estate of Arlington House could not be erased from Lee's memory. Lee family members, still near Arlington, reported the failing scenes at Arlington House. Lee's eldest daughter, Mary Lee, ventured from Georgetown across the Potomac river and scarcely recognized any feature of the house or property. The fight to retain Arlington House and its property did not lessen by the retirement to Lexington.

Arlington House

 Meigs continued to outmaneuver Lee for the high ground at Arlington. He arranged the cemeteries reinforcements, where the army of the dead would continue to grow a further distance and prohibit any recovery of Lee's property.

General Phillip Sheridan

 

Meigs would disinter bodies laid to rest from other cemeteries and replant them on Arlington property. Meigs dispatched Captain James Moore into the Virginia countryside to locate tens of thousands of Union soldiers from Southern battlefields and bury them at Arlington. Bodies of Union soldiers were buried in places all over Virginia, most without any marker of who lay below. It was a gruesome event even for the Union military tasked with the job.

 The unspeakable losses of the Civil War left the loved ones, family, and friends, of Union  soldiers longing for closure on where their loyal soldier was buried. Meigs took it upon himself to answer those questions. Meigs accounted for a third  of the 341,620 estimated Union war deaths and placed them at Arlington. The accounting of the losses was not what Meigs wanted to hear. So Meigs mobilized his peacetime army and dispatched them to the far corners of the Southern battlefields. Clerks, letterers, painters and lumber for proper headboards all headed out to revamp and convert temporary graveyards and make them into permanent national cemeteries. There became seventy four in existence when the program ended in 1870.[5]

 The campaign to recover the dead, by this time, had consumed more time than the war itself.[6] Decades after the war, government clerks were still trying to assess the Unions human cost by collecting hospital records, muster rolls, causality lists, and other official documents in a Washington office.[7]

 In September of 1866, Meigs dug a huge pit and dumped Union bodies and named it the first memorial to unknown soldiers.

Again Meigs slapped the face of Mary Custis Lee by placing the tomb of the unknown by her garden.

Civil War Unknowns Memorial

 

A reporter from the Washington "National Intelligencer" described the mass burial as a gloomy receptacle of bones of such soldiers as perished on the field and either were not buried at all or were so covered up as to have their bones mingle indiscriminately together.[8] The reporter estimated the remains being dumped into the pit at nearly two thousand. Meigs put the number at 2,111. Meigs was proud of his accomplishment despite the indignity of the burials effects. The disgrace he wished to place on the Lee family and all of the Confederacy, he did so on his own troops. He rose a stone sarcophagus to cover the bodies. The solemn gray memorial was surmounted by 4 Rodman guns and piles of round shot.

 Thus began the long tradition at Arlington of honoring the unknown soldiers. This tradition was refined with each new war. Meigs narcissism continued by putting his stamp and name on prominent public structures all over Arlington and the Nation's Capital. Meigs' ego paralleled his blind rage for the Lees and all things Southern. One of Meigs least popular designs, to one of the Union's least effective generals, General George B. McClellan became one of the most popular attractions at Arlington.

McClellan Arch

The McClellan Arch was  Victorian in style with flourishes of gold leaf and verses of patriotic rhetoric carved into the gate. Clustered into the columns by the entrance arch is Meigs' own surname.

 

Robert E. Lee never returned to Arlington, although he may have caught a piercing glimpse from the railway station in Alexandria.

 

"On Fames Eternal Camping Ground Their Silent Tents are Spread and Glory Guards with Solemn Round the Bivouac of the Dead" Theodore O'Hara

[2] "A Great National Cemetery", The Washington Morning Chronicle, June 17, 1864

[3] Freeman, IV: 202-03

[4] Cynthia Gorney, The Washington Post, August 6, 1975

[5] "History and Development of the National Cemetery Administration", Department of Veteran Affairs, National Cemetery Administration, February 4, 2006, 3

[6] Drew Gilpin Faust, "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War" ( New York: Alfred A. Knopf,2008),236

[7] Robert M. Poole, "On Hallowed Ground" (New York, Bloomsbury Books, 2009),78

[8] "The National Intelligencer" in Bigler, Honored Glory, 30

 

Next: Arlington National Cemetery "Resentment and Ownership"  Back to Table of Contents 

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