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A Stroll Through Arlington National Cemetery

 Arlington National Cemetery. Hallowed ground where many of the nation's veterans have been laid to rest. Heroes and statesmen, enlisted and officers, women and men who have served in naval and military departments in wars and peacetime since the Civil War. Thousands lie there evoking past events and memories untold. Some are renowned through the decades, but many are long forgotten even to the annals of history, families and time. A walking journey to cemetery Sections 1, 2 and 3 at Arlington carries the visitor back to the cemetery's earliest beginnings.

Initially, Arlington reflected an era when Americans fought Americans and then were buried in unmarked graves next to one another. Row upon row of headstones without names stretch across Section 3, the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers and sailors alike. No one knows their families or loved ones, not even from where they hailed in life. Just across the road in Section 1, the startling but identified graveside statuary of 19th Century officers and enlisted lay side by side. They served the military forces from the time of the Civil War up to the 20th Century.

E.R. Stiles "Vermont" is an interesting case of near anonymity. The headstone reveals its number (10834) and Stiles's service with Vermont. The records give his name "Edmund R. Stiles," born in 1817 and died in 1865 at age 48. He had two young children -- a girl and a boy – and a wife. For this author, it felt like a long unexplored reunion with a family ascendent. "Stiles" is my maiden name, and my great-aunt once showed me letters written during Reconstruction in the South. Stiles asked his mother to send sugar as it would fetch a dear price on the black market in Georgia and Alabama.

Arlington National Cemetery held more "reunions" on that now-distant day March 6, 2020. Just as the pandemic was unfolding, and not realizing the momentous impact of a deadly virus that laid just ahead, the cemetery was a physical and stark reminder of individuals who have served our country in a multitude of ways. "Nurse Hill" reminds us of the numerous women who served with medical aid during the Civil War and also during WWI and throughout the flu epidemic in 1918-1919. Numerous nurses succumbed to the flu while caring for the diseased and dying long after the injuries of battlefields. More than 52,000 American combat soldiers died in WWI before 1919, but over 45,000 additional American soldiers died of influenza by the end of 1918.

 General William S. Harney (1800-1889) served at Vancouver Barracks in the 1850's. His career nearly ended here due to the controversial Pig War in the San Juan Islands. It was a belligerent battle of brains and international politics with General Winfield Scott over the peaceful efforts to drive the British Hudson's Bay Company above the 49th Parallel. Harney's imposing monument, one of the tallest in Section 1 at the cemetery, marks his grave and that of his second wife Mary Elizabeth who died in 1907. Harney died of natural causes in 1889, surviving the Black Hawk and Seminole Wars, the War with Mexico, deadly skirmishes with the Sioux Indians in the West and the "War of the Rebellion." Soon after his promotion to Brigadier General (June 14, 1858), Harney served his first general command at Vancouver Barracks (then called Ft. Vancouver) as commander of the Department of Oregon and Washington Territory from 1858 – 1861 when he was recalled by President Abraham Lincoln. Harney was the first Union officer captured by Confederate soldiers while travelling to meet with the President, April 25, 1861. Robert E. Lee offered Harney a generalship in the Confederate Army; Harney was from Tennessee. Harney refused and proceeded to meet with President Lincoln.

Nearby is a very curious but fascinating marker for naval paymaster George Francis Cutter and his wife Mary Louisa. The life-size marker is cast of anchors, rocks and flotsam and jetsam that might be found on the sea's floor. Cutter served as Fleet Paymaster in the Civil War and as Purchasing Paymaster in various capacities until 1877 when he was appointed General Inspector of Provisions and Clothing, and later that year he became Paymaster General with the equivalent rank of Rear Admiral. He retired in 1881 and died in 1890.


 Farther along the cemetery road I found the grave of Major Charles Emil Bendire. As a young man, Bendire left behind the riotous mobs of revolutions in Europe for the US. He and his younger brother knew no one in America, and destitute for work to survive, Charles joined the US Army. He was bilingual, a fine horseman, an accomplished scientist and he soon qualified as an assistant surgeon. He rose through the ranks to become a decorated officer and cavalryman in the Civil War. After the war, Bendire joined several scientific exploration and cartography expeditions to the West. Captain Bendire specialized in oology (study of birds' eggs) and when he retired, he became the honorary curator of ornithology at the Smithsonian Institution. His native language was German, so he served at numerous forts throughout the West as post commander of German-speaking troops – prevalent throughout the Regular Army at the end of the Civil War. Near Major Bendire are interspersed a number of enlisted Civil War veterans as well as higher ranking officers. Bendire's younger brother was lost at sea when he returned to Europe in 1850, and Bendire was never reunited with his family again. His friends and fellow scientists raised funds for his impressive headstone at Arlington.


John Oliver Gibbon was promoted to Brigadier General in the Regular Army on July 10, 1885, and he served his first departmental command – the Department of the Columbia – at Vancouver Barracks. He and his suffragist wife Frances oversaw the final construction, furnishings, and décor of the grand house on Officers' Row as it opened at Vancouver Barracks in 1886. With two grown daughters, the couple entertained in grand style, wining and dining railroad and natural resource developers who frequented the government headquarters of the Pacific Northwest at General Gibbon's magnificent new mansion. Gibbon was a veteran of the Iron Brigade, served as the first military commander of Yellowstone National Park, led the controversial Battle of Big Hole during the Nez Perce War and personally hosted Chief Joseph as he returned from the dreadful internment of his people in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma. The Gibbons hosted Chief Joseph, welcoming him to their grand home and numerous other officers' houses up and down Officers' Row.

General Gibbon is buried on one of the terraces of Confederate General and Mrs. Robert E. Lee's "Arlington House" home where roses flourished until the Lees' departure from the home at the beginning of the Civil War. Arlington Cemetery has a tumultuous history, tracing its heritage to the stepchildren of General George Washington and later, Martha Washington's great granddaughter's marriage to Robert E. Lee in 1836. The Lee's lived in the Arlington home with its magnificent view of our nation's capital for nearly 30 years.

Many Union officers of the War Between the States were interned head to toe on the once-beautiful floral terraces that Mrs. Lee and her servants carefully tended. Mrs. Lee returned only once after the Civil War but refused to leave her carriage when she realized that graves – hundreds of them – had replaced her roses.

Arlington House was closed for renovations when I visited in March 2020 but no matter. I did not need to see the interior. It is surrounded by marble angels and officers on horses, crosses and drums, plain and simple headstones next to some of the most ornate in the world.

Another soldier who served at Vancouver Barracks just as he was promoted to Brigadier General in August 1936, was George C. Marshall. Between August 1936 and July 1938, General Marshall served as Commanding General, 5th Brigade, Vancouver Barracks, Washington. There he supervised all troops and the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Northwest and Alaska. Katherine and the General hiked and fished throughout the Pacific Northwest, visiting Civilian Conservation Camps, fishing idyllic streams and mountain meadows, and enjoying the welcoming hospitality that greeted them everywhere. On the "Marshall House" doorstep they greeted three Russian fliers in 1937 who had just flown the world's first transpolar flight. Joseph Stalin called the general's home to congratulate Chkalov, Baidukov, and Belyakov. It was a peaceful prelude to General Marshall's forthcoming career in World War II and afterward as Secretary of State and author of the world-renowned Marshall Plan.

General Marshall has an imposing stone at Arlington where in burial he is joined by his first mother-in-law, his first wife Elizabeth Carter Coles Marshall and his second wife Katherine Tupper Brown Marshall.

That drizzly morning in early March at Arlington Cemetery was not nearly enough time to pay respects to the thousands of veterans who have served our country and our communities. It was a subtle way to connect the past and our history with the present, and a good reminder that even though some remain anonymous individually, that as a whole they have left an indelible impression on our nation and on our lives.


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