Arlington National Cemetery and Arlington House

Every year, 4.5 million people visit the 614 acres of the Arlington National Cemetery, a cemetery for the military. The many important sites on the grounds include the Kennedy gravesites, the former home of General Lee, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the mast of the USS Maine, and the statue commemorating Iwo Jima. You should expect to spend at least two, if not three, hours here.

While probably not for young children, Arlington National Cemetery can be a somber but surprisingly educational experience, with its acres of symmetrically arranged white crosses on the green hills and the various gravesites and memorials on the property.

The Women in Military Service Memorial

When you enter the gates of the cemetery grounds, you will pass the newest war memorial in D.C. — the Women in Military Service Memorial — which honors the nearly 2 million women who have served in the armed forces.

This memorial, which was designed by a husband-and-wife architect team and dedicated in October 1987, features a round reflecting pool within a semicircle of a curved granite wall. Arched entries in this granite wall lead to an upper terrace, which offers a sweeping view of the cemetery and the city of Washington.

Etched glass panels within the memorial include quotes about women's experiences in the military. Beneath the memorial is an education center, where the Hall of Honor traces the history of women in the military, as well as a computerized database of personnel and a shop.

TRAVEL TIP

Refer to the guided tours section if you don't want to do a lot of walking and would prefer to take the Tourmobile. But if you do prefer to walk around the cemetery, make sure you wear comfortable shoes because there are a lot of hills.

The Visitors' Center

Here you can watch a video on the history of the Arlington cemetery and stop at the gift shop. Bathroom facilities are also available. If you plan to take the Tourmobile, tickets are available here, along with free maps of the grounds and information on specific graves.

The Curtis-Lee Mansion

Once out the door of the visitors' center, you should head to the grounds of the Curtis-Lee Mansion, where the history of the cemetery begins. The property was owned by the adopted grandson of George Washington (George Washington Parke Curtis, who is buried on the property). Curtis built the mansion to house his Washington memorabilia and left it to his daughter. She eventually married the man who would later lead the South against the North in the Civil War.

When the Lees left Virginia during the war, the Union took over the grounds and, some say out of spite, began burying the war dead on the property (1,800 casualties of the Battle of Bull Run are buried in front of the house). Their son did try to retain the property after the war, but the many graves on the grounds made it an unattractive home, and he eventually sold it back to the government.

Today, this property is known as the Arlington House. In front of the house is the sarcophagus of Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the man who designed Washington D.C. His marble tomb sits on a hill overlooking the city.

The Kennedy Gravesites

The Kennedy gravesites are within walking distance of Arlington House. Many who remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy pass by the eternal flame, lit by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who is now buried beside her first husband and the two babies they had who died in infancy. A short distance down the hill is the gravesite of Robert Kennedy, which is composed of a reflecting pool.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Located near the center of the cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknowns is one of the most visited sites on the grounds. The tomb honors the unknown soldiers of World War I, World War II, and the Korean War; the remains of the soldier who was interred in the Vietnam Tomb were identified in 1998 through DNA technology.

The tomb is guarded 24 hours a day by the Third Infantry Division (the Old Guard). The sentinels who guard the tomb perform a changing of the guard every half hour in the warm months and every hour during the winter. There are also many wreath-laying ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

The Iwo Jima Memorial

Iwo Jima, the memorial to the United States Marine Corps, is a powerful tribute to the marines and World War II. If you can manage to drive around the monument, it will appear that the marines are raising the flag (an optical illusion). An Air Force Memorial and Museum are also being planned for the future on this site. Nearby is the Netherlands Carillon, a gift of chimes from the people of the Netherlands that has 50 bells.

Other Sites

At the Arlington National Cemetery, you'll also find the Confederate War Veterans' Memorial, which was erected in 1912 and designed by a Confederate war veteran who is buried beneath it, as well as the Civil War Memorial on the grounds of the Lee home. Also on the grounds of the Lee home is a former village for freed slaves, called the Freedman's Village, which thrived after the Civil War and even had its own hospital and a school with 900 students.

Other important commemorative sites include a memorial to the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, two of whom are buried at the memorial site; Lockerbee Memorial Cairn for the 259 people killed on Pan Am Flight 103; an Iran Rescue Mission Memorial for servicemen killed in the hostage rescue attempt; a monument to Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders of the Spanish-American War; a memorial to the Hmong, who helped the United States in the secret war in Laos; and the USS Maine

TRAVEL TIP

The District is home to other historic cemeteries you can visit, like the Congressional Cemetery that contains the remains of John Philip Sousa, J. Edgar Hoover, and Civil War photographer Matthew Brady. Rock Creek Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in Washington D.C., was established in the early eighteenth century on the grounds of St. Paul's Episcopal Church.

Arlington National Cemetery is also the final resting place of some of America's most famous military leaders, as well as people who made an impact on the nation. Arlington contains the gravesites of the following luminaries:

  • Thurgood Marshall, U.S. Supreme Court justice

  • Audie Murphy, most decorated World War II soldier and actor

  • Joe Louis (Barrow), World War II veteran and heavyweight boxing champion

  • Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Civil War veteran and U.S. Supreme Court justice

  • Daniel “Chappie” James Jr., the first African-American four-star general

  • Richard Byrd, polar explorer and admiral

  • William Howard Taft, president and chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

  • Virgil “Gus” Grissom, astronaut

  • Medgar Evers, World War II veteran and civil rights leader

  • Samuel Dashiell Hammett, army sergeant and Sam Spade author

  • Lee Marvin, U.S. Marine Corps private and movie actor

  • George Westinghouse, Civil War veteran and inventor

There is an average of 20 funerals at Arlington National Cemetery a day, and approximately a quarter of a million gravesites. In 1980, a columbarium was erected to house cremated remains. Otherwise, it was estimated that at this present burial rate, the cemetery would have been full by 2002.

JUST FOR PARENTS

If your children have ever asked questions about the JFK assassination, this is a good place to start your own tale of where you were at the time and what it meant to you. You might also want to remind them that this is the president after whom the Kennedy Center is named and take them to see the giant bust of Kennedy later on in your trip.

Location and Hours

The cemetery is located across from the Lincoln Memorial just over the Memorial Bridge in Arlington, Virginia. It's open 365 days a year to visitors from 8 A.M. to 5 P.M., and from April through September, the evening hours extend to 7 P.M.

There is public parking ($1.25 per hour for the first three hours, $2 per hour after that), but the Tourmobile is the best way to get there. (To make reservations, call 202-554-5100.) You can also go via the Metro to Arlington National Cemetery Metro station (Blue Line).

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