Wednesday, May 25, 2016
As we approach Memorial Day.... This is the Civil War Unknowns Monument.
It is located on the grounds of Arlington House (the Robert E. Lee Memorial) at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington County, Virginia.
Robert E. Lee vacated Arlington House on on April 20, 1861. Mary Custis Lee vacated the property on May 14, and the armed forces of the United States occupied the house and grounds on May 24. On January 11, 1864, the estate was formally seized by the U.S. government for nonpayment of taxes. The first military burial on the grounds occurred on May 13, 1864, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton approved the establishment of a military cemetery on June 15. Quartermaster General of the Army Montgomery C. Meigs was a native Georgian, but loyal to the United States. Once a close friend of Lee's, Meigs considered him a traitor for joining the armed forces of the Confederate States of America. Determined to desecrate the grounds of Lee's estate and render the home uninhabitable, Meigs began burying large numbers of war dead on the grounds of the house and throughout the estate.
Arlington House sits on a ridge that is in the form of a reverse capital letter "L", with the short leg running northest-southwest and the long leg running northeast-southwest. A flower garden was at the intersection of these two legs. Here, the Lee girls raised flowers for sale as nosegays in Georgetown, and the family built a gazebo in the center of the garden where they could sit and stay cool. (Contrary to popular belief, the Lees never had a rose garden.) At the far southwest end of the short leg of the ridge was a copse of wild trees and a dense bed of wildflowers.
Meigs had already ringed the Lee flower garden with the graves of more than 100 dead Union officers. He now decided to build a monument to Civil War dead in the center of the copse of trees. His goal was to make it politically impossible for the Lees to remove this mass grave.
U.S. Army troops were dispatched to investigate every battlefield within a 35 mile radius from the city of Washington, D.C. The bodies of 2,111 Union and Confederate dead were collected, most of them from the battlefields of First and Second Bull Run as well as the Union army's retreat along the Rappahanock River. Some of these bodies had been interred on the battlefield, but most were full or partial remains discovered lying in the open on the field of battle. None were identifiable.
U.S. Army engineers cut down most of the copse, and dug a circular pit about 20 feet wide and 10 feet deep into the earth. The walls and floor were lined with brick, and the pit was segmented it into compartments with mortared brick walls. Into each compartment were placed a different body part: skulls, legs, arms, ribs. The vault was half full by the time it was ready for sealing in September 1866. The vault was then sealed with a roof of concrete and covered with soil. Meigs personally designed a six-foot-tall, 12-foot-long, four-foot-wide grey granite and concrete cenotaph to rest on top of the burial vault. The cenotaph consisted of two long light grey granite slabs, with the shorter ends formed by sandwiching a smaller slab between the longer two. On the west face was an inscription describing the number of dead in the vault below, and honoring the "unknowns of the Civil War".
Originally, a Rodman gun (a light field artillery cannon) was placed on each corner, and a pyramid of shot adorned the center of the lid. A circular walk, centered on the monument, and sidewalks leading east and west provided access to the site.
Some time before or during 1893, the original monument was radically changed. The plain sarcophagus walls were replaced with more ornate ones, although the inscription was retained. The origina plain lid was replaced by one modeled after the Ark of the Covenant described in the Book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible. The Rodman guns were removed from the lid and now inserted muzzle-down into the earth, and the large pyramid of shot was removed. Four small pyramids of shot were placed on either side of the east and west pathways leading to the memorial. The memorial was also raised off the earth onto a slightly larger base of rough-hewn dark grey granite blocks mortared together. This base is three stones high, or about 3 feet. A second base of large light-grey granite slabs about a foot high was placed on top of the first base. A third base, consisting of a single light grey granite slab, was installed above the second base. This third base was slightly smaller than the first two, but slightly larger than the memorial itself. Four light grey granite sections about six to nin inches high sat atop the original sides, decorated with pilasters. Like the walls of the sarcophagus, these consisted of two long, unbroken sections with smaller sections inserted between them at the ends. These sections were mortised, so that all four sections appear to meet at the corners. A slightly larger light grey granite base flared out above the pilaster section. Unlike the lower section, longer sections were sandwiched between the end sections. The new cover of the sarcophagus consisted of a single large light grey granite slab. Twenty-two bas-relief stars inside circles were added above the lip of the lid. Four stylized, partial fleur-de-lis faced outward at each corner. The top of the lid was rounded. The entire monument was now about 12 feet high at the uppermost portion of the lid.
The monument has retained its 1893 form ever since.