Arlington National Cemetery Innovations, Change and The Unknown Soldier

Arlington National Cemetery

Part Two

Chapter 2: Innovations, Change and The Unknown Soldier

Photos and Material by Dan Brodt

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

(Page design and editing by Bob Baldwin)


The new century opened. The warhorse, musket and masted ship would all begin to fade away. Flying machines, automatic rifles, water cooled machine guns, submarines and new military and civilian innovations began to appear.

All these new innovations would give war a less human and far more destructive scenario to those closely involved with war. The modernization of war led to new battlefield tactics. Trenches, not rocks, barns nor hay fields, became the new concealment for the infantrymen during the day. Industrial growth and mass production techniques, along with the economic expansion, turned nations into "peeping toms" of each other. Watching nervously, the military-industrial complex was building in old world countries. Armies of the new world order drafted their young men in anticipation of any new war.

America was slow to adhere to this new path to power. The Civil War still remained a terrible memory for the nation. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, America remained neutral. The public's distaste for war had grown. The fight for peace outweighed the past fight for war. The self sacrifice of the soldier was a hard lesson learned. A new world without conflict became a new mantra for both the public, the military and the politicians.

Arlington Cemetery also echoed these sentiments. The Star-Spangled Banner was followed by "Dixie". Soldiers recognized both themes unselfishly. President Wilson dedicated a new bronze monument to peace in the Confederate section at Arlington. 

President Wilson at the Confederate Memorial

Confederate Memorial Ceremony

The sculpture called "New South" faced Richmond. With a laurel wreath in one hand, the bronze lady's other hand was placed on a plough. The sentiment was noble.

Lady of the Confederacy

The sculpture was magnificent and inspiring. Scenes of soldiers, once enemies, shaking hands in solidarity became the new scene.

Confederate Memorial

Across the ocean, Kaiser Wilhelm's army ran roughshod through Belgium like a wildfire. Russia, France, Britain allied themselves to counter the invasion. Trench warfare replaced open field charges. Tens of thousands of men were killed only to gain a few yards. Submarines would replace the old ironclad ships and wreak havoc from below and undetected. The sinking of the Lusitania

RMS Lusitania

by a German U-boat evoked a cry of war from all nations and from Times Square. The sailors of the USS Maine would not forget the sailors of the Lusitania. American political infighting for a declaration of war, for neutrality, for some kind of action, became a new cry. Former President Teddy Roosevelt criticized both President Wilson for his inaction and Wilson's Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, for his pacifism.

President Wilson resisted any move towards war or efforts to prepare America for a conflict. War fever actually remained low as 1917 began. But circumstances changed the voice of neutrality when the Zimmerman plot against America by Germany, Mexico and Japan surfaced. U-boat attacks on American shipping rose. The cry for the U.S. to choose a side became a calling card to voices within the nation. In April 1917, the U.S. declared war on Germany. The Germans dismissed the American threat. General John J. Pershing's American Expeditionary Force entered Paris.

General John J. Pershing

Accolades to the French for their help in winning the American Revolution prevailed. American troops poured into France. An allied counteroffensive led to a retreat by the German forces and an end to the war.

Less than a month after the armistice was signed, the Allied leaders began the monumental task of locating, identifying and re-interring thousands of countrymen from the millions of hastily buried soldiers across Europe, without a loss of dignity to all the fallen, began.

The War Department recalled to duty Captain Charles G. Pierce. This retired Army chaplain originated the idea of the "dog tag".

Charles G. Pierce


World War I dog Tag


From millions of graves throughout Europe, fifteen regional cemeteries in France became the resting place for those fallen Americans. General John J. Pershing and other leaders preferred to let the American war dead remain in Europe; a task that would stir concerns and the difficulties of returning those remains to the families of the fallen in America. The dignity of those fallen and the concern for the condition of their bodies once shipped the on the long journey to their homeland, proved to be a wise decision to bury them abroad.

Of the thousands brought home for burial, the most recognized would be the serviceman enshrined on the heights of Arlington as the Unknown Soldier of World War I. This individual now stood for all those lost in the twentieth century's first great conflict. It was no easy task recognizing Arlington's most revered site. Again, as with General Meigs during the Civil War, another General, Peyton C. March,

General Peyton C. March

wanted to change Arlington according to the way he best saw its continuation. General March rebuffed all ideas of honoring a sole anonymous warrior. Only when public sentiment moved Congress to approve a memorial for an unknown soldier, did legislation in Congress determine that Arlington would be the site on which to honor America's dead.

By October 1921, a special quartermaster's team in France was tasked with the duty of finding a suitable candidate to become the Unknown. There had to be no doubt whatsoever that the candidate have no identification possible to that body. Four candidates were chosen to be selected as the "Unknown". Sergeant Edward F. Younger, a twice wounded veteran of every major American offensive of the war, was given the honor of choosing the "Unknown". As Sgt. Younger passed the four coffins in line, he paused at the second coffin. Something made him stop. He heard a voice that seemed to say, "this is a pal of yours."[1] The three remaining bodies were removed from their coffins, shuffled once more to confound any chance of identification. They were then buried in  graves 1,2,3, Row 1, Block G of the American Cemetery at Meuse-Argonne Cemetery France where they remain today.

The Unknown's casket crossed France and was lifted aboard the USS Olympia, which had been Admiral Dewey's flagship at the Battle of Manila.

Once aboard, secured and at rest, the USS Olympia was escorted across the Atlantic by the destroyer USS Reuben James and eight French vessels.

"As the Olympia and her escort steamed across the Atlantic, teams frantically prepared for the Unknown's homecoming at Arlington."[2] A burial vault, near the south side of the Lee Mansion, was excavated to a depth of twenty feet. The Unknown's sarcophagus held a high place on the hills of Arlington House. A temporary structure was built until such a time as a more permanent structure could be built.

An epitaph befitting the Unknown's patriotic spirit must now be found. Contributions from across the country were offered. One such contribution from an engineer in Atlanta, Arthur Pew, found its way to the desk of the Adjutant General's office, Brigadier General Peter C. Harris,  in November 1921.

Bureaucracy reared its usual ugly head in many matters deemed urgent and important. Mr. Pew's "Requiem For The Boys Who Went To France and were brought home only to be re-interred", while lengthy, was filed away with other entries to be long forgotten. It took ten years for the final inscription to become familiar.

Armistice Day 1921 was to be the day the verse would be unveiled. The ceremony of small, but significant change was observed. Uniformed military servicemen no longer "remained covered" in the presence of the fallen. H. Allen Griffith, an Army Chaplin, fatigued at seeing his friends and colleagues baring their heads in inclement weather and losing their hair due to age, and prone to sickness chose to allow the servicemen to retain their headgear and salute. This would become another ceremonial innovation standard to the present day. Men in uniform will stand at attention, heads covered, bowing at prayer and salute when "Taps" was played and the passing  of the casket.

As the Olympia steamed towards Washington, in a dreary month of November, artillery salutes echoed across the shores as the Olympia passed. She answered each salute gun for gun. Out of the fog the ghostly ship was seen approaching the Washington Navy Yard. Blue jacketed sailors dripping rain, stood at her stern.

Unknown Soldier from World War I being taken from the USS Olympia at the Washington Navy Yard and transported to the US Capitol to lay in state. On November 11, 1921 the body was intered at Arlington National Cemetery (photographed by E.B. Thompson) District of Columbia Public Library

The ship slid into place at exactly eight bells. The boatswain piped the Unknown over the side, down the ramp and back to American soil. Once the casket was brought to shore, an honor guard of marines and sailors kept watch over the flag draped casket and protected it from the cold November rain by a canvas awning. A regiment of mounted cavalry, swords drawn at attention, looked dead eye forward as the rain streamed from the bills of their caps. The casket was raised upon the caisson for its journey home to Arlington. Evening light faded as the caisson stopped at Capitol Hill. The Unknown was laid in state as other prominent figures of the past had been lain before him. " The Unknowns comrades eased him down for the night, with his head pointed towards France and his feet towards Arlington."[1]

Dignitaries from President Warren G. Harding to emissaries from Europe's leaders sent their sympathies. On the morning of November 10, 1921, thousands of ordinary citizens streamed by to pay their respects. Soldiers young and old honored the Unknown, one of their own. Another tradition, albeit innovative, was introduced, Mothers in black wore a gold star to honor the sons they lost in war. Every shred of Americana identified with the Unknown as their son, their relative, a loved one, a patriot.

[1]  Ibid

[1]  "A Stillness at Arlington", TIME, November 21, 1955; "Our Soldier Unknown", Army Quartermaster Museum report, 1937; Hanson, 337-40

  1. "On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery" Robt. M. Poole


General John J. Pershing, the grand marshal of the ceremonies, chose, rather than to ride upon his horse, to walk behind the caisson the five miles to Arlington. At exactly 8 am on November 11, 1921, the Unknown's caisson started its journey home. Field artillery boomed its salute every minute throughout the day, except a two minute pause of silence at 11 am. The parade of military elite made its way down Pennsylvania Avenue. Behind the Unknown's caisson joined President Harding and a host of Congressional elite. At 1115 am, the cortege reached the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater. Lords, ladies, heads of foreign governments, the Chief of the Crow Nation, Chief Plenty Coups,

Chief Plenty Coups

and nurses who helped the wounded soldiers filled the seats. Still to this present day, the bane of Washington streets, traffic, once again delayed the arrival of President Harding. Once he arrived he stood next to the flag draped coffin and called for the end of war. Standing on hallowed ground, all Americans stopped to share a tribute of heart, mind and soul to this fellow American. A call to end armed warfare again echoed over the hills of Arlington House. How little we listened to the present day.[1]

President Harding led the crowd in the Lord's Prayer.

Warren G Harding

He then followed it with the pinning of the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross upon the casket of the Unknown. Representatives of America's allies in World War I awarded their own country's honors upon the Unknown. Admiral Lord Beatty

Admiral Lord Beatty


pinned the Victoria Cross, never before awarded to a foreigner, on the Unknown's casket. 

Victoria Cross

"When ceremonies in the amphitheater were done, body bearers hoisted the Unknown onto their shoulders for the last time, marched a one hundred yards east and situated his casket over the sarcophagus."[1] One step back, standing at attention, the body bearers stood. The memorial words were read. General Pershing approached the tomb and tossed a handful of French soil, that accompanied the body across the Atlantic,  into the chamber. Chief Plenty Coups graciously and ceremoniously removed his headdress, placed it on the tomb, and wished peace to all. A final artillery salute of three salvos boomed over the hills to be heard in Washington.

Burial of The Unknown at Arlington, 1921

The Unknown was lowered into his crypt, that also contained French soil. Taps was sounded. A final twenty one artillery salvo spoke. The hills of Arlington House shook all the way to  the streets of Washington for "the soldier known but to God."

1] My own words

Tomb of The Unknown - World War I


Here Rests In
Honored Glory
An American Soldier
Known But To God

[1] "Body of the Unknown Soldier Arrives Home," Associated Press, Nov.11,1921; Mossman and Stark,9-16; Hanson,342-57


Next Part Two, Chapter 3

Rebuild - Another War - The Last Unknown




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