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Hamilton Fish and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

2021 will mark the Centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Events are being planned to commemorate the anniversary.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier sits majestically on a hill in Arlington National Cemetery overlooking Washington DC. Under the marble sarcophagus lies an Unknown Soldier from World War I. Directly in front, beneath the words “Here Lies In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God”, lie two more Unknown Soldiers, one from World War II, the other from the Korean Conflict. In between lies an empty crypt that held the remains of the Unknown Soldier from the Vietnam War who was identified after DNA examination.

How did we choose the Unknown Soldier and how was Arlington National Cemetery chosen for the place of interment? Much had to to with the work of Congressman Hamilton Fish III of New York.

The Arc de Triomphe, Paris France

After WWI ended France and Great Britain each repatriated and buried one Unknown Soldier on Armistice Day, November 11, 1920. Great Britain buried its Unknown Warrior inside Westminster Abbey in London, and France buried its Unknown Soldier at the base of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. These Unknowns would stand in for other British and French service members whose remains could not be identified.

The large and impressive ceremonies for the French and British Unknowns led to a desire to honor an American Soldier in the same way. Unlike France and Great Britain, who did not repatriate their war dead, the United States made the option to families of American Soldiers to bring home their remains or have them buried in newly created American cemeteries in France. The process of returning the dead would continue on till 1922.

American Soldiers buried with military honors in France 1918

The commanding general of American forces in France, Brig. Gen. William D. Connor, learned of the French project to honor an Unknown Soldier while it was still in the planning stage. Favorably impressed, he proposed a similar project for the United States to the Army Chief of Staff, General Peyton C. March, on 29 October 1919.

US Army Chief of Staff Peyton March

General March disapproved General Connor’s proposal explaining that while the French and English had many unknown dead, it appeared possible that the Army Graves Registration Service eventually would identify all American dead.

To give you an idea of Army Graves Registration Service work in returning the war dead, here is a video of bodies disinterred at the Aisne-Marne cemetery, disinfected and cleaned, identified, wrapped in blankets, put into new caskets, loaded on railroad flatcars, transferred to barges, unloaded at a port, stacked and re-identified at a warehouse, and loaded on a ship. CAUTION: The images may be disturbing.

Article on the history of Memorial Affairs can be found here: www.tapsbugler.com/history-of-memorial-affairs

Where to place an American Unknown Soldier? In 1920 the United States had no burial place for a fallen hero similar to Westminster Abbey or the Arc de Triumphe. In any case, General Peyton March stated the matter was one for Congress to decide.

One of the challenges of honoring an Unknown soldier was finding a suitable location to place the Unknown. Locations in cities were considered including the new Pershing Square Park in Midtown Manhattan and the crypt underneath the US Capitol Building in Washington originally designed for the remains of George Washington. The crypt was endorsed by several legislators who felt Arlington was too out of the way for visitors to pay their respects.

Pershing Square as originally proposed in 1919

The Victory Hall Association in New York City had elaborate plans to build a Victory Hall on 42nd Street adjacent to Pershing Square Park. The Association applied for having the Unknown soldier buried there but was turned down by the Secretary of War.

Lewis Rodman Wanamaker (February 13, 1863 – March 9, 1928)

Rodman Wanamaker, the department store magnate also favored having the Unknown Soldier buried in New York City. Wanamaker had been asked by New York Mayor John Hylan to form a committee called “The Mayor’s Committee on Permanent War Memorial” to create a permanent memorial in New York. He was responsible for the temporary Arch of Victory built on Fifth Ave at 24th street under which passed the returning soldiers on parade.

Wanamaker favored Central Park and appealed to Congress stating in a telegram, ” Those privileged to leave us to fight for the freedom of the world embarked from the harbor of New York…and it is the place above all others hallowed as the shrine of the spirit that never returned…I believe the entire nation will concur in the holy sentiment that this sacred ground should be the final rest for the Unknown soldier…”-The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 2, 1921

Wanamaker’s motion was turned down.

Indian Chief Plenty Coups at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Although New York was not accepted as the final resting place for the Unknown Soldier, Rodman Wanamaker would have an influence on the Arlington ceremonies in November, 1921.

Rodman Wanamaker was the leader of the Rodman Wanamaker Historical Expeditions to the North America Indian. Between 1908 and 1913 he led these missions to document the lives and cultures of Native American peoples. More on the expeditions can be found here: www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/touring-reservations-1913-american-indian-citizenship-expedition

His interest in Native American culture led to his suggestion to Secretary of War John Weeks the inclusion of an Native American at the Arlington ceremony. It was approved by the Secretary and on November 11, 1921 Chief Plenty Coups, principal Chief of the Crow Nation, placed his his war-bonnet and coup stick on the grave of the Unknown Soldier.

Representative Hamilton Fish III

On December 21, 1920, Representative Hamilton Fish III of New York introduced Public Resolution 67 of the 66th Congress, which provided for the return to the United States the remains of an unknown American soldier killed in France during World War I and for interment of his remains in a tomb to be constructed outside the newly constructed Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

More on the history of Arlington’s Memorial Amphitheater can be found at: www.tapsbugler.com/arlington-national-cemeterys-memorial-amphitheater/

Because of delays brought on by the suggestions of alternative locations for the burial spot, concerns about not being able to find an unknown and the change in administrations, Congress approved the resolution on February 4, 1921. In the last hours of his presidency, Woodrow Wilson signed Public Resolution 67 into law.

The Memorial Amphitheater nearing completion in 1919
Completed Amphitheater looking east 1920


Hamilton Fish III (December 7, 1888-January 18, 1991) served in the United States House of Representatives from 1920 to 1945. He graduated from Harvard in just three years, before the outbreak of World War I. Prior to the United States entering the First World War, Fish was captain of Company K, 15th New York Infantry. When the 15th was mobilized for Federal service, Fish accepted an offer from Col. William Hayward to retain his position in the 369th Infantry (as the 15th New York was re-designated following mobilization).


The 369th was a unit of African American enlisted men with white officers (and a few African American officers at the start of the war) which came to be known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” Fish would go on to introduce bills to make the Star-Spangled Banner the national anthem; and to call upon the football teams of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis to play an annual game.

Congressman Fish wanted the burial ceremony for the Unknown Soldier to be held on Memorial Day, 1921, but on 12 February, while the bill was still before the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker informed the committee that the date was premature. He had been advised by the Quartermaster General, who would be in charge of selecting and preparing the body of the Unknown Soldier, that only 1,237 American dead were still unidentified and that the cases of almost all of these were being investigated. Haste, the Quartermaster General had pointed out, could result in the burial of a body which might later be identified.

Congressman Fish tried again through the new Secretary of War, John W. Weeks, who replaced Baker on 4 March 1921 when President Warren G. Harding took office, to arrange the ceremony, this time for 31 May. But Secretary Weeks upheld Baker’s earlier view for the same reasons and chose Armistice Day, 1921, the third anniversary of the war’s end, as the appropriate time to conduct the services. In response to this choice, Congress, on 20 October 1921, declared 11 November 1921 a legal holiday to honor all those who participated in World War I; an elaborate ceremony in Washington would pay tribute to the symbolic Unknown Soldier.

Ceremonies for the Unknown soldier at the Memorial Amphitheater November 11, 1921

REFERENCES

Bigler, Philip. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier-A Century of Honor. Quicksburg VA: AppleRidge Publishers, 2019

Mossman, B.C. Stark, M.W. The Last Salute: Civil and Military Funeral, 1921-1969 Washington DC: Government Printing Office. 1971

O’Donnell, Patrick K. The Unknowns-The Untold Story Of America’s Unknown Soldier And WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. 2018

Poole, Robert M. On Hallowed Ground-The Story of Arlington National Cemetery. New York: Walker and Company 2009

Wilson, Ross Remembering World War One In New York
www.gothamcenter.org/blog/remembering-world-war-one-in-new-york

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