By spring, 1864 the US government was running out of room in cemeteries to hold the dead who were dying at high rate. In May 1864, Union forces suffered huge losses in the Battle of the Wilderness and Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs ordered that an examination of eligible sites be made for the establishment for a large new national military cemetery.
Montgomery Meigs graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point sand served with the 1st U.S. Artillery, but most of his army service was with the Corps of Engineers, in which he worked on important engineering projects.
On May 14, 1861, Meigs was appointed colonel, 11th U.S. Infantry, and on the following day, promoted to brigadier general and Quartermaster General of the Army. The previous Quartermaster General, Joseph Johnston, had resigned and become a general in the Confederate Army.
Meigs established a reputation for being efficient, hard-driving, and scrupulously honest. He molded a large and somewhat diffuse department into a great tool of war. He was one of the first to fully appreciate the importance of logistical preparations in military planning, and under his leadership, supplies moved forward and troops were transported over long distances with ever-greater efficiency.
The site of Arlington on the hills facing Washington was chosen and approved by Meigs, no doubt due to his resentment toward Robert E. Lee who owned (through his wife) the mansion and property. A staunch Unionist despite his Southern roots, Meigs detested the Confederacy and had ill feelings toward Lee who he considered a traitor.
Meigs ordered the immediate burials on the land and on May 13, 1864, Pvt William Christman, age 20, of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry was buried on the grounds.
William Christman was living as a young farm boy from Monroe County, Pennsylvania, when the Civil War began in April 1861. His older brother enlisted in the Union Army in June 1861, leaving 16-year-old William as the oldest able bodied male in the family to care for the farm, his siblings, and his infirm parents. When the older brother was killed in action in the June 1862 Battle of Glendale, Virginia, William Henry Christman became the sole provider for the family. After two years of following the fortunes of the war, he eventually was compelled to enlist by the large bonuses offered by officials, which would help his family greatly. On March 24, 1864 he was officially mustered in as a recruit Private in Company G, 67th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Unfortunately, his service would prove to be brief, for at the end of April 1864 he was stricken by a case of rubella. His conditioned worsened, and he was transported from the regimental hospital to the Lincoln United States Army General Hospital in Washington, DC. There on May 11, 1864 he succumbed to his ailments, one of 153 men from his regiment to die from disease during the war.
The burial took place in what is now Section 27, a good distance from the Arlington house which was occupied by Union officers.
As Meigs recorded later, many of the officers were uncomfortable with the idea of living in the middle of a graveyard, “It was my intention to have begun the interments nearer the mansion, but opposition on the part of officers stationed at Arlington, some of whom used the mansion and who did not like to have the dead buried near them, caused the interments to be begun in the northeast corner of the grounds near Arlington road. On discovering this on a visit I gave specific instructions to make the burials near the mansion. They were then driven off by the same influence to the western portion of the grounds.”
He had recently deceased soldiers brought in buried right in Mrs. Lee’s Rose Garden. Those graves are there today.
The property would go on to become Arlington National Cemetery, America’s most hallowed grounds.
Initially, being buried at a national cemetery was not considered an honor, but it ensured that service members whose families could not afford to bring them home for a funeral were given a proper burial. The first official “Decoration Day,” later renamed Memorial Day, was held at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868.
More information on the origin of Arlington National Cemetery can be found at
This information is adapted from On Hallowed Ground, by Robert M. Poole. Published by Walker & Company.