Jefferson Memorial & Arlington National Cemetery NOV 8, 2022

The weather in Charlottesville had been warm and mild, but the morning we left it was cold and blustery. We wouldn’t feel warm again until we arrived back in Florida many days later. 

We headed to DC for three days of sightseeing. The first day we visited the Jefferson Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery, both easily accessed by car rather than metro. As with all major cities, finding a place to park can be a real pain. And DC is no exception. After driving around a little, sharp eyed Bill spotted some metered parking behind an indoor tennis center. It was chilly so we sat in the car and had a lunch of ham rolls and other snacks (thank you Aunt Barbara!). 

The Jefferson Memorial was a reasonable walk nearby. There is a two year project to improve accessibility and visitor services at the memorial so with all the construction it was difficult to get a good picture of the outside. But from the granite steps of the Memorial there are impressive views of The Washington Monument and the White House.

White House in Center

Built between 1939 and 1943 on the shore of the Potomac River, the inside of the Memorial is beautiful.

Multiple quotes capturing Jefferson’s ideology and philosophy are on the walls including quotes from The Declaration of Independence, Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom and Notes on the State of Virginia.

One of his quotes, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” is prominently inscribed on, and encircles, the frieze below the dome. 

The focus inside is the 19 foot bronze statue of Jefferson.

Next up was Arlington National Cemetery, a short drive away. In 1862, Congress passed legislation authorizing the federal government to purchase land for national cemeteries for military dead. It is one of two national cemeteries run by the United States Army. All other national cemeteries are run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Nearly 400,000 people are buried here in its 639 acres. There are about thirty funerals conducted on weekdays and seven on Saturday.

We paid to ride a tram ($17.95 each) around the cemetery, and considering the size of the cemetery, it is the best option. Driving through the cemetery is not allowed unless you are attending a burial. The open air tram stops at the Kennedy gravesites, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Arlington House. At each stop we got off, knowing another tram would come by every 30 minutes. If you didn’t get off the tram, the loop around the cemetery took about 45 minutes. Every tram had a guide who talked about the cemetery and each time we got off and on we had a different guide. When we first got on the tram the guide warned everyone if we came near a active burial service we were to remove our hats, all talking would cease and absolutely no pictures were to be taken of the service. 

It was a cold, windy day and it was really chilly on the open tram. Even with a hooded coat and gloves, we were chilly.

First stop was the Kennedy gravesites of John and Jacqueline Kennedy and two of their children born in 1956 and 1963. This site was chosen instead of Massachusetts because ironically Kennedy had visited the cemetery on Veterans Day mere weeks before his death and remarked on the peaceful beauty of the location. At the time he remarked the views were so wonderful “I could stay here forever”. Due to the sunlight it was hard to get a good picture of the eternal flame. Located nearby are the graves of Robert Kennedy and Edward Kennedy, marked with simple markers and white crosses.

We saw rows of “Unknown Solder” and “Unknown” buried during the Civil War.

The USS Maine Mast Memorial is a memorial honoring those who died aboard the USS Maine on February 15, 1898, after a mysterious explosion destroyed the ship while at anchor in Havana Harbor.

The next stop was The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We spent the most time here and timed it perfectly to see the changing of the guard. This Monument was dedicated to deceased U.S. servicemen whose remains have not been identified. The first unidentified American serviceman was buried here in 1921.The changing of the military guard is an elaborate ceremony occurring every hour on the hour from October 1st through March 31st and every half hour from April 1st through September 30th. A military guard is on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, without exception regardless of weather. Since Veterans Day was this week, we saw a lot of Veterans visiting here as well as around DC.

Many Veterans in Attendance (Yellow Coats)

Our last tram stop was the Arlington House. The house was built between 1803-1818 by George Washington Parke Custis, the step grandson of George Washington.

The house was built at a high point, called Mount Washington, overlooking Washington DC. Constructed three years after the death of George Washington, it was to be a living memorial to George Washington. Visitors here have included Lafayette, Washington Irving, Andrew Jackson and Franklin Pierce.

Custis’ only living child Mary Anna Randolph Custis married Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Lee and his wife lived there for 30 years. At the start of the Civil War, Lee left to lead the Confederate Army. He had been asked by Lincoln to lead the Union Army but Lee turned down the offer saying he could not “raise my hand against my native state, my relations, my children, and my home”. General Winifred Scott said, “Lee, you have made the biggest mistake of your life”. Mrs. Lee was forced to leave due to the advancing Union Army and moved throughout Virginia, eventually settling in Richmond.  Before leaving Arlington House the Lees managed to save the most treasured family heirlooms including the bed where Washington died. Arlington House was seized by Union soldiers and served as U.S. Army headquarters during the Civil War and Union soldiers were buried on the grounds. Union soldiers stole family heirlooms as war souvenirs and wrote graffiti on walls throughout the house, even on wooden beams in the attic.  In 1862 the U.S. government imposed a tax on all insurrectionary land and required all taxes be paid in person. Lee and his wife, behind Confederate lines, could not pay the taxes on person so the government seized the property for nonpayment of taxes.

Robert E. Lee never visited the house again. His wife visited one time after the war and was dismayed at the condition of the house and quickly left. In 1874 Lee’s eldest son sued the government to regain the property. It ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court who ruled in favor of Lee. Lee was more interested in the money than the property and sold it to the US government for $150,000 ($4,362,321 in today’s money) . It is thought the government was eager to buy the land and turn it into Arlington National Cemetery to ensure that Lee’s family would never live there again.

In 1955 President Eisenhower signed legislation making Arlington House a permanent national memorial to Robert E. Lee. As punishment for fighting for the Confederacy, Lee, like all Confederates, lost his rights as a US citizen. In order to regain those rights, Lee submitted a request for a presidential pardon two months after he surrendered at Appomattox. His request was denied and he died without having his rights restored.

In 1975 President Gerald Ford pardoned Lee after discovering Lee’s amnesty request from 1865. Ford signed the pardon using Lee’s desk at Arlington House.

There are beautiful views of DC from throughout the Cemetery, but the best views are from Arlington House. In the distance you can see Arlington Memorial Bridge. When the Civil War broke out, the Potomac River became the dividing line between the North and the South. Sixty years after the end of the war the bridge was built connecting the Lincoln Memorial to the Arlington House, a symbolic uniting of the country and a monument to the sacrifices of our nation’s soldiers.

My only criticism of the tram tour is it moves rather quickly making it hard to get pictures. We passed the tombstone of another President buried at Arlington, William Howard Taft, but his grave is not located close to the road so it is hard to focus and take a decent picture.

Same for other notables like Ruth Bader Ginsberg. We actually rode the entire tram route twice to get pictures we missed.

We were able to photograph the tombstones of General Alexander Haig (on left) and General of the Army (five stars) Omar Bradley (on the right).

That evening we met a friend of Bill’s from his Boy Scout days for dinner. It had been 50 years since they last saw each other!! 

Next up: Day 2 sightseeing in DC


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