Nothing in William Henry Christman's brief life suggested that in death he would become a singular figure in American history. A laborer from Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, Christman enlisted in the U.S. Army on March 25, 1864, for a $60 cash bounty and a $300 promissory note from his government. The muster rolls of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment recorded that he was five feet seven and a half inches (1.7 meters) tall, with sandy hair, gray eyes, and a florid complexion. Twenty-one years old and unmarried, he bore a scar on the left side of his neck and three prominent moles on his back.
"I em well at the preasant time ant hope that my few lines will find you the same," he wrote his parents from Philadelphia on April 3, 1864. Military life suited him, he added. "I like it very good. We have enuph to eat and drink."
Three weeks later young Christman was hospitalized for measles. He grew sicker, and on May 1 was admitted to Lincoln General Hospital, a mile east of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. There, in Ward 19, on Wednesday, May 11, he died of peritonitis, a toxic inflammation of the membrane lining the abdominal cavity. An inventory of Christman's effects listed his modest legacy, including a hat, two flannel shirts, a pair of trousers, a blanket, a haversack, a canteen.
With the Civil War now in its fourth sanguinary year, Christman's body was among all too many bodies overwhelming the nation's capital. Every steamer up the Potomac River carried dead soldiers from Virginia battlefields, sheeted forms laid across the bows. Hospitals—often converted churches, public halls, or private mansions—ran out of burial space; more than 5,000 graves filled the Soldiers' Home cemetery alone. In desperate need of an expedient solution, Army quartermasters on May 13, 1864, trundled William Christman's mortal remains to a new burial ground that had been identified above the south bank of the Potomac on the confiscated estate of the Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee. The place was called Arlington.
Another Union soldier would be buried on the gentle slope near Christman later that Friday, with six more the next day and an additional seven on May 15. By the time the war ended the following year, some 16,000 graves stippled the rolling greensward at Arlington as part of a deliberate plan to ensure that the Lee family could never reoccupy the estate and to punish what many saw as General Lee's treason. With more than 600,000 dead in the Civil War, passions ran high.
In the 143 years since William Christman's burial those passions have cooled, but the veneration of Arlington as a place of reverence and remembrance has only increased. From the muddy potter's field of 1864, Arlington has grown to a vast necropolis of more than 300,000 dead in a leafy tract that has more than tripled in size from the original 200 acres (80 hectares). Of the 3.8 million square miles (9.8 million square kilometers) composing the United States of America, none is more sacred than the square mile (three square kilometers) of Arlington National Cemetery.
Here are buried Presidents and privates, five-star generals and anonymous souls known but to God. Here too are buried more than 370 recipients of the congressional Medal of Honor, and ten times that many Civil War "contrabands"—fugitive or liberated slaves. Arlington today holds dead veterans from every American war since the Revolution, including several hundred from the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are buried in section 60, perhaps the saddest acre in America today.
Four and a half million visitors a year stroll beneath the white oaks and red maples, deciphering the nation's martial contours in the endless ranks of headstones that sweep from the ridgeline to the river flats below. Two dozen or more funeral corteges roll through the cemetery each weekday, and the sounds of another soldier going to his grave—the clop of caisson horses, the crack of rifles, the drear blare of "Taps"—carry on the soughing wind from early morning until late afternoon.
Section 27 is particularly poignant, with stones devoid of dates and no more than the leanest biographical detail, such as "Mrs. Bannister, Citizen," or "Power Boy," or simply, "Civilian." Here nearly 4,000 African Americans are buried, many of them denizens of Freedman's Village, established in 1863 on the confiscated Arlington plantation as a so-called model community for emancipated slaves, runaways, and those liberated by Union troops. The village was gone by 1900, but the dead remain. Other stones, inscribed "U.S.C.T.," commemorate U.S. Colored Troops who served the federal cause during and after the Civil War. If "in the democracy of the dead all men at last are equal," as poet and politician John James Ingalls proclaimed, some were more equal than others: Segregation by race and by rank in the cemetery held sway for decades before the ascent of contemporary egalitarianism.
The seasons rise, the seasons fall away. Arlington bustles year-round, but with a stately, measured grace. A squall line blows through, tossing the great trees. Rain pelts the graves and laves the headstones, each emblematic of who we were, where we've been, and what we have become. Then the afternoon skies fair and the final funeral procession of the day snakes through the great yard, bearing another old soldier to his rest, or perhaps a soldier no older than William Christman was.
Across the river, the federal city gleams in the dying sun. A tranquil silence descends, broken only by the distant rap of a drum.