Mental Floss

Not-So-Famous Firsts: Arlington National Cemetery

Kara Kovalchik
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In honor of Veterans Day, here are some Not-So-Famous Firsts about Arlington National Cemetery. We salute all of you who answered when their country called, and encourage our civilian readers to take a moment to say “thanks” to the veterans they know.

First Soldier Buried in Arlington

William Henry Christman of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, enlisted in the U.S. Army on March 25, 1864, and received $60 cash in cash along with a $300 promissory note from the government.

Christman, 21 years old and unmarried, was assigned to the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. A letter to his parents dated April 3, 1864, assured them that he was doing well and had more than enough to eat and drink. Three weeks later he contracted the measles and his conditioned worsened until he had to be admitted to Lincoln General Hospital on May 1. He died of peritonitis on May 11. Christman’s final resting place was originally the Lee Rose Garden, a parcel of land that was part of the 624 acres officially established as Arlington National Cemetery one month later on June 15, 1864.

First Arlington Lady

One day in 1948, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg and his wife, Gladys, saw an airman being buried at Arlington with no one present save for the chaplain and honor guard. Mrs. Vandenberg was so saddened by the thought of a military veteran being buried alone, with no family members present, that she organized a group of Air Force officers’ wives called the Arlington Ladies to attend all Air Force funerals. Eventually the Navy, Army and Coast Guard followed suit. (The Marines send a representative of the Commandant instead.) Today there is an Arlington Lady (or Gentleman) present at each service held for active-duty, retired or veteran service members buried at Arlington. If family members are unable to travel to attend the burial, the Arlington representative sends them a letter describing the service along with a personal condolence note.

First Honor Guard Badge Recipient

First First Lady Buried in Arlington

Helen “Nellie” Taft was the first First Lady of the United States to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. She was laid to rest in 1943 beside her husband, William Howard Taft, who was the first president to be buried there. Nellie had several other “firsts” to her credit as well; when her husband was appointed Governor-General of the Philippines, she broke with military tradition by inviting native people to social events. She was the first presidential wife to hire African-American men to work as ushers at the White House, and she was also the first spouse to ride with her husband in the Inaugural Parade after the swearing-in ceremony.

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