This week I had the honor of laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery on behalf of all of us who work here at the National Archives and Records Administration. The invitation came from Tim Franks, Historian at Arlington, who has been a friend for many years through his research in our cemetery records.
It was a special invitation because Tim knows how much I have come to love and respect that space. Early on in my time here, I walked over to Arlington and wandered the paths. It quickly became my destination for peaceful reflection and solace. Stepping through the gates of the cemetery gave me the same feeling I get on a sailboat when leaving land behind—all the cares of the world are left on shore and ahead is tranquil space for thinking.
My times at Arlington have included the annual wreath laying during the holidays. Three particular graves always got my attention—William Henry Christman, the first burial at Arlington was a 19 year old Civil War soldier who died of measles before seeing action in the war; Arthur Halligan, the World War II, Korea, and Vietnam veteran father of a New York Public Library colleague; and Admiral Chester L. Harding, Commandant of the First Coast Guard District, and the father of a high school friend. Those graves are in three very different parts of Arlington, giving me yet another opportunity to reflect on the lives of those buried on my path.
Christman’s grave is on the edge of that part of Arlington which was the Freedman’s Village, a community of previously enslaved people. Almost 4,000 of them are interred in this section of the cemetery and unlike most of the other headstones, these contain scant information about the individuals. We have in our holdings an early map of the Freedman’s Village and when I am in Section 27 of the cemetery, I try to imagine life during that time.
So, Arlington has become a special place for me and being asked to place a wreath at the Tomb was an unexpected and appropriate way to end my time here. Standing at the top of the steps waiting for the Changing of the Guard ceremony to end, my thoughts turned to all those buried at Arlington, the sacrifices they made for our country, and the fact that I made it back alive. Those of us who have served, especially in a war zone, suffer some form of survivor guilt, questioning why we were spared. Those thoughts accompanied me down the steps to grasp the wreath, inhale the fragrance of the white lilies, and say a prayer as I placed the wreath at the Tomb.
Thanks to all of them for their service.