July 23, 1828 A Virginia Housewife

Mary Randolph, Pocahontas’ direct descendant and cousin to Thomas Jefferson, was the cousin of George Washington Parke Custis, adopted step-grandson of George Washington, and the godmother of Custis’ daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, wife of Robert E. Lee.

The first military burial at Arlington National Cemetery was that of Private William Henry Christman, 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, interred on May 13, 1864. Two more joined him that day, the trickle soon turning into a flood. By the end of the war between the states, that number was 17,000 and rising.

Private Christman’s was the first military burial, but not the first. When he went to his rest in our nation’s most hallowed ground, Private Christman’s grave joined that of Mary Randolph, buried some thirty-six years earlier.

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In 1929, cemetery workers were doing renovations on the Custis Mansion, at the top of the hill. They couldn’t help being aware of a solitary grave, 100′ to the north, but knew little of its occupant.

Marked with the name Mary Randolph, the stone was inscribed with these words:

“In the memory of Mrs. Mary Randolph,
Her intrinsic worth needs no eulogium.
The deceased was born
The 9th of August, 1762
at Amphill near Richmond, Virginia
And died the 23rd of January 1828
In Washington City a victim to maternal love and duty.”

Little else was known about Mary Randolph.

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In 1929, journalist Margaret Husted wrote about her in the Washington Star newspaper. Descendants came forward and, piece by piece, the story of the first person buried at Arlington, came to light.

Mary Randolph, Pocahontas’ direct descendant and cousin to Thomas Jefferson, was the cousin of George Washington Parke Custis, adopted step-grandson of George Washington, and the godmother of Custis’ daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, wife of Robert E. Lee.

mary_isham_randolph_1660_-_2_largeThe last line of the inscription, “a victim to maternal love and duty” refers to her youngest surviving son, Midshipman Burwell Starke Randolph, who suffered a fall from a high mast in 1817, while serving in the Navy. Both of his legs were broken and never healed properly. When Mary passed away in 1828, Randolph remarked that his mother had sacrificed her own life in care of his.

Mary Randolph is best known as the author of America’s first regional cookbook, “The Virginia House-wife”.

The Virginia Culinary Thymes writes that “It is interesting to note that all the cookery at that time was done in kitchens that had changed little over the centuries. In Virginia, the kitchen was typically a separate building for reasons of safety, summer heat and the smells from the kitchen. The heart of the kitchen was a large fireplace where meat was roasted and cauldrons of water and broth simmered most of the day. Swinging cranes and various devices made to control temperature and the cooking processes were used. The Dutch oven and the chafing dish were found in most kitchens. The brick oven used for baking was located next to the fireplace. A salamander was used to move baked products around in the oven and it could also be heated and held over food for browning“.

51fUed9IGOLMrs. Randolph was an early advocate of the now-common use of herbs, spices and wines in cooking. Her recipe for apple fritters calls for slices of apple marinated in a combination of brandy, white wine, sugar, cinnamon, and lemon rind.

She was well known as a Virginia cook and hostess, so much so that, during an 1800 slave insurrection near Richmond, the leader “General Gabriel” said that he would spare her life, if she would become his cook.

I believe that General Gabriel may have been on to something.

Feature image, top of page:  Custis Mansion, Arlington National Cemetery, H/T Paul McGehee

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May 13, 1864 A House on the Hill

The unsurprising and probably intended result was massively increased forfeiture auctions of real property, and General Lee’s home was no exception.

Shortly after the outbreak of Civil War in 1861, Robert E. and Mary Custis Lee were forced to evacuate their home overlooking the Potomac.  “Arlington House”, as they called it, was soon occupied by Federal troops.

As the financial costs of the Civil War mounted, the United States Congress passed a special property tax on “insurrectionary” districts, in order to pay for it. A subsequent amendment required in-person payment of the tax, though clearly, no southern property owner was going to show up in the Union capital to pay the tax.

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Arlington House

The unsurprising and probably intended result was massively increased forfeiture auctions of real property, and General Lee’s home was no exception. Mary, who had by this time fled to Fairfax Virginia, was confined to a wheelchair, the victim of rheumatoid arthritis. A Lee cousin was sent with the payment, amounting to $92.07, but tax collectors refused the money.  The government auctioned off the property and sold it, to itself, for the sum of $26,800.  Somewhat below the currently assessed value of $34,100.

With Washington, D.C. running out of burial space, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs proposed that the Lee property be used as a military cemetery.  To ensure that the house would never again be inhabited by the Lee family, Meigs directed that graves to be placed as close to the mansion as possible.

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The first three military graves at Arlington were dug on May 13, 1864, by James Parks, a former slave who had been freed by his owner and stayed on as a grave digger. 65 years later, “Uncle Jim” would receive special dispensation to be buried there, becoming the first and only person to be buried at Arlington who was also born there.

james-parks-photo-01In 1866, the Quartermaster ordered the remains of 2,111 unknown Civil War dead to be exhumed and placed inside a vault in the Lees’ rose garden.

General Lee seems to have resigned himself to the loss of the property, writing to Mary early in the war that “It is better to make up our minds to a general loss. They cannot take away the remembrance of the spot, and the memories of those that to us rendered it sacred. That will remain to us as long as life will last, and that we can preserve“. He never returned, and never attempted to restore title after the war. Mary visited once, but left without entering the house, so upset was she at what had been done to the place.

After their passing, the Lee’s eldest son George Washington Custis Lee sued for payment for the estate, claiming the seizure to have been illegal. A jury sided with Lee and the United States Supreme Court agreed, in a 5-4 decision handed down in 1882. Arlington House once again belonged to the Lee family, and the Federal government faced the daunting task of disinterring 17,000 graves.

Lengthy negotiations with the heirs resulted in the Lee family selling the home for $150,000, equivalent to $3,221,364 today.  The new title was officially recorded on May 14, 1883. Arlington National Cemetery would remain for all time, our nation’s most hallowed ground.

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April 20, 1916 In Memorial

Altogether, there are 28 major and 142 minor Memorials and monuments at Arlington National Cemetery, to say nothing of the 250,000 plus military grave sites stretching across the landscape. Each of them is dedicated to a person, place or event which has earned the right to be remembered.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Monument as “A statue, building, or other structure erected to commemorate a notable person or event”.

Arlington National Cemetery itself is such a monument:  Memorial Drive extending across the Potomac and connecting Arlington House, the former home of a Confederate general, with the Lincoln Memorial at the opposite end, symbolizing the immutable bond between North and South.

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Approach Arlington at night, and the eternal flame marking the grave of JFK can be seen on the hillside, like some faraway beacon of light.

A list of memorials at Arlington reads like a history of the nation itself. The Argonne Cross commemorates the honored dead of the “War to end all Wars” in 1917-1918, some 2,100 of whom were re-interred in Section 18, after the war. The Battle of the Bulge memorial reads, “To World War II American Soldiers who fought in the Battle of the Bulge – The greatest Land Battle in the history of the United States Army”. The Beirut Barracks Memorial honors 241 American service members killed in the October 23, 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon.

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On Chaplain Hill stands a row of four memorials, bearing the names of Chaplains who laid down their lives in four wars. The Cenotaph, (“an empty tomb or a monument erected in honour of a person or group of people whose remains are elsewhere”), bears this inscription: “Greater Love Hath No Man Than This, That A Man Lay Down His Life For His Friends.” Written there are the names of the only two chaplains ever awarded the Medal of Honor: Major Charles Joseph Watters (January 17, 1927 – November 19, 1967), killed in Vietnam while rendering aid to fallen comrades, and Captain Emil Joseph Kapaun (April 20, 1916 – May 23, 1951), the “Shepherd in Combat Boots” who remains to this day in some unmarked North Korean grave site.

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I have barely scratched the Cs. Altogether, there are 28 major and 142 minor Memorials and monuments at Arlington National Cemetery, to say nothing of the 250,000 plus military grave sites stretching across the landscape. Each of them is dedicated to a person, place or event which has earned the right to be remembered.

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It has long seemed to this writer that, irrespective of one’s political persuasion, an informed and presumably voting citizen of a Free Republic cannot cast an informed vote, cannot know where he wants his country to go, without an understanding of where it has been.

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If you haven’t had the opportunity to visit Arlington National Cemetery recently, I highly recommend the trip. Leave yourself plenty of time to take it all in. It would be hard to find more heritage, tradition and history, in any other single place.

Feature image, top of page:  Air Force Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.  H/T to AF.MIL, the official website of the United States Air force

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

February 15, 2005 Arlington Lady

Their job is to honor, not to grieve, but it doesn’t always work out that way

The first military burial at Arlington National Cemetery was that of Private William Henry Christman, 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, interred on May 13, 1864. Two more joined him that day, the trickle soon turning into a flood. By the end of the war between the states, that number was 17,000 and rising.

In modern times, an average week will see 80 to 100 burials in the 612 acres of Arlington.

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Twelve years ago, a news release from the Department of Defense reported that “Private First Class Michael A. Arciola, 20, of Elmsford, New York, died February 15, 2005, in Al Ramadi, Iraq, from injuries sustained from enemy small arms fire.  Arciola was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 503d Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, Camp Casey, Korea”.

Private Arciola joined a quarter-million buried in our nation’s most hallowed ground on March 31. Two hundred or more mourners attended his funeral.  A tribute befitting the tragedy of the loss of one so young.

Sixteen others were buried there that same Friday, most of them considerably older.  Some of them brought only a dozen or so mourners.  For others, no friends or family members were on-hand to say goodbye.

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Former Tuskegee Airman Benjamin O. Davis Jr. is laid to rest, Saturday, July 6, 2002

In 1948, Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vandenberg and his wife, Gladys, regularly attended funeral services at Arlington National cemetery.  Sometimes, a military chaplain was the only one present at these services.  Both felt that a member of the Air Force family should be present at these funerals, and Gladys began to invite other officer’s wives.  Over time, a group of women from the Officer’s Wives Club were formed for the purpose.  In 1973, General Creighton Abram’s wife Julia did the same for the Army, forming a group calling itself the “Arlington Ladies”.  Groups of Navy and Coast guard wives followed suit, in 1985 and 2006.  Traditionally, the Marine Corps Commandant sends an official representative of the Corps to all Marine funerals.  The Marine Corps Arlington Ladies were formed in 2016.

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Margaret Mensch, April 22, 2010

Arlington Ladies’ Chairman Margaret Mensch said  “We’ve been accused of being professional mourners, but that isn’t true.  I fight that perception all the time. What we’re doing is paying homage to Soldiers who have given their lives for our country.”

Air Force Ladies’ Chairman Sue Ellen Lansell spoke of a service where the only other guest was “one elderly gentlemen who stood at the curb and would not come to the grave site.  He was from the Soldier’s Home in Washington, D. C. One soldier walked up to invite him closer, but he said no, he was not family”.

Traditionally, the organization was made up of current or former military wives.  Today their number includes daughters, and even one “Arlington Gentleman”.  Their motto, “No Soldier will ever be buried alone.”arlington-lady

44 years ago they came alone, or in pairs.  Today, the 145 or so volunteers from the four branches are a recognized part of funeral ceremonies, operating out of a joint office in the cemetery’s administration building.

The volunteer arrives with a military escort from the Navy or the United States Army 3rd Infantry Regiment, the “Old Guard”.  The horse-drawn caisson arrives from the old post chapel, carrying the flag draped casket.  Joining the procession, she will quietly walk to the burial site, her arm inside that of her escort.  A few words are spoken over the deceased, followed by the three-volley salute.  Somewhere, a solitary bugler sounds Taps.  The folded flag is presented to the grieving widow, or next of kin.  Only then will she break her silence, stepping forward with a word of condolence and two cards:  one from the service branch Chief of Staff and his wife, and a second from herself.

Joyce Johnson buried her husband Lt. Col. Dennis Johnson in 2001, a victim of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon.  She remembers the Arlington Ladies volunteer as “a touchingly, human presence in a sea of starched uniforms and salutes”.  Three years later, Joyce Johnson paid it forward, becoming one herself.

arlington-in-snowA funeral may be for a young military service member killed in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, or a veteran of Korea or WWII, who spent his last days in the old soldier’s home.  It could be a four-star General or a Private.  It doesn’t matter.

Individual volunteers attend about five funerals a day, sometimes as many as eight.  As with the Tomb of the Unknown sentinels who keep their guard heedless of weather, funeral services disregard weather conditions.  The funeral will proceed on the date and time scheduled regardless of rain, snow or heat.  An Arlington Lady Will be in attendance.

Their job is to honor, not to grieve, but it doesn’t always work out that way.  Linda Willey of the Air Force ladies describes the difficulty of burying Pentagon friends after 9/11, while pieces of debris still littered the cemetery.  Paula McKinley of the Navy Ladies still chokes up, over the hug of a ten-year old who had just lost both of her parents.  Margaret Mensch speaks of the heartbreak of burying one of her own young escorts, after he was killed in Afghanistan, in 2009.

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Army Arlington Lady Anne Lennox with letters of condolence for the widow of Brigadier General Henry G. Watson.

Barbara Benson was herself a soldier, an Army flight nurse during WWII.  She is the longest serving Arlington Lady.  “I always try to add something personal”, Benson said, “especially for a much older woman.  I always ask how long they were married.  They like to tell you they were married 50 or 60 years…I don’t know how to say it really, I guess because I identify with Soldiers. That was my life for 31 years, so it just seems like the natural thing to do.”

Elinore Riedel was chairman of the Air Force Ladies during the War in Vietnam, when none of the other military branches had women representatives. “Most of the funerals were for young men,” she said. “I saw little boys running little airplanes over their father’s coffins. It is a gripping thing, and it makes you realize the awful sacrifices people made. Not only those who died, but those left behind.”

Mrs. Reidel is a minister’s daughter, who grew up watching her father serve those in need.  “It doesn’t matter whether you know a person or not”, she said, “whether you will ever see them again.  It calls upon the best in all of us to respond to someone in deep despair. I call it grace…I honestly feel we all need more grace in our lives.”

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