The April/May issue of Imprimis (the publication of Hillsdale College) featured an article called “Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery.” The article was written by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, an Army war veteran. Please follow the link above to read the entire article, but here are some highlights:
The Thursday before Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery is known as “Flags In.” The soldiers who place the flags belong to the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment, better known as The Old Guard. My turn at Flags In came in 2007, when I served with The Old Guard between my tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Old Guard is literally the old guard, the oldest active-duty infantry regiment in the Army, dating back to 1784, three years older even than our Constitution. The regiment got its nickname in 1847 from Winfield Scott, the longest-serving general in American history. Scott gave the regiment the honor of leading the victory march into Mexico City, where he directed his staff to “take your hats off to The Old Guard of the Army.” Perhaps Scott felt an old kinship with the 3rd Infantry, because he had fought the British alongside them outside Niagara Falls during the War of 1812.
Among the few regiments to participate in both of the major campaigns of the Mexican War—Monterrey in 1846 and Mexico City in 1847—The Old Guard made history alongside American military legends. A young lieutenant later wrote that “the loss of the 3rd Infantry in commissioned officers was especially severe” in the brutal street-to-street fighting in Monterrey. That lieutenant’s name was Ulysses S. Grant.
The 3rd Infantry was part of the main effort again the next year at the Battle of Cerro Gordo, the last stand on the road to Mexico City by Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna. The Mexicans had a numerically superior force on the high ground on both sides of the only passable road to the capital. But Santa Anna underestimated the Americans’ ingenuity and audacity. With a young captain of engineers blazing the path, the 3rd Infantry hacked through the jungle and crossed ravines to attack the Mexicans from their rear, finishing them off with a bayonet charge. That captain’s name was Robert E. Lee. And to this day, The Old Guard remains the only unit in the Army authorized to march with bayonets fixed to their rifles in honor of their forerunners’ bravery at Cerro Gordo.
The article goes on to explain how the land at Arlington became our National Cemetery:
George Washington’s adopted son—his wife Martha’s only surviving son—bought the land that became Arlington in 1778 to be closer to his mother and his stepfather at their beloved Mount Vernon. General Washington advised him on the purchase in correspondence from his winter camp at Valley Forge. But our national triumph three years later at Yorktown shattered the family’s dreams. Their son died of a fever contracted there, leaving behind a six-month-old son of his own. George and Martha raised the boy, who was named George Washington Parke Custis but was known as Wash. When Wash came of age and inherited the land, he initially christened it Mount Washington, in honor of his revered adoptive father. Though he later renamed it Arlington, Wash used the land as a kind of public memorial in his lifelong mission to honor the great man. From hosting celebrations on Washington’s Birthday to displaying artifacts and memorabilia to building the grand mansion still visible from the Lincoln Memorial today, Arlington got its start as a shrine to the father of our country.
A new resident arrived in 1831, when then-Lieutenant Robert E. Lee—himself the son of Washington’s trusted cavalry commander during the Revolutionary War—married Wash’s only surviving child, Mary. For 30 years, the Lees made Arlington their home and raised a family there between his military assignments. Because of his ties to Washington and his own military genius, Lee was offered command of a Union army as the Civil War started. But he declined on the spot. His long-time mentor—none other than the 3rd Infantry’s old commander, Winfield Scott, now the General-in-Chief of the Army—scolded him: “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life, but I feared it would be so.” Resigning his commission, Lee left Arlington for Richmond, never to return. The United States Army occupied Arlington on May 24, 1861—and it has held the ground ever since.
The article explains how the government eventually obtained the land through a legal process:
Lee’s son inherited the family’s claim to their old farm. Himself a Confederate officer, his name nevertheless reflected the nation’s deep roots at Arlington: George Washington Custis Lee. Known as Custis, he petitioned Congress to no avail, then sued in federal court to evict the Army as trespassers. United States v. Lee worked its way over the years to the Supreme Court, which upheld the Lee family’s claim. Fortunately for the government, the nation, and the souls at rest in Arlington, Custis was magnanimous in victory, asking only for just compensation. In 1883, he deeded the land back to the government in return for $150,000. The Secretary of War who accepted the deed was Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln. After that final act of reconciliation between the firstborn sons of the great president and his famed rebel antagonist, Arlington’s dead could rest in peace for eternity.
The article concludes:
No one summed up better what The Old Guard of Arlington means for our nation than Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey. He shared a story with me about taking a foreign military leader through Arlington to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Sergeant Major Dailey said, “I was explaining what The Old Guard does and he was looking out the window at all those headstones. After a long pause, still looking at the headstones, he said, ‘Now I know why your soldiers fight so hard. You take better care of your dead than we do our living.’”
It’s Memorial Day Weekend. Remember those who paid a high price for our freedom.