Memorial Architecture at Arlington National Cemetery

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Building a Tomb for Unknown Soldiers

Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery
Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. Photo © Tom Brakefield / Getty Images

The Tomb of the Unknowns, or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, at Arlington National Cemetery is a simple white marble sarcophagus (coffin) that holds powerful symbolic meaning.

Like the walls of the Lincoln Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknowns is constructed with bright white marble from the Yule Quarry in Colorado. Neoclassical pilasters, wreaths, and Grecian figures decorate the marble panels. One panel is inscribed: HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD.

Who Built the Tomb of the Unknowns?

  • Architect: Lorimer Rich
  • Fabricators: Craftsmen in Proctor, Vermont
  • Sculptor: Thomas Hudson Jones

What Do the 3 Greek Figures Symbolize?

  • Peace
  • Victory
  • Valor

What Do the 6 Wreaths Symbolize?
The six wreaths represent the six major battle campaigns of World War I:

  • Chateau-Terrie
  • Ardennes
  • Oisiu-Eisue
  • Meusse-Argonne
  • Belleauwood
  • Sommes

Timeline

  • November 11, 1921: An unidentified soldier killed in France during World War I was buried beneath a marble slab at Arlington National Cemetery.
  • November 11, 1932: A sarcophagus was installed over the unknown soldier's grave.
  • May 30, 1958: An unknown soldier from World War II and an unknown soldier from the Korean War were buried beneath marble slabs set in the plaza beside the sarcophagus.
  • May 28, 1984: A soldier from the Vietnam War was also buried beneath a marble slab set in the plaza beside the sarcophagus.
  • May 14, 1998: The grave of the Vietnam soldier was exhumed. DNA testing revealed the soldier's identity as First Lieutenant Michael Blassie, United States Air Force. Now that he was longer unknown, Michael Blassie was interred elsewhere.

Shortly after discovering the identity of Michael Blassie, the word Vietnam was removed from his former gravesite. Today the stone reads: Honoring and Keeping Faith with America's Missing Servicemen.

Although the Tomb of the Unknowns holds the remains of only a few individuals, the site honors the many unidentified men and women who gave their lives in armed conflict. Moreover, the Tomb of the Unknowns underscores America's commitment to account for all service members who are missing.

What was the first Tomb of Unknown Soldiers? >>

Learn More About the Tomb of the Unknowns:

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Civil War Unknowns Monument

Photo of stone tomb of unidentified Civil War soldiers in Arlington Cemetery, Virginia.
Civil War Unknowns Memorial, Dedicated September 1866, Arlington Cemetery, Virginia. Photo ©dctim1 (September 11, 2011) at Flickr

The First Tomb of the Unknown Soldier:

The Civil War Unknowns Monument (see larger view) was the first Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery. The Civil War Monument is:

  • A memorial to the unknown soldiers who died in the Civil War.
  • The mass grave of over 2,000 soldiers, both Union and Confederate.
  • One of the oldest Arlington Cemetery monuments, dedicated in September 1866.
  • The first memorial at Arlington Cemetery for unidentified soldiers who had died in battle.
  • A focus of remembrance since the first Decoration Day, or Memorial Day, when spring flowers are used to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. Veterans Day honors all soldiers, living and dead.

Inscription Carved in Stone:

Beneath this stone
repose the bones of two thousand one hundred and eleven unknown soldiers
gathered after the war
from the fields of Bull Run, and the route to the Rappahanock,
their remains could not be identified. But their names and deaths are
recorded in the archives of their country, and its grateful citizens
honor them as of their noble army of martyrs. May they rest in peace!
September. A. D. 1866.

Source: "Civil War Unknowns Monument," The Official Website of Arlington National Cemetery

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Tomb of Pierre Charles L'Enfant

Photo of the table-like stone tomb of Pierre Charles L'Enfant overlooking the city he planned.
Pierre Charles L'Enfant Tomb in Arlington Cemtery overlooking the city he planned, Washington, DC. Photo ©2011 dctim1 (Tim) CC BY 2.0 on flickr.com

Pierre Charles L'Enfant was born in Paris, France, August 2, 1754. As a young man he fought in the America Revolution with George Washington. L'Enfant became a captain in the U.S. Engineer Corps. Shortly after his 37th birthday in 1791, L'Enfant presented President Washington with a Plan of the City Intended for the Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States.

L'Enfant died and was buried in Maryland on June 14, 1825. By an act of Congress, his remains were reinterred at Arlington Nation Cemetery in April 1909.

About L'Enfant's Tomb:

  • Designed by William Welles Bosworth (1869-1966)
  • A gift of the American Institute of Architects (AIA)
  • Dedicated in May 1911
  • Constructed of four marble slabs, the top slab being supported on six marble posts. The posts are 1 foot 8 1/2 inches tall and are 6 inches in diameter at the widest point.

Dimentions:

  • The base is 10 feet 10 inches by 6 feet 11 1/2 inches by 11 inches deep
  • The second slab is 8 feet 4 inches by 4 feet 4 1/2 inches by 7 inches deep
  • The third slab is 7 feet 4 inches by 3 feet 5 inches by 5 inches deep
  • The top slab is 7 feet 6 1/4 inches by 3 feet 7 1/4 inches by 6 inches deep

Tomb ornamentation includes corner oak leafs, scalloped edging, and a carved image of L'Enfant's plan for the layout of Washington, D.C.

Sources: Arlington National Cemetery website and Smithsonian Institution Art Inventories Catalog website [accessed July 30, 2012]