Historical Association of Tobyhanna Township

HATT | PO Box 2084 | Pocono Pines, PA 18350-2084

Arlington Cemetery celebrates 150, honoring first soldier buried

Members of the Christman family place a wreath on the grave of Pvt. William Henry Christman at Arlington National Cemetery. From left are Lauren Christman and her father, Jim Christman, and Barbara Christman Page, great-grandniece of Pvt. Christman. Pvt. Christman, of Pocono Lake, was the first soldier to be buried in Arlington 150 years ago on May 13, 1864. (U.S. Army)

By David Vergun
Army News Service

ARLINGTON, Va. (Army News Service, May 13, 2014) — Exactly 150 years ago on May 13, 1864, Pvt. William Henry Christman became the first Soldier to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery here.

Christman's family members, visitors and Soldiers from "The Old Guard" were at his gravesite today to pay tribute to him and to the cemetery's sesquicentennial.

The ceremony began a month of anniversary observances at Arlington National Cemetery, which will culminate June 16, with a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Also attending today's ceremony, were representatives from the area around Pocono Lake, Tobyhanna Township, Monroe County, Pa., where Christman hailed from.

James Christman, great-grand nephew, Lauren Christman, great-great grand niece and Barbara Christman Page, great-grand niece, honored their ancestor with a wreath.

A stone from outside Christman's home, which still stands today, was placed on top of his marker by Rick Bodenschatz, a representative from the Tobyhanna Township Historical Association.

On March 25, at the age of 20, Christman enlisted in the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry. Less than two months later he died of measles.

Christman's brother Barnabas was killed during the Battle of Glendale, which took place June 30, 1862, in Henrico County, Va.

"That's what spurred William to join," said Page. "He also wanted to help out his family" by joining, as he was a laborer and didn't make a lot of money.

Page, who spoke to reporters after the ceremony, said her father served in the Army and was in the Battle of the Bulge.

"We're so honored to be here," she said. "It's just amazing and overwhelming, and there are not many of us left."

"It feels great that a family member answered the call," said James Christman, who also spoke following the ceremony. "Unfortunately, his time in the Army was short. But it's nice that the Army didn't forget him."

It's also nice that his marker is the same as everyone else's and not special because he was first, said James Christman, pointing out the other plain and diminutive markers, including one to the immediate right of Christman's marker, that of Pvt. William B. Blatt.

Blatt was the first battle casualty of the Civil War to be buried in Arlington National Cemeter, just a day after Christman. His marker bears the number "18," designating its location.

After Christman's burial -- marked by a simple wood marker that was the custom at the time -- more than 15,000 other Civil War veterans, including several hundred Confederate troops, were buried in the cemetery. Tens of thousands of other veterans followed from subsequent conflicts and periods of peacetime.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the wood markers were replaced by stone markers, including Christman's. The "19" on his marker designates its location in Section 27, on a small hill within sight of the Netherlands Carillon, near the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial.

Although Christman was the first to be buried at Arlington -- not including members of the original estate before it became a national cemetery -- several dozen Soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, are also buried in the cemetery, albeit at a date later than Christman.

Last year, five Civil War veterans were interred with full honors; two Soldiers who were brothers and three Sailors from the iron-clad ship, the USS Monitor.

Following the ceremony, Dr. Stephen Carney, Arlington National Cemetery command historian, gave a lecture about the history of the cemetery at the Women In Military Service for America Memorial.

He pointed out that the Custis family owned the 1,100-acre estate, from about 1750 until the Civil War. The commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, Gen. Robert E. Lee, was married to Mary Anna Custis Lee at the time, and was executor of the estate.

However, Carney said there's no document proving that the Army of the Potomac seized the property on May 24, 1861, in retribution. While not discounting possible retribution, he credits three factors for the Union Army taking the land.

First, much of the cemetery sits on high ground overlooking Washington, D.C. He said fortifications were erected there mainly to prevent Confederates from taking that land. If the South had control of Arlington Heights, it could have lobbed cannonballs almost anywhere in the nation's capital.

Second, a lot of freed slaves from the South were moving north and land was needed for them to settle. So, on May 5, 1863, Freedman's Village was settled using some of the land.

Third, the land was needed to bury the mounting war casualties.

Carney then provided some items of interest, including: more than 7,000 funerals and 3,000 ceremonies a year take place at Arlington National Cemetery, which has about 3.5 million visitors annually.

The cemetery received a lot of attention following the burial of President John F. Kennedy, Nov. 25, 1963. Requests for burials there tripled afterward, he noted, and despite some expansion programs underway, Carney believes the cemetery will run out of burial spots by around 2055, and will no longer be considered an "active" cemetery.