Monday, May 10, 2010

Review: On Hallowed Ground

Author: Robert Poole
Format: Hardcover =339 pgs including 68 pages appendices and notes
Subject:history of Arlington National Cemetery
Genre: non-ficton
Source: public library
Challenge:Support your public library

As a veteran of the US Navy, married to another Navy veteran (and retiree), I went out of my way to track this book down. Both of us are at a point in our lives where the subject of funerals comes up often, and we have attended dozens of funerals at Arlington to honor friends and shipmates. One of our biggest questions has always been "where do we want to be buried?" My children both live within 10 miles of Arlington, and until we moved to Maine 6 years ago, I literally drove past rows and rows of graves on my way to work in Arlington every morning for 16 years. While I don't qualify for burial on my own (I didn't do enough time to retire), my husband does, so I rate burial there as his spouse. But we both had sort of taken it off the short list because it seemed so big and impersonal. In fact, my husband used to work in the Navy Annex building up the hill from the Pentagon and overlooking the cemetery, and then later at the Pentagon, and says he's not sure he wants to spend eternity in site of his old offices. It is a beautiful, quiet, well-maintained park like space to stroll through, but stay there forever? Hmmmm...

After reading Robert Poole's excellent story of the history, the sentiments, the politics, and the rich heritage of this glorious site, it's at least back in consideration.

In telling the story of the cemetery, Poole takes us on a short but surprisingly robust tour of the valor and service of Americans from every military conflict between the Civil War up to the present sad goings-on in Afghanistan and Iraq. We learn where the land came from, how it was originally used, and then the subsequent acts of Congress and presidential proclamations making it what it is today - THE National military cemetery. In addition, we learn about the U.S. Army's outstanding efforts over the years, and continuing today, to identify and repatriate the bodies of Americans who died on foreign soil.

Poole weaves numerous stories together: the family story of Robert E. Lee and his descendants who were the original owners of the property and their struggles after the Civil War to reclaim their family home; the story of the "father of Arlington National Cemetery" Brig Gen Montgomery C. Meigs; the story of the Lee's previous slaves -freedmen who stayed on the property long after the Civil War was over and the town they built; the individual stories showing the diversity of the many servicemen buried there; the building of the Memorial Bridge to signal a joining of the Union (Washington DC) with the defeated Confederacy (northern Virginia) leading directly into the cemetery (I think my brain always assumed it had just been there!); how the original Unknown Soldiers were chosen and the rigorous training and discipline of the Old Guard - the Army's elite unit who stand sentry duty 24/7 at the Tomb of the Unknowns; the story of the building of the Pentagon just before World War II; the story of the burial of the soldier who died in a nuclear reactor accident and whose body was so radioactive it had to be sealed in a lead coffin and buried in a concrete vault; and the conflict over the "unknown" from Vietnam who was subsequently disinterred, identified through DNA matching and re-buried near his home.

There were sections that were particularly personal to both of us. My husband actually sang with the Naval Academy Catholic Choir at Kennedy's funeral. Although I watched it on TV, it was fascinating to read of all the decisions that had to be made, and the hasty but well-handled arrangements needed to produce this ceremony.

I had to drive home on September 11th, 2001 passing the smoking Pentagon, threading my way carefully through thousands of dazed survivors wandering along the George Washington Parkway, all the time seeing nothing in my rear view mirror but a huge smoke cloud. Only later did we learn of the deaths of people we knew. Driving by Arlington after that became even more poignant, and to this day, neither of us (or anyone who lived there during that time) can see the site without seeing the smoke cloud in our minds. The excellent map in the front of the book provides a superb visual aid to explain how intertwined the cemetery graves are with the view from and around the Pentagon.

In all of these stories, woven into a cohesive whole, Poole's extensive and exhaustive research shines. He could easily have written over 1000 pages, but he chose to make this a more respectable (and readable!) size. His writing is so well-edited that it is extremely easy to read throughout. There are footnotes and bibliographic references for those who wish to delve deeper, but they never get in the way of his story. The reader is immediately aware of the reverence and respect he brought to this work, and those of us who are prospective inhabitants are deeply grateful for his expertise.

Although we got this from the public library (and had to wait several months on the reserve list!) this is one we are going to get for our personal libraries. As a librarian, it is one I recommend every public library consider for acquisition. It's a 5 star!


  1. Odd that I had never wondered what became of the Lee family's former slaves. I too figured the bridge had always been there. This book sounds fascinating.

    Dave and I many years ago obtained grave plots in a new national cemetery in NJ because of news that national cemeteries were filling up. He is very proud of his service in the Marine Corps so it seems the most appropriate place for us to be buried.

  2. Gosh, this sounds like a book my brother, the huge history buff, would love!
    I have only been to Arlington once, but the last several times I have been to DC, I stayed at the Ritz Carlton in Pentagon City which has a great view of the cemetery (and the Pentagon) and I was thinking I really have to check it out in more depth someday soon.
    Maybe I should read this book first!

  3. Sounds like a truly worthwhile read, one I wouldn't have come across on my own.

  4. Sounds like a nice Sunday -- Happy Mother's Day!


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