150 Years On, Arlington National Cemetery Honors Its First Burial

Arlington National Cemetery kicks off celebrations of its 150th anniversary by commemorating its first military burial on May 13, 1864. Members of the family of Army Pvt. William Christman will participate in a wreath laying ceremony and place a stone of remembrance from the family's original home.

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A wreath laying ceremony this morning marked the 150th anniversary of the first military burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Army Private William Christman was a member of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry during the Civil War. As NPR's Allison Keyes reports, his descendants were on hand for what they say is an incredible honor.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Present...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Present...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...Arms.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: ...Arms.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Grandnieces and nephews of Union private Christman watched solemnly as white-gloved soldiers, carrying ceremonial rifles, stood at attention in front of his small white tombstone.

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KEYES: The soldiers from the Army's 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as the Old Guard dropped their heads in tribute. Then a wreath was placed above Christman's grave. The family placed a second wreath then a stone of remembrance was laid gently atop the tombstone.

Pennsylvania historian Scarlett Rehrig told those in attendance it came from the Christman family home in Pocono Lake, Pennsylvania.

SCARLETT REHRIG: It is our wish that thins brings a bit of home and family to Private Christman

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LAUREN CHRISTMAN: I had goose bumps.

KEYES: Lauren Christman is Private Christman's great-great-great nice. She says the family just learned this year that her famous relative was buried here.

CHRISTMAN: We were shocked and stunned and very humbled to learn this.

KEYES: Now she knows his history.

CHRISTMAN: When he was 20, he joined the military, signed up for the North in the Civil War, and he contracted the measles after basic training and unfortunately that's what he died from.

RICK BODENSCHATZ: He joined knowing his family was desperately poor and needed money.

KEYES: Rick Bodenschatz is president of the Historical Association of Tobyhanna Township, where the Christman house was built. He discovered the link between Private Christman and the township. Bodenschatz says Christman's sacrifice helped his family.

BODENSCHATZ: He joined for the signing bonus which was $300 at the time plus his monthly pay, managed to get most of that money home. They were able to buy the 40 acres farm and built the house that stands today.

KEYES: Private William Christman is buried in the oldest part of Arlington National Cemetery, Section 27.

RODERICK GAINER: He's the first in the ground. But on the same day, McKinney is buried as well.

KEYES: Roderick Gainer is a curator at Arlington. He says both Christman and Private William McKinney, the first to have family present at his funeral, were buried 150 years ago today. The cemetery's first combat casualty, Private William Blatt, was buried May 14, 1864. The ceremony today was the first of several events commemorating Arlington National Cemetery's 150th anniversary.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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