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A Field of Trees and Bones

by Kate Pickert

The quiet dispute over dwindling space (and foliage) at Arlington National Cemetery.

On the west bank of the Potomac River, just inside Jefferson Davis highway, stands a grove of trees, mostly oaks — white, willow and red. Historians and archaeologists think some were saplings during the Revolutionary War and know that all weathered the Civil War. In between the grove and the Potomac, looking out over the capitol, stands a 200-year-old mansion with six Doric columns in front. The former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis (grand-daughter of George Washington), it boasts strong ties to both wars. It is also the former seat of an estate that is now, almost entirely, Arlington National Cemetery.

The grove is rooted, literally, in land repurposed by the federal government after the Civil War, and, according to a 1999 Environmental Protection Agency study, constitutes "the oldest and largest tract of climax eastern hardwood forest in Arlington County, Virginia." This, say historians, should be enough to insure its survival. But only world peace could guarantee that. The resting place of more than 270,000 soldiers, including more than 200 who died in Iraq, Arlington is nearly at full capacity, and its internment rate is "maxed out," according to superintendent John C. Meztler, Jr. To accommodate more veterans and their spouses, Arlington needs more space, and part of its growth will swallow the historic oak grove, thanks to a small section of a Congressional appropriations bill passed earlier this year after vigorous lobbying by Metzler and against the wishes of local historians and the Sierra Club. Metzler's master plan for Arlington also includes taking over about 40 acres of Navy land now occupied by seven buildings; rerouting a county road; and turning an eight-acre picnic area at Fort Meyer into grave sites.

"It's finite. It's not on a cornfield in Kansas. At some point it's got to stop growing," says Sherman Pratt, former president of the Arlington Historical Society. "No veteran has a constitutional right to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. There are plenty of other national cemeteries where a veteran could have his bones rest in peace." These words might offend if Pratt wasn't himself a veteran — a WWII infantry commander who spent two years in North Africa and one year on the 38th parallel in Korea. "We fought Jack Metzler tooth and nail. With our historical hat on, we said, 'You've gotten almost every inch of Lee's land already,'" Pratt says.

The oak grove is the most noted cost of Arlington's expansion. That it evokes the scenery General Lee was surrounded by in April 1861, when he was at Arlington House considering Abraham Lincoln's proposal that he lead the Union Army against the Confederacy, makes the forested area sacred to Pratt and others. After four days of deep thought, during which time Virginia declared that it would join the South's plight, Lee decided he couldn't bear to take up arms against his neighbors. He left Arlington and about a month later, his wife Mary Anna left too. Neither would enter the mansion again. Within a month, it was looted and occupied by Union Soldiers and, in 1864, the federal government illegally confiscated the Lee estate for unpaid property taxes of $92.07 and set it aside as a military cemetery. (A Union general had already ordered a several soldiers be buried in Mary Anna's rose garden.) In a letter to his wife written in December 1861, Lee wrote, "They cannot take away the remembrances of the spot, and the memories of those that to us render it sacred. That will remain to us as long as life will last, and that we can preserve."

Years later, Mary Anna went to Arlington House and tried in vain to pay the due taxes. She saw the mansion had been vandalized by Union soldiers and that the land was occupied by the first burial plots of what would become Arlington National Cemetery. According to Pratt, "She couldn't get out of the carriage she was so broken-hearted."

John C. Metzler, Jr. is literally a child of Arlington National Cemetery. His father, John C. Metzler, Sr. was a superintendent before him, and Metzler, Jr. grew up in a house on the cemetery grounds. The hallowed site was his playground. As a child, he collected spent shells from funeral salutes and had snowball fights using headstones as cover. "I came to Arlington at the age of four so I didn't know anything but growing up in the cemetery," says Metzler. Metzler, Jr. watched as his father guided the cemetery through its previous great expansion, adding 190 acres to the original 200 in 1966. He invented a "tiered" burial system, burying husbands and wives in the same plots at different levels underground. He helped change the criteria for internment at Arlington to slow the cemetery's growth. Both father and son devoted their careers to extending the active life of Arlington.

But by 2008, WWII veterans will by dying at a rate of 1,700 per day, and the apex of Korean War veteran deaths is approaching. "Our nation's leadership is in Washington, D.C. They come to the funerals at Arlington and they see the price of freedom," says Metzler. Military families can, of course, chose to be buried in non-military cemeteries or one of 122 other national cemeteries. But for many, the tribute paid at Arlington is like nothing else. The horse-drawn caisson that carries each coffin and the three-shot salute are unique. They are also, oddly, part of the reason the cemetery feels so crowded these days. On any given day, 25 to 30 funerals are held at Arlington National Cemetery — three to five at a time. Sometimes, the sounds of taps and ceremonial gunshots drift from one service to another; motorcades cross paths. Sometimes, there is "congestion," says Metzler. "We want people to feel like theirs is the only funeral," he says.

Metzler, Jr. can install 800 five by ten-foot plots per acre and he is planning to expand the cement columbarium where more than 70,000 are interred. Metzler's master plan guarantees the cemetery will be open at least until 2060.

"What we have is a very strong group of people who are interested in holding the line," says Audrey Calhoun, superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, a division of the National Park Services. Calhoun and a group of activist historians fought to stop Metzler from acquiring the oak grove near Lee's mansion, now called Arlington House. At one point, the group even got federal officials to reduce the doomed section to four acres. But Metzler's determination eventually got him what he wanted — a second bill passed that designated 12 acres as future cemetery land.

"We understand Arlington National Cemetery needs grave space," says Calhoun. "We just wish it wasn't us who had to give it."

Calhoun points out that in Lee's papers, he and visitors to his estate regularly remarked about the beauty of the approach to the house through the grove of trees and saplings that today constitute the tract the cemetery will take over. The cemetery's footprint is where Lee's old plantation once was, and the grove of trees "is the only backdrop to Arlington house that's left," says Calhoun.

Metzler has pledged to keep some of the trees. Arlington already is home to more than 8,000 others. "Not every tree will be able to be saved," he concedes. "You have to look at the very best specimen. Some of the trees are over 100 feet tall but 90 percent of canopy is gone. It doesn't make a very pleasant presentation." And presentation is what Arlington is about, after all. The tranquility, the symmetry, the Eternal Flame, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier draw four million visitors per year to the grounds.

Little fuss has been made over the seven Navy buildings or picnic area. "I don't think anyone's going to cry in his beer over that," says Pratt. The Navy barely uses the designated structures, which were considered temporary.

As for the hard borders around Arlington National Cemetery, Superintendent Metzler concedes that routes 395, 350, and 100, and the Potomac will eventually stop the growth of the site and "are not going to go away." But the federal land within the ring of highways is fair game and could provide more cemetery land for the next superintendent. Metzler himself is still eyeing the rest of the old oak grove and land that surrounds the Army outpost of Fort Meyer.

"I call it an obsession for Jack Metzler. The guy is very effective," says Pratt, the veteran and historical activist. "His goals are laudable, but they come at the price of taking precious land of which there is no more."

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Articles in this Issue

A Soul's Weight, by Mary Roach
Know Me Now, by Steve Lohse
Veterans, by Tom Bissell
A Field of Trees and Bones, by Kate Pickert
Circum-schism, by Grant Stoddard
Nutrition, by Benjamin Hart
Hospitality and Tourism, by Peter Olszewski
Horticulture, by Kathryn Small
Penmanship, by Jeff Steinbrink
Economics, by Robert Sullivan


Kate Pickert is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work appears most frequently in New York Magazine.

Where loss is found.

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