In 1921 a sergeant ran a small, dark chapel in Châlons-sur-Marne. within in eastern France, not far from where French and English troops had pushed back against advancing Germans a few years earlier.
The sergeant, Edward F. Younger of Chicago, 23, held a bouquet of red and white roses and circled four coffins containing the remains of American soldiers who died during World War I.
A colonel had ordered him to select one coffin to be placed in a marble tomb in Arlington National Cemetery and to represent all the American soldiers killed in the war.
“I couldn’t bring myself to make a hasty choice,” he told The Decatur Daily in Alabama in 1935. Sergeant Younger stopped by the box, third from the right, placed the bouquet on top, saluted, and left the room.
“Something seemed to hold me back every time I passed that third’s coffin,” he said, describing the selection he made on October 24, 1921. “Something seemed to say, ‘Pick this one.'”
A few weeks later, the remains were interred overlooking the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where 4,723 unknown soldiers who died in Civil War battles are buried today, along with more than 400,000 other war veterans.
Since 1948, a 24-hour military guard has kept the public from getting close to the white marble sarcophagus. But Tuesday and Wednesday, people will again walk close to the grave and place flowers to commemorate 100 years since the dedication.
Many are expected to visit the memorial, which has become a sacred site for veterans, as well as visitors to watch the Changing of the Guard.
However, the grave was not always treated with such reverence.
From sacred ground to picnic spot
On November 11, 1921, thousands of people marched to Arlington National Cemetery to watch the coffin that Sergeant Younger chose was lowered into a marble tomb. In a speech, President Warren G. Harding described how the soldier “could get out of one of millions of American homes.”
“Hundreds of mothers today wonder and find a touch of comfort in the possibility that the nation may bow in grief to the body of someone she gave birth to to live and die, if necessary, for the Republic,” he said.
Chief Plenty Coups, the Crow Nation leader who was invited to attend the ceremony, placed a war cap and a stick known as a coup d’état over the coffin.
In the beginning, there were no restrictions on public access to the grave, where visitors could touch and kneel, said Allison Finkelstein, senior historian at Arlington National Cemetery.
But as the years passed, the sacred site became more of a public park.
People picnicked around the grave and even used it as a table for their food. Photographers lingered and offered to take photos of visitors, who would sit on it and pose.
Overnight, couples were discovered “getting excessively romantic on top of the grave,” said Beth Bailey, a professor of history at the University of Kansas.
Such behavior was not uncommon at the time, she said.
“Remember, during the Civil War, people went on picnics to watch battles,” said Professor Bailey.
Guarding the grave as a sacred ritual
The decision to make an unknown soldier a symbol of those killed and lost in World War I arose in part from a deep concern that American servicemen were being left in cemeteries abroad, said Micki McElya, a history professor. at the University of Connecticut and the author of “The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery.”
In 1918, Newton Baker, the Secretary of War, promised that the dead would be returned home, but the logistics of bringing thousands of bodies back from Europe were overwhelming and threatened to disrupt relations with England and France, whose leaders did not want to end. responsibility to transport dead American soldiers, she said.
Some military leaders in the United States also believed that “soldiers should rest where they fell,” said Professor McElya.
Honoring an unknown soldier helped answer the question of what to do with the lost dead.
But as the grave became more of a tourist destination and visitors became unruly, veterans became enraged and demanded protection around it, Professor McElya said.
Initially, a wooden fence was erected. Then, a chain-link fence.
It wasn’t until 1948 that the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment, the Army’s oldest active-duty infantry unit, was instructed to guard the tomb at all times and keep visitors away except for official ceremonies.
The entire place around the tomb was “understood as a sacred place deserving of reverence, not intended to be entered by visitors,” said Dr. Finkelstein.
This became especially important in 1958, when crypts containing the remains of unknown World War II and Korean War soldiers were placed near the grave, she said. The tomb also contains an empty crypt that once held the remains of an Air Force pilot who was killed in the Vietnam War, but was identified through DNA in 1998.
A gloomy ceremony that begins with the crow’s prayer
On Tuesday, Crow Nation members are the first people to place flowers at the grave. Their leaders will also recite a prayer that some historical accounts say Chief Plenty Coups gave 100 years ago, according to an Arlington National Cemetery spokesman.
When Chief Plenty Coups and other Native Americans were invited to attend the ceremony, it was intended as an acknowledgment by the federal government of “the important role of American Indians in the military during World War I, and the possibility that the Unknown Soldier could have been an American Indian,” said Dr. Finkelstein.
Between 8,000 and 15,000 Native Americans served in the war, she said.
Chief Plenty Coups’ presence was likely the first time Native Americans have appeared on a national political stage and broadcast to white Americans other than in Wild West shows, said Aaron Brien, the tribal historical conservation officer for the Crow Tribe.
His presence also represented “this strange duality that we are not being treated fairly at all at the time,” Mr Brien said. “He shows the generosity and kindness of indigenous people, indigenous people who were not even citizens of the land and lived in a time of abject poverty.”
Professor McElya said many Americans assumed the unknown soldier was a white, straight man. But the mystery of his identity has made the soldier a powerful political symbol. For example, in 1980, gay and lesbian veterans began laying wreaths at the graveside at a ceremony honoring servicemen who died in combat.
The grave helped “Arlington become a site that any American can claim a relationship with,” said Professor McElya. “The unknown is theirs.”
Johnny Diaz contributed coverage. Kirsten Noyes contributed to research.