For most people, commemorating Memorial Day in Washington D.C. brings images of wreath layings at Arlington Cemetery, or the sounds of motorcycles rumbling into town for Rolling Thunder.
But there are some lesser known commemorations in the District that have ties to the founding of Memorial Day itself.
One is the wreath laying at Logan Circle, which honors the Civil War general who helped launch the holiday – originally known as Decoration Day – all the way back in 1868.
Another happens at the United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home (USSAH) National Cemetery, located up the hill north of the Petworth neighborhood and next to Lincoln’s Cottage.
It’s one of our oldest national cemeteries, even pre-dating the better known Arlington Cemetery.
It stands next to the Old Soldiers’ Home – today the Armed Forces Retirement Home – which offered the land as a burial ground for Union soldiers and officers after the first battle of the Civil War in 1861.
The new cemetery quickly ran out of space – which led to its expansion, and the creation of Arlington Cemetery on Robert E. Lee’s plantation across the Potomac.
The cemetery would later become the final resting place for residents of the Old Soldiers’ Home and other veterans, and still serves that purpose today. It includes the burial site of General John A. Logan, who issued an order in 1868 that led to the Memorial Day holiday. His mausoleum sits at the entrance.
Interesting aside, that was designed by Alfred Mullett, the much maligned architect who built the behemoth State, War and Navy Building – later to become known as the Eisenhower Old Executive Office Building. After a career of criticism, poor Mullett killed himself in D.C. in 1890.
But back to the USSAH National Cemetery – today there are more than 14,000 grave sites, each one decorated with a flag on Memorial Day.
There are two special cemetery tours scheduled for Memorial Day, as well as regular tours of Lincoln’s Cottage next door.
There President Lincoln spent a good portion of his presidency, surrounded by veterans and the soldiers camped there. He was reminded of the toll of war by the constant funerals – as many as a dozen a day. Lincoln was known to walk among the graves, deep in thought.
Visiting the other Arlington and walking in the footsteps of Lincoln is a great way to get to the historical roots of Memorial Day – and to honor the service men and women throughout our history.