History of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

September 18, 2023

Each year thousands of students travel with their teachers and classmates to Washington, D.C., on school trips. Among the most treasured sights on these educational tours to our nation’s capital is the incomparable ‘Changing of the Guard’ at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. As we celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier this November, we look at the iconic scene’s inspiring history.

Following World War I, fallen soldiers littered the battlefields of Europe. Compounding the grief of loss was that thousands were unidentifiable. They were unknown soldiers. The killing technologies of the Great War brought a new world of sorts, including new levels of identity-erasing devastation. A time before dog-tags and DNA technology, the advent of machine guns, tanks, gases, and countless other incendiary inventions left thousands of soldiers too damaged to be recognized and identified. Families knew their father or brother or son was gone, but for many, no conclusive remains would ever return. The wound of war would be left open.

As countries collectively grappled with the end of the war, France and Great Britain each decided to take one of their own unknown soldiers and re-inter them in a place of national honor. France interred their fallen unknown soldier in the greatest place of honor they could confer: The Arc de Triomphe. Britain, too, chose the highest burial honor by making a place for their unknown in Westminster Abbey, typically a place for royalty and national icons.

As an ally to France and Great Britain and a significant player in the conclusion of the Great War, America, too, grappled with the question of what to do with their own unknown fallen soldiers. While American loss of life (100,000+) was less than other European nations – Great Britain lost nearly 1 million, France nearly 1.5 million – and nearly 99% of all fallen American soldiers were identified, there were still over 1,000 American soldiers laying in unmarked graves across European battlefields. Worse yet, families of those Americans who paid the ultimate sacrifice had no easy way of crossing the Atlantic Ocean to visit the battlefields where their loved ones fought. There was profound loss with no tangible place to grieve. Something had to be done.

In 1921, World War I veteran and Rep. Hamilton Fish of New York proposed the United States bring home one of its own unknown soldiers. Just as in France and Great Britain, the unidentifiable American Soldier would be buried in a place of honor, a place for all Americans to grieve loss and celebrate sacrifice. For Fish, equality was crucial, commenting that, “The whole purpose of this resolution is to bring home the body of an unknown American warrior who in himself represents no section, creed, or race, who typified, moreover, the soul of America and the supreme sacrifice of her heroic dead.” The United States military took every precaution to safeguard the soldier’s unknown status, including disinterring a number of unknowns from battlefields across France, then having an infantryman randomly select one casket. In the end there was no way of figuring who was selected.

The import, too, was not lost on the soldiers in charge of the Unknown’s safe passage home across the Atlantic. Sailors aboard the USS Olympia, the ship in charge of the transport, dedicated themselves to guarding their precious cargo. Such was their reverence for the Unknown that sailors even tied themselves to the casket to ensure his safe arrival or to know that they would fall upholding their solemn duty.

On November 9th, the USS Olympia arrived at the Washington Navy Yard. The Unknown Soldier was transported to the United States Capitol where he lay in honor for 2 days.

On November 11th, 1921, Armistice Day, the Unknown American Soldier would make his final move from the United States Capitol to Arlington National Cemetery, his final resting place. The soldier would travel by horse-drawn caisson (still an Arlington tradition) to the plaza outside the newly finished Memorial Amphitheater where he would be officially laid to rest.

The crowd on hand for the ceremony was estimated at over 100,000 people. One headline described the unprecedented turnout as “an homage to a hundred million.” Numerous dignitaries from America and Europe attended the ceremony, including President Warren G. Harding. It was a significant moment for the World, America and Americans, especially for grieving families.

After the funeral in the apse of the Memorial Amphitheater bestowing the highest honors on the Unknown, the casket was interred on the Memorial Plaza. The burial ceremony itself was a reverent, solemn affair, and despite the distinguished titles of many in attendance both foreign and domestic – Presidents, Generals, Congressman, Premiers – only 2 people addressed the audience: the President of the United States, Warren G. Harding and Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow Tribe. It is unclear from contemporary reports what Chief Plenty Coups said – whether it was a prayer, a chant or song. But in a transcendent moment the aged Crow Chief, who was selected to represent all Native Americans, laid down his headdress and coups stick to honor the fallen soldier and the symbol he represented to all Americans. It was a fitting tribute to close the ceremony and put to rest, finally, the Unknown Soldier and all he represented.

In 1937, a 24 hour guard was placed at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, another fitting tribute of highest honors for the highest honored. In 1948, the 3rd Infantry Regiment of the United States Army, the Honor Guard and ceremonial guard to the office of the President of the United States, the “Old Guard,” officially took over guarding the Unknown.

To become a Tomb Guard is not only one of the highest honors in American military history, it’s the second rarest badge one can achieve. And the standards for a Tomb Guard badge are exacting. So exacting that only elite soldiers are invited to training; only the elite of the elite earn the coveted badge and become a sentinel.

24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 365 days per year, there they stand; there they guard, forever giving the highest honors to that Unknown soldier, known but to God.

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