Memorial Day: A look at our National Cemetery as its amphitheater turns 150 years old

A place of remembrance

A look at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, which is said to be where Memorial Day is every day.

In 1866, Henry Welles of Waterloo, New York, suggested the town’s shops should close May 5 to commemorate the soldiers who had died during the Civil War.

Two years later in Waterloo, Gen. John Logan issued a declaration that Decoration Day should be observed nationwide. The declaration said that May 30 would be designated as a day to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers.

In 1882, the name of the holiday was changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day. After World War I, the holiday was expanded to remember soldiers from all American wars.

In 1971, Richard Nixon made Memorial Day a national holiday that was to be celebrated on the last Monday in May.

When the Army constructed the first memorial amphitheater at the cemetery in 1873 (now called the Tanner Amphitheater), an average of 25,000 individuals participated in Decoration Day commemorations.

Arlington National Cemetery/Public Domain

The image above shows flags hung in the Memorial Amphitheater in preparation of National Memorial Day Observance this year. The amphitheater is turning 150 years old. The amphitheater is named in honor of James R. Tanner. Tanner was a corporal in the 87th New York Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, who suffered a gruesome wound from Confederate cannon fire at the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862. It resulted in the loss of both legs below the knees.

He learned to walk on artificial limbs and after the war, Tanner became a stenographer and was present both at Abraham Lincoln’s deathbed and during the trial of the Lincoln conspirators. He was an advocate for veterans’ rights and served for a time as the Commissioner of Pensions, and later became the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic. Tanner is now buried a few yards from the structure that bears his name.

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The public is encouraged to view the ceremony and observance program live at:

It’s scheduled from 10:50 a.m. to 1 p.m. EDT May 29, 2023.

Guarding the tomb

Soldiers were first assigned to guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1926, to discourage visitors from climbing or stepping on it. In 1937, the guards became a 24/7 presence, standing watch over the Unknown Soldier at all times.

The military guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is changed in a ceremony every hour on the hour from Oct. 1 through March 31, and every half hour from April 1 through Sept. 30.

The Unknown Soldiers represent all missing and unknown service members who served and made the ultimate sacrifice — they not only gave their lives, but also their identities to protect these freedoms.

The 3rd U.S. Infantry, traditionally known as “The Old Guard,” is the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army, serving our nation since 1784. The Old Guard is the Army’s official ceremonial unit and escort to the president, and it also provides security for Washington, D.C., in time of national emergency or civil disturbance.

Soldiers who volunteer to become Tomb Guards undergo a strict selection process and intensive training. A fully qualified Tomb Guard identification badge is one of the rarest badges in the U.S. Army. Only about 10% of the applicants qualify.

The first female Tomb Guard earned the prestigious identification badge in 1996.

The Sentinel’s Creed

“My dedication to this sacred duty is total and whole-hearted. In the responsibility bestowed on me never will I falter. And with dignity and perseverance my standard will remain perfection. Through the years of diligence and praise and the discomfort of the elements, I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability. It is he who commands the respect I protect, his bravery that made us so proud. Surrounded by well meaning crowds by day, alone in the thoughtful peace of night, this soldier will in honored glory rest under my eternal vigilance.”

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Sources: The Memorial Day Foundation, Congressional Medal of Honor Society, Department of Defense, Center for Military Readiness, National Park Service, Arlington National Cemetery Photos from the Department of Defense and National Park Service

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