150 years later, family visits grave of Arlington’s first ‘hero’

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Army Pvt. William Christman died in service to his country, but until this year his family didn’t even know where he was buried.

A victim of measles, the 20-year-old from Pocono Lake, Pa., died in a D.C. hospital in 1864.

But as the first person to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Christman has one of the most distinct honors in military history.

“Everybody buried here is a hero,” said Jack E. Lechner, Jr., the cemetery’s deputy superintendent. “Mode or manner of death isn’t a determining factor. It’s service to country.”

For 150 years, Arlington National Cemetery has served as the final resting place for military members, a tradition that began with Christman’s burial in what is now Section 27.

On Tuesday, cemetery officials, Christman family members, and a tour bus of residents from Tobyhanna Township, Pa., laid wreaths at the faded tombstone to pay tribute and kick off a month-long commemoration of the cemetery’s 150th anniversary.

“I think it’s reflective of [the pride] of any community in the United States,” said Rick Bodenschatz, president of the Historical Association of Tobyhanna Township, who discovered the final resting place of the hometown hero. “All communities in the United States have heroes. We’re fortunate to have someone with this distinguished history behind it.”

The exact reason why Christman was chosen for the grave remains unknown, but cemetery officials said it likely had to do with the timing of his death and the cemetery being prepared to start accepting remains.

Christman’s remains were the first in the ground on May 13, 1864, said curator Roderick Gainer, but “W.B. Blatt,” whose tombstone is next to Christman’s and who died one day earlier, was the first combat casualty buried in the cemetery.

One row behind Christman’s tombstone is the stone for “Wm. McKinney,” whose family was the first to attend a burial in the cemetery.

Christman enlisted in the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry on March 25, 1864. Mr. Bodenschatz said Christman’s brother died during the Seven Days Battle during the Civil War in 1862. His burial spot is likely on the battleground somewhere in southeast Virginia.

Christman’s tombstone is located beneath the shade of a large silver maple near the Netherlands Carillon and the Marine Corps War Memorial. Section 27 faces east, and the low rumble of commuter traffic can be heard along George Washington Parkway.

Mr. Bodenschatz said he started down the path to discovering Christman’s story about two or three years ago when he was researching the township’s Civil War veterans.

“I ran across a few folks who knew this story,” he said. “I started to explore it and research it. One thing led to another.”

Once Mr. Bodenschatz confirmed what Arlington cemetery officials had long known, he called Barbara Christman Page, 63, Christman’s great-grandniece, who shared the news with James Christman, 51, a great-grandnephew.

“I had watched a Netflix documentary [on the cemetery] and saw William’s tomb. I said to my wife, ‘Look, there’s a Christman in Arlington,’” he said. “We couldn’t believe it. We did not know William was a family member buried here. Words can’t describe what it’s like to be here. It’s an incredible honor.”

Ms. Christman Page said her son had started to work on his genealogy, but had not yet learned of the burial.

“I couldn’t believe it I was so surprised,” Ms. Christman Page said. “We’ll be back. It’s important to know our history.”

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