Arlington guide unearths trove of history

Local resident is author of definitive book on America’s premier national cemetery

Jim Peters looks over some Civil War graves in Oak Hill Cemetery last week. Peters is the author of the most popular guide book on Arlington Cemetery outside Washington, D.C., which was originally a burial ground for Union veterans of the Civil War.

Many tombstones in the Oak Hill Cemetery carry a crest or shield on them showing that they have a Civil War connection.

Book event

Jim Peters, author of “Arlington National Cemetery: Shrine to America’s Heroes,” will be signing copies of his book at 7 p.m. June 11 at the Raven Book Store, 6 E. Seventh St. Copies of his book also can be purchased on or at the KU Bookstore.

Arlington Cemetery is home to the nation’s war heroes, presidents and astronauts. But it is also the final resting place of famous explorers, athletes and musicians.

Along with the Tomb of the Unknowns and President John F. Kennedy’s Eternal Flame, the cemetery’s monuments and memorials pay tribute to Buffalo Soldiers, nurses, war correspondents, mothers and Confederate soldiers.

At its inception, the cemetery was a burial ground of last resort for Union Army soldiers whose families couldn’t afford to bury them, paupers, unknowns and slaves. It had the added benefit of spiting Confederate leader Robert E. Lee, whose wife owned the grounds in which the soldiers were buried.

Arlington Cemetery also was where the celebration of Memorial Day took root, with grand daylong ceremonies and thousands of people coming to the cemetery to decorate the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers.

Lawrence resident Jim Peters has visited Arlington Cemetery hundreds of times and walked every hill. To him, its graves and monuments do far more than remember the country’s warriors.

“It tells the stories of American history through the battles and lives of the people who fought them,” Peters said.

When Peters moved to Washington, D.C., in 1985, he set off to see the sites of the nation’s capital so he could be an adequate tour guide when his large family came to town.

“I knew everyone in the family was going to come visit, so I went out exploring the city,” he said.

Peters, an Illinois native who had practiced law, had been to Arlington Cemetery once before, as a young man attending the American Legion’s Boys Nation. It was in the late 1960s, shortly after Sen. Robert Kennedy’s death and several years after President Kennedy’s burial had revived interest in the cemetery.

On his return years later, Peters had the same questions many others had. How did the property become the home of Robert E. Lee? Who can be buried there? And is there more information on all its monuments and memorials?

Peters searched for books that would provide answers. He didn’t find any, so he decided to write his own.

The decision changed his life.

“I’m very proud of it,” he said. “It’s one of the things I’m most proud of that I’ve done.”

Peters spent time at the Library of Congress and the National Archives and had a lot of help from cemetery staff. The book, first published in 1986, received positive reviews and thousands of them were placed in libraries across the country.

Today, Peters is the director of Kansas University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. He continues to visit the cemetery a few times every year and gives lectures on it.

The book, “Arlington National Cemetery: Shrine to America’s Heroes,” is in its third edition and remains the best-selling volume on Arlington Cemetery. Peters is working on a fourth edition in time for the cemetery’s 150th anniversary.

“I love talking about it,” Peters said of Arlington Cemetery. “It’s something everybody knows about.”

The book isn’t meant to be kept at home. Its paperback cover and map of the cemetery make it a handy companion at Arlington. Peters was never in the military, and the book is geared to those unfamiliar with military life. It explains military terms and ranks, provides a guide for religious symbols and describes who is eligible to be buried in Arlington.

The first section of the book details the long story of how the national cemetery came to be built around Lee’s home.

Peters also provides biographies and grave locations of some of the more famous or intriguing people buried there.

Among Peters’ favorite lesser-known figures buried at Arlington:

• Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a Supreme Court Justice who was wounded three times during the Civil War.

As a young soldier, Holmes was asked to escort President Abraham Lincoln to Fort Stephens to watch a battle outside Washington, D.C. To get a better view, Lincoln stood on top of a wall, which drew immediate fire from Confederate troops. Polite requests to bring Lincoln down from the wall didn’t work. So, Holmes shouted “Get down, you fool.” Lincoln later thanked Holmes, saying, “I’m glad that you know how to talk to a civilian.”

Holmes was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1902 by President Theodore Roosevelt and served for 29 years, until the age of 91. President Franklin Roosevelt appointed his replacement.

• George Marshall was a five-star general who was the only professional solider to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Marshall is best known for his namesake Marshall Plan, which pumped billions of dollars into Western Europe after War World II to prevent economic collapse and the spread of communism.

• The most obscure name on Peters’ list is William Starke Rosecrans, a Civil War general and congressman who, if not for an intercepted telegram, might have become the 17th president.

During his 1864 re-election campaign, Lincoln decided to ask Rosecrans to be his running mate. A telegraph was sent to Rosecrans, who was in the field commanding his troops. Rosecrans said yes, but his reply was intercepted by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who controlled the telegraph lines during wartime. Stanton didn’t want Rosecrans on the ticket, so the telegram never made it to Lincoln.

When Lincoln was assassinated a year later, Vice President Andrew Johnson became the 17th president.

For Peters, these men, and the many more like them buried at Arlington, point to why remembering Arlington’s past and its people is so important.

“With this story is the story of America told by the people who are buried there,” he said.