Fort Myer, next to Arlington National Cemetery, is home to the 3rd Infantry Regiment, formed in 1784.
By NANCY HOYT BELCHER
Published May 25, 2003
[Photos: Nancy Hoyt Belcher]
ABOVE: Sgt. York is the horse currently designated as the riderless horse for military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. Pfc. Joseph Armstrong says the horse is mild-tempered and smart.
RIGHT: Primary duty for soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment is to serve as the honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns and to take part in ceremonies at the White House, the Pentagon and national memorials.
ARLINGTON, Va. - Even in the wake of 9/11 and the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion, Washington, D.C., attracts millions of tourists who come to see its monuments, memorials and museums. And just across the Potomac River, in Virginia, more than 4-million tourists visit Arlington National Cemetery, a shrine to the men and women who have defended our country.
Hardly anyone leaves without watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Few of the visitors know that all members of the Tomb Guard are volunteers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, stationed at Fort Myer, adjacent to the cemetery.
Nor do these folks know that Fort Myer, which has had a role in some of the most significant events in the nation's history, is open to visitors.
The fort, as well as the cemetery, occupy land once owned by the family of Robert E. Lee, the West Point graduate who led the the Army of Northern Virginia and then the Confederate forces during the Civil War. For siding with the Confederacy, the Union seized his estate and buried its war dead on his land. Lee never returned to the Custis-Lee Mansion, the handsome building seen beyond the cemetery rows that face the nation's capital.
After the Civil War, Fort Myer housed the fledgling Signal Corps and subsequently a cavalry post, including two Buffalo Soldier units.
In 1949, President Harry S. Truman reactivated the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment to be a ceremonial unit and to provide security in the Washington region. Truman named it "Honor Guard to the President" in 1952.
The 3rd is also known as the Old Guard, for it is the Army's oldest active infantry regiment. It predates the Constitution, having been formed in 1784.
Today, soldiers of the Old Guard are responsible for military ceremonies at the White House, the Pentagon and national memorials, in addition to maintaining the 24-hour vigil at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Some of the soldiers serve as the mounted escorts for funerals at Arlington National, and some even act as escorts for women at White House dinners.
Fort Myer provides maps with detailed information for self-guided walking tours. The primary ceremonial site, Summerall Field, is where the first military test flight of an aircraft was made, in 1908. The pilot was Orville Wright, and he stayed in the air for one minute and 11 seconds.
Wright's second test flight, however, ended in a crash after four minutes, injuring Wright and killing his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge. Selfridge was the first powered-aviation fatality. A marker that indicates the crash site is in front of Headquarters.
One attraction open for touring is the century-old stable that houses the horses and caissons of the Old Guard Caisson Platoon. Visitors can walk about on their own or ask for a soldier to provide a guided tour.
Available for inspection are the caisson rooms, the farrier (blacksmith) room and the tack rooms, where the soldiers maintain and polish all tack and equipment daily. Children delight in "riding" the life-size plastic horse, Zerox.
The caissons, built in 1918 to haul 75mm cannons and ammunition, are used to transport flag-draped caskets during full-honor funerals, an average of six every day. Six horses are hitched in pairs; the horse on the left side is ridden by a soldier.
Visitors can stroll the aisles of the barn and look into the stalls to see about three dozen horses.
Chief Charles Sowles, who commands the caisson unit, has high praise for the soldiers and the horses.
"They can stand quietly for eight hours," he says. "And they have to be totally unperturbed by noise, cannon fire, fluttering of flags, papers blowing around them . . ."
The most famous horse serving at Fory Myer was Black Jack (named after Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing). Black Jack served as the Caparisoned horse that followed President John F. Kennedy's caisson. A Caparisoned horse and its dismounted soldier represent the highest of Army honors. On the riderless horse, the scabbard, ammunition pouch and riding boots are reversed on the saddle, to symbolize that a fallen comrade will never ride again.
Black Jack, who arrived at the fort as a 6-year-old in 1953, also accompanied the caskets of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Herbert Hoover and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. When he died in 1976 (after retirement in 1973), Black Jack was buried on the parade grounds in a funeral procession with full military honors. Black Jack's grave is near the flag pole on Summerall Field.
Sgt. York is the current riderless horse, and Pfc. Joseph Armstrong, 22, who sometimes serves as a guide, describes him as "the most mild-tempered horse in the barn, and he's also smart."
As an afterthought, he says, "We even have birthday parties for this guy."
The small but worthwhile Old Guard Museum is a short walk from the stables, along Sheridan Avenue. This is a good place to learn more about the 3rd U.S. Infantry, from 1784, when it was formed to protect the then-western boundaries of the United States, to its modern role.
The museum has artifacts, historical photos and military art, presented roughly in chronological order in several small galleries.
Collections include dress uniforms, drums, insignia and memorabilia from the Tomb Guard, muskets, bayonets, and saddles and boots used in diplomatic funerals. An extensive flag collection includes what is believed to be one carried in Texas and Mexico during the war of 1846-47.
Be sure to watch the fine 15-minute video at the museum to get a better understanding of the pride its members feel about the tradition of the Old Guard, especially their role at the at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
- Nancy Hoyt Belcher is a freelance writer living in Alameda, Calif.
If you go
GETTING THERE: Visitors can walk to Fort Myer from the Lincoln Memorial, across the Memorial Bridge, or they can take the Blue Line Metro from Washington and exit at Arlington National Cemetery. Driving directions are available online at www.fmmc.army.mil There is ample parking at the fort on McNair Road.
The fort is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Guided tours of the stables are noon to 4 p.m. daily.
Visitors are asked to sign in at the gate and state their business, and they must have a valid photo identification. Cameras are restricted to use inside the museum and the stables; they cannot be used on the grounds.
If you are driving, soldiers will conduct a thorough inspection of your car, from the glove the trunk to the glove compartment.