Light of freedom to spotlight unknown Soldier
February 9, 2011
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Army News Service, Feb. 8, 2011) -- On the streets where George Washington often could be seen dining, discussing business, and attending church, a group of Revolutionary War reenactors will soon pay tribute to a long lost brother in arms.
Forgotten for years following his death and by many ever since, this Soldier who fought for American independence and the light of freedom will see his memory lit up again this Presidents Day, Feb. 21, when the First Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line lays a wreath at the final resting place of this now-unknown Soldier in Old Town, Alexandria, Va.
In 1826, he was unearthed, still wearing his uniform, by workers expanding the sanctuary of St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church. The body was reinterred within the current burial ground of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, just next door, where Washington often prayed when the streets were too muddy to make it another eight blocks to Christ Church.
The grave of the unknown Soldier is surrounded by about 300 people he must have known about when he died.
There's John Carlyle, a founding trustee and first overseer of Alexandria; William Hunter Jr., mayor of Alexandria and founder of the St. Andrew's Society; Lewis Nicola, colonel in the Corps of Invalids of the Continental Army; Dr. James Craik, surgeon general in the Continental Army and close friend and physician to Washington; many other veterans of the Revolutionary War and of the French and Indian War; and many founding members of Alexandria-Washington Masonic Lodge No. 22, where the first president served as master.
After 1809, the town banned burials within the city limits.
"The main reason burials were no longer allowed," said Don Dahmann, historian for the meeting house, "was because the well and privy were in the same area as the buried bodies, just outside of the pastor's home."
The meeting house, named as such because the only church in 1775 was the Church of England, is located on South Fairfax Street in Old Town Alexandria. The Episcopal Church was organized shortly after the American Revolution when it was forced to separate from the Church of England.
"The memory of the unknown Soldier was kept alive by a young girl whose family were all active members of the meeting house," Dahmann said.
"Mary Gregory Powell, born in 1837, regularly placed flowers on his grave into the 20th century. And then because the Tomb to the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery was dedicated a year after Armistice Day in 1921, and a surge of interest in preserving and honoring our colonial heritage, John Gordon contacted Mary to ask about the gravesite," Dahmann said.
A member of the Second Presbyterian and American Legion Post 24, Gordon initiated one of Alexandria's earliest historic preservation efforts at the meeting house. At the completion of the project, a decision was made to formally mark the gravesite of the unknown Soldier.
Led by the National Society of the Children of the American Revolution, a temporary marker was placed at the gravesite in conjunction with the town's celebration of George Washington's birthday on Feb. 22, 1928, just months before Mary Powell died.
In accordance with the unknown Soldier's days when he was alive, participants in the dedication services held that day began at Gadsby's Tavern, followed by a walk through the city's streets to the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, where a service was conducted. Mary Powell dedicated the initial gravesite marker.
Presidents Day has a triple meaning at the meeting house.
At the time of Washington's death on Dec. 14, 1799, Christ Church was still "in the woods" because settlement took place going inland from the Potomac River, making the roads too muddy and snowy. So they held his memorial services here.
His friend, Dr. James Craik, later buried here, was the attending physician at Washington's death bed, and Pastor James Muir, also buried here, was a member of the Masonic Lodge and close friend of Washington.
It's also a day when all Americans pay tribute to those who risked everything to secure freedom from British rule with the rallying cry of "no taxation without representation," a slogan originating during the 1750s and 1760s in the Thirteen Colonies.
Some of those who risked all were forgotten until unearthed by more "modern" explorers. Once the tombs were erected to their memory, though, they were all but forgotten, in large part, once again. Not many even know that there's another tomb of an unknown Soldier.
"I've been down to talk with some people at the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association, and it seems they are more interested in guiding visitors to places where they can spend money," Dahmann said.
"But I told them that they should promote all the walking tours because people get hungry and thirsty and want to relax while shopping after a good walk where they learn interesting and fun facts about our history," he said.
Although the original meeting house was destroyed by fire in 1835 and rebuilt two years later, about 1,000 members still worship in this area of Old Town that's like stepping back into time.
Halfway between the two entrances is the tabletop memorial that was dedicated on April 19, 1929. The epitaph, slightly faded, reads: "His was an idealism that recognized a Supreme Being, that planted religious liberty on our shores, that overthrew despotism, that established a people's government, that wrote a Constitution setting metes and bounds of delegated authority, that fixed a standard of value upon men above gold and lifted high the torch of civil liberty along the pathway of mankind. In ourselves this soul exists as part of ours, his memory's mansion."