GPS and Genealogy – Arlington National Cemetery

People’s willingness to share is one of the wonderful aspects of genealogy. A reader contacted me recently to provide further information about a common tangential ancestor — one not directly related to either of us but who had married into the larger family of Howder descendants — and for whom I’d had only the sketchiest of records. I knew that the common ancestor served in the Civil War, but I didn’t know the circumstances nor did I know that he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

I wanted to record the exact longitude and latitude of the gravesite using methods and tools explained in my earlier GPS and Genealogy post. Yesterday I was able to drive over and park in that little section of North Arlington that is south of Route 50, and using my trusty handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) device to track my path, I forged through the Ord-Weitzel Gate and into the cemetery.

There were actually two spots I wanted to record but I’ll get to that in a moment.



View Larger Map

I used coordinates captured by my GPS to create the simple map, above. Go ahead and click on the markers and see what I found along with the exact long/lat coordinates. These waypoints are accurate to within 20 feet of the actual locations. The historian in me also got into the act and I recorded the experience with other digital media including video and photo.



I was searching for Ananias Stafford and I’d been tipped off that he was in Section 27, plot 463. This is the oldest part of the cemetery and Mr. Stafford was laid to rest just weeks after its opening. Surely nobody at the time could have anticipated that he’d be followed by nearly 300,000 more and that Arlington would become part of the most hallowed ground in the nation.

Genealogy is much more than simply the collection of names so I prefer to use the term “personal history,” and there is a tragic story behind Ananias Stafford’s journey to Arlington. He entered the war later than many soldiers when he volunteered to serve in the Michigan Cavalry in 1864, possibly because he was in his 30’s and the army valued younger men during those early years of conflict. He was deployed immediately to the Overland Campaign, and saw action at the Battle of the Wilderness and other nearby conflicts. Within three months of his enlistment he was shot through the chest while fighting at the Battle of Haw(e)’s Shop on May 28, 1864. Ananias suffered for another month at Emory Hospital in Washington, DC before finally succumbing in late-June (the date on the tombstone is incorrect). He left behind a wife and two small children in Perry Township, Shiawassee County, Michigan, where he’d been a farmer before his brief service in the cavalry.



I climbed up the hill to also pay my respects to my Howder great-grandparents in Section 17, plot 21321, as I’ve done a number of times over the years. Geologically the cemetery rests on that very spot where the coastal plain begins to buckle with the first bumps of the Piedmont along a formation called the Arlington Ridge. Climbing to the top of the ridge on a typically humid Washington summer morning got the heart pumping and sweat beading on the brow.

Lewis Howder and Jane (Hayes) Howder are found at the very back of the cemetery, almost in Fort Myer, and a world away from the tourmobiles and the crowds. Few people venture this far back into the cemetery unless they have family to visit. Lewis and Jane had a much less dramatic story than Ananias Stafford: living, working and raising a family in Washington, DC in the early 20th Century. They now spend eternity in a shared gravesite in a quiet, restful spot.


Graves of Unknown Confederate and Union Soldiers

Arlington National Cemetery creates an atmosphere that allows visitors to appreciate the supreme sacrifices made by our armed forces. As I walked back from my great-grandparents plot, I noticed and was touched by the poignancy of these markers for an unknown Union and Confederate soldier laying next to each other. Like in my family, many of us can trace back to ancestors that fought on both sides of the conflict. The crowds congregating respectfully at the Tomb of the Unknowns probably never realizing that row-upon-row and indeed entire fields of unknown soldiers rest just up over the hillside in the lesser-visited sections of the cemetery. Each one of these represents a father or a son who marched to battle while a family waited vainly for his return, always wondering and never learning his fate.


Magnolia Bloom in Arlington National Cemetery

This is a final shot from my July 5 visit to Arlington National Cemetery. It’s not intended to capture anything historical. I simply stopped for a moment to appreciate the way the landscaping has been used to highlight the sacredness of these grounds.


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