A Salon investigation uncovers a shameful truth in Arlington National Cemetery's supposedly-restored Section 27

Almost 20 years ago Congress ordered Arlington National Cemetery to preserve history, after one of the oldest parts of the burial grounds had fallen into disrepair. That forlorn group of several thousand graves, called Section 27, holds the remains of thousands of Civil War troops, including African-Americans who served with the U.S. Colored Troops, as well as thousands of freed slaves.

But when then-congressman and African-American history buff Louis Stokes began to visit there around 1990, he found headstones there were falling apart and overgrown with weeds. Prodded by Stokes, in 1992 Congress ordered Arlington to replace the crumbling headstones and organize and preserve the historical burial records for Section 27 so vital history about those buried there would not be lost forever.

Superintendent John Metzler told Congress the cemetery was on the case. Arlington replaced the old, crumbling headstones in that section with new, shiny white marble markers. The cemetery also told Congress that burial records for the area got straightened up and preserved. (Metzler is still the superintendent at Arlington).

A Salon investigation shows that 17 years after Metzler's commitment, the cemetery's cosmetic fixes did little to preserve the history of the dead there, and instead appear to have made matters worse. Salon obtained thousands of internal cemetery burial records for that section, along with the cemetery's own internal grave-by-grave map of the section completed in 1990 just before the cemetery's overhaul began, as well as copies of the old, handwritten burial register of the former slaves interred there back in the mid-1800s. Salon discovered that an unknown number of those new, perfect-looking headstones in the historical section have the wrong names on them or are wrongly marked "Unknown." And at least 500 graves, listed as occupied in the cemetery's own records, have no headstones at all today.

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