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History's Headlines: Lehigh Valley native first man buried at Arlington National Cemetery

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: May 23 2014 09:13:40 PM CDT
Updated On: May 26 2014 06:49:24 PM CDT

History's Headlines: First man buried at Arlington

On the morning of May 13, 1864, a small procession of Union Army made their way up toward Arlington, the 1,100 acre estate once occupied by Robert E. Lee, who was now leading the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and then known to many in the North as “traitor Lee.”

There were reasons for their being there that day. One was the terrific toll combat was taking on the Union Army. The day before in a battle near Spotsylvania, Virginia, called by one historian “one of the most murderous days of the war,” the number of Union killed, wounded or missing was in the thousands.

Cemetery space was running out and something had to be done. What better place than on the grounds of the former estate of one of the men chiefly responsible for the carnage. Whatever the result of the war, so the story goes, Lee would never be able to enjoy his stately home.

The first soldier selected for this site, Private William Henry Christman, had not died in gallant charge but in a hospital bed racked with illness. The fact that he was going to be the first person to be buried in what 10 years later in 1874 would officially become Arlington National Cemetery-the best known veteran’s cemetery in the United States-made him a part of national history. The fact that he was born in Lehigh County makes him a part of local history.

The site for the first burial was selected about half mile from Arlington House, the stately pillared mansion that had been Lee’s home. That first grave was probably dug by John Parks, one of Lee’s former slaves. That day and for many years thereafter Parks was to perform this task and many others that were required to maintain the property where he had once been enslaved.

No specific descriptions of Christman’s funeral survive. Like those who followed him, it probably included full military honors and an army chaplain who would read the burial service. Christman may, or may not, have had a bugler that played “Taps” at his burial. The practice, according to Christman biographer Rick Bodenschatz, had only recently been adopted in the Union Army.

Who was William Henry Christman and what was his story? As the first solider buried at Arlington, his details have attracted several historians. Christman was born on October 1, 1844 in Lower Macungie Township.

His father was Jonas Christman, his mother was Mary. They were married at Goshenhoppen on May 1, 1841, and their son was baptized there as well.

Sometime when he was a child, William Henry’s parents decided to relocate north to Tobyhanna Township, Monroe County. In that era it was not unusual for Lehigh County residents to migrate. Some went as far as Iowa to seek better farm land.

Bodenschatz believes that it was probably the booming lumber industry that caused Jonas Christman to relocate north.

The forests of Pennsylvania had long since thinned out in the Lehigh Valley but in the late 1840s and early 1850s, known by some historians as the Bonanza Epoch, huge fortunes were made in that region. In Allentown in the 1860s one of its richest men was retired, New England-born lumber baron Samuel Gould. Gould, who from 1864 to 1876 occupied the palatial home on the site where Sacred Heart Hospital is today, had, with his brother Isaac, made a fortune off Luzerne County lumber.

Jonas Christman was not so lucky. With a growing family and limited education he worked as a wagon driver. But tragedy struck the family in 1859 when he was stricken by severe chronic rheumatism that left him without use of one of his arms. He never really recovered. A year later, Jonas fell from a wagon and fractured his right hip.

The oldest sons, Barnabus and William Henry, stepped in to help the family. But in 1861 the outbreak of the Civil War turned their world around. On June 8th 1861, 20 year old Barnabus went down to Stroudsburg and joined up with what became the 33rd Pennsylvania Regiment.

On June 30, 1862, Barnabus and his fellow soldiers were attacked at a farm in the area of New Market Crossroads, Virginia. “It was one of the fiercest bayonet fights that perhaps ever occurred on this continent,” one Union general later recalled. “Bayonets were crossed and locked in the struggle; bayonets wounds were freely given and freely received.” Barnabus Christman was among the dead.

William Henry, was approaching the age when he, too, wanted to join the army. At least part of the reason may have been the handsome, by the standards of the time, bounty payment that volunteers received. By 1863 the draft was being imposed and if he did not join he would be conscripted without one. The bounty would help out his struggling family and the regular amount sent home from his army check would as well.

On March 23, 1864 William Henry Christman traveled down to Easton to enlist and joined the 67th Pennsylvania Regiment. He was described “as being five foot seven and one half inches, having grey eyes, sandy hair and a florid complexion.” He went into a training camp near Philadelphia and appeared from his letters home to enjoy it. Army food did not bother Christman, mostly because there was plenty of it.

Christman was never to use his army training. In late April, 1864, he came down with a case of measles and on May 1st was admitted to the hospital. Over the next 11 days he also acquired a case of peritonitis, how is unknown. On May 12th he was dead.

Eventually the fortunes of Christman’s family in Tobyhanna improved and they moved out of poverty. And although he never heard a shot fired in anger, because he was the first buried at Arlington, he is among the most mentioned soldiers of the Civil War.