Under the wide and starry skies of his own homeland America’s unknown dead from France sleeps tonight, a soldier home from the wars.
Alone, he lies in the narrow cell of stone that guards his body; but his soul has entered into the spirit that is America. Wherever liberty is held close to men’s hearts, the honor and the glory and the pledge of high endeavor poured out over this nameless one of fame will be told and sung by Americans for all time.
Scrolled across the marble arch of the memorial raised to American soldier and sailor dead, everywhere, which stands like a monument behind his tomb, runs this legend: We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.
The words were spoken by the martyred Lincoln over the dead at Gettysburg. And today with voice strong with determination and ringing with deep emotion, another President echoed that high resolve over the coffin of the soldier who died for the flag in France:
There must be, there shall be, the commanding voice of a conscious civilization against armed warfare.
Far across the seas, other unknown dead, hallowed in memory by their countrymen, as this American soldier is enshrined in the heart of America, sleep their last. He, in whose veins ran the blood of British forebears, lies beneath a great stone in ancient Westminster Abbey; he of France, beneath the Arc de Triomphe, and he of Italy under the alter of the Fatherland in Rome.
And it seems today that they, too, must be here among the Potomac hills to greet an American comrade come to join their glorious company, to testify their approval of the high words of hope spoken by President Harding. All day long the nation poured out its heart in pride and glory for the nameless American. Before the first crash of the minute guns roared its knell for the dead from the shadow of Washington Monument, the people who claim him as their own were trooping out to do him honor. They lined the long road from the Capitol to the hillside where he sleeps tonight; they flowed like a tide over the slopes about his burial place; they choked the bridges that lead across the river to the field of the brave, in which he is the last comer.
As he was carried past through the banks of humanity that lined Pennsylvania Avenue a solemn, reverent hush held the living walls. Yet there was not so much of sorrow as of high pride in it all, a pride beyond the reach of shouting and the clamor that marks less sacred moments in life.
Out there in the broad avenue was a simple soldier, dead for honor of the flag. He was nameless. No man knew what part in the great life of the nation he had filled when last he passed over his home soil. But in France he had died as Americans always have been ready to die, for the flag and what it means. They read the message of the pageant clear, these silent thousands along the way. They stood in almost holy awe to take their own part in what was theirs, the glory of the American people, honored here in the honors showered on America’s nameless son from France.
Soldiers, sailors, and marines—all played their part in the thrilling spectacles as the cortège rolled along. And just behind the casket, with its faded French flowers on the draped flag, walked the President, the chosen leader of a hundred million, in whose name he was chief mourner at his bier. Beside him strode the man under whom the fallen hero had lived and died in France, General Pershing, wearing only the single medal of Victory that every American soldier might wear as his only decoration.
Then, row by row, came the men who lead the nation today or have guided its destinies before. They were all there, walking proudly with age and frailties of the flesh forgotten. Judges, senators, representatives, highest officers of every military arm of government, and a trudging little group of the nation’s most valorous sons, the Medal of Honor winners. Some were grey and bent and drooping with old wounds; some trim and erect as the day they won their way to fame. All walked gladly in this nameless comrade’s last parade.
Ahead, the white marble of the amphitheater gleamed through the trees. It stands crowning the slope of the hills that sweep upward from the river and just across was Washington, its clustered buildings and monuments to great dead who have gone before, a moving picture in the autumn haze.
People in the thousands were moving about the great circle of the amphitheater. The great ones to whom places had been given in the sacred enclosure and the plain folk who trudged the long way just to glimpse the pageant from afar were finding their places.
Faint and distant, the silvery strains of a military band stole into the big white bowl of the amphitheater. The slow cadences and mourning notes of a funeral march grew nearer amid the roll and mutter of the muffled drums.
And the arch where the choir waited the heroic dead, comrades lifted his casket down and, followed by the generals and the admirals, who had walked beside him from the Capitol, he was carried to the place of honor. Ahead moved the white-robed singers, chanting solemnly. Carefully, the casket was placed about the banked flowers and the Marine Band play sacred melodies until the moment the President and Mrs. Harding stepped to their places beside the casket; then the crashing, triumphant chords of The Star-Spangled Banner swept the gathering to its feet again.
A prayer, carried out over the crowd by amplifiers so that no word was missed, took a moment or two, then the sharp, clear call of the bugle rang Attention! and for two minutes the nation stood at pause for the dead, just at high noon. No sound broke the quiet as all stood with bowed heads. It was much as though a mighty hand had checked the world in full course. Then the band sounded and in a mighty chorus rolled up the words of America from the hosts within and without the great open hall of valor.
President Harding stepped forward beside the coffin to say for America the thing that today was nearest to the nation’s heart, that sacrifices such as this nameless man, fallen in battle, might perhaps be made unnecessary down through the coming years.
Mr. Harding showed strong emotion as his lips formed the last words of the address. He paused, then with raised hand and head bowed, went on in the measured, rolling period of the Lord’s Prayer. The response that came back to him from the thousands he faced, from the other thousands out over the slopes beyond, perhaps from still other thousands away near the Pacific, or close packed in the heart of the nation’s greatest city, arose like a chant.
Then the foreign officers who stand highest among the soldiers or sailors of their flags came one by one to the bier to place gold and jeweled emblems for the brave above the breast of the sleeper. Already, as the great prayer ended, the President had set the American seal of admiration for the valiant, the nation’s love for brave deeds, and the courage that defies death, upon the casket.
Side by side he laid the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross. And below, set in place with reverent hands, grew the long list of foreign honors: the Victoria Cross, never before laid on the breast of any but those who had served the British flag; all the highest honors of France and Belgium and Italy and Rumania and Czechoslovakia and Poland.
To General Jacques of Belgium it remained to add his own touch to these honors. He tore from his own tunic the medal of valor pinned there by the Belgian king, tore it with a sweeping gesture, and tenderly bestowed it on the unknown American warrior.
Through the religious services that followed, and prayers, the swelling crowd sat motionless until it rose to join in the old, consoling Rock of Ages, and the last rite for the dead was at hand. Lifted by his hero bearers from the stage, the unknown was carried in his flag-wrapped, simple coffin out to the wide sweep of the terrace. The bearers laid the sleeper down above the crypt on which had been placed a little of the soil of France. The dust his blood helped redeem from alien hands will mingle with his dust as time marches by.
The simple words of the burial ritual were said by Bishop Brent; flowers from war mothers of America and England were laid in place.
A rocking blast of gunfire rang from the woods. The glittering circle of bayonets stiffened to a salute to the dead. Again the guns shouted their message of honor and farewell. Again they boomed out; a loyal comrade was being laid to his last, long rest.
High and clear and true in the echoes of the guns, a bugle lifted the old, old notes of Taps, the lullaby for the living soldier, in death his requiem. Long ago some forgotten soldier poet caught its meaning clear and set it down that soldiers everywhere might know its message as they sink to rest:
Fades the light;
Goeth day, cometh night,
And a star
Leadeth all, speedeth all,
To their rest.
The guns roared out again in the national salute. He was home. The Unknown, to sleep forever among his own.
— A Soldier Home From the Wars – The Pulitzer Prizes