The 100th Anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

November 2021 will mark the centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On November 11, 1921, following the end of World War I, the repatriated remains of an unknown member of the American Expeditionary Forces were interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Since then, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has provided a final resting place for Unknowns from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

President Obama at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; 11/11/2012; From the Collection BHO-WHPO: Records of the White House Photo Office (Obama Administration); Barack Obama Presidential Library, Hoffman Estates, IL.

With more than 100,000 American casualties from the first World War, the large numbers of unidentified dead posed an unprecedented repatriation challenge for the United States.

In December 1920, New York Congressman and WWI veteran Hamilton Fish, Jr., proposed legislation “to bring home the body of an unknown American warrior who in himself represents no section, creed, or race in the late war and who typifies, moreover, the soul of America and the supreme sacrifice of her heroic dead.”

The Tomb has grown into a powerful national symbol of service and sacrifice. To this day, it is protected 24 hours a day by members of the 3rd Infantry Regiment (also known as the Old Guard). The President (or their designee) has placed a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Veterans and Memorial Day each year.

In recognition of the 100th Anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we have created several new teaching resources, and will present a live program for young learners on November 10, 2021.

Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Book cover of Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by Jeff Gottesfeld

Wednesday, November 10, 2021 – 11:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. EDT

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In this live program, author Jeff Gottesfeld will read from his children’s book Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which tells the story of how the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier came into being.

Gottesfeld will be joined by a Tomb guard who will explain the rigorous process of being selected as a guard and the 27-hour shifts of their duty—an honor sought by many, but for which few are selected. A question-and-answer session will follow the program.

New Teaching Activities

Comparing Designs for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

This activity, designed for grades 4-8, introduces students to the idea of tombstones being used throughout history to remember people who have died.

Students are asked to perceive and describe elements of art (such as shape, material, and symbols) in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They will compare and contrast an earlier version of the memorial with an updated version, identify their feelings about each version, and brainstorm reasons why Congress wanted to update the design.

Use this activity while teaching about symbolism, photograph analysis, artwork or sculpture analysis, or to connect to Veterans Day.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Resolution Analysis

Congressional joint resolution that established the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

In this activity, designed for grades 5-8, students will carefully analyze the Congressional joint resolution that established the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.

After learning more about the resolution document, they will consider the question: “Why do you think the United States honors the Unknown Soldier in such a way?”

Use this activity while teaching the end of World War I, in a discussion about monuments, or to support Veterans or Memorial Day.

Online Exhibit: 100th Anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

This new exhibit on Google Arts and Culture showcases special media records, including drawings, photographs, and film, relating to the history of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Tomb is one of America’s most iconic memorials and is visited every year by millions of visitors. This exhibit explores its history.

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