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NY Air Guard Leaders Honor Former President Chester Arthur

  • Published
  • By Eric Durr,
  • New York National Guard

MENANDS, N.Y. - The commander of the New York Air National Guard honored Chester Arthur, the 21st president of the United States, on the 194th anniversary of his birth during a ceremony at his grave in Albany Rural Cemetery Oct. 5.

Maj. Gen. Denis Donnell and New York Air National Guard Command Chief Master Sgt. Matthew Hewson presented a wreath from President Joseph Biden as taps sounded and an honor cordon of Airmen from the 109th Airlift Wing presented arms.

The ceremony at the historic cemetery outside Albany, watched by an audience of 50 people, carried on a tradition launched by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.

Since then, military officers have placed wreaths from the current occupant of the White House on the graves of their predecessors on their birthdays.

The New York National Guard headquarters is responsible for placing wreaths at the graves of Arthur and Martin Van Buren, buried in his hometown of Kinderhook, south of Albany.

Ceremonies like the Arthur wreath laying are important, Donnell said.

“We learn from the past to prepare for the future,” she said. “It was my honor to represent the president of the United States in recognizing one of his predecessors.” 

Retired New York Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer 4 Brian Sherman, who attended the ceremony as a member of the Albany area chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans, said it is important to remember the contributions of former presidents.

He said Arthur was a member of the New York State Militia, the forerunner of the National Guard, and played a key role in preparing New Yorkers to fight in the Civil War.

Members of the Col. George L. Willard Camp of the Sons of Union Veterans, a group of men whose ancestors served in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, also laid a wreath at Arthur’s gravesite.

Kirsten Moore, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, said she attended the ceremony on a sunny fall morning because she likes historical events.

“It was on my bucket list to come,” she said.

Chester Arthur is one of those presidents between Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley that few Americans know anything about, Albany County historian Jack McEneny told the audience.

But he played a key role in reforming the federal civil service so that employees were hired on merit and not because of political connections, McEneny said.

This was a surprise to almost everybody because Arthur had been tied to the anti-reform wing of the Republican Party, which opposed that change.

Arthur, Donnell said, was “a tremendous influence on our nation.”

Arthur was strongly opposed to slavery, and as a young lawyer in 1854, he handled a precedent-setting lawsuit that allowed Black New Yorkers to ride alongside their white neighbors on public transportation, Natali said.

At the start of the Civil War in 1861, Arthur was named a brigadier general in the New York militia.

He supervised the construction of fortifications in New York harbor as chief engineer and then served as inspector general. As the quartermaster general of New York, Arthur mobilized and equipped many of the 300 regiments New York sent to fight during the Civil War.

Arthur became president unexpectedly when James Garfield was assassinated in 1881.

As president, he approved a law that allowed the U.S. Navy to buy four modern steel warships.

Arthur died in New York City in November 1886 due to complications from kidney disease. He was buried in Albany Rural Cemetery because his wife, who had died in 1880 from pneumonia, was interred there.

Located five miles from New York’s capital, the 457-acre, 175-year-old cemetery, which holds 135,000 graves, is famous for its landscaping and sculptured memorials.

In 1889, an elaborate marker featuring a granite sarcophagus and bronze statue of a weeping angel was placed in front of Arthur’s resting place.

The writer Mark Twain, who usually poked fun at politicians, praised Arthur upon his death.

“I am but one in 55,000,000; still, in the opinion of this one-fifty-five-millionth of the country’s population, it would be hard to better President Arthur’s administration,” Twain wrote.