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General John J. Pershing Saluting the Unknown Soldier in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, photograph by the National Photo Company, November 9, 1921

After arriving by ship from Europe and before entombing at Arlington National Cemetery, the casket of the Unknown Soldier lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda from November 9, 1921, to November 11, 1921. An estimated 90,000 visitors, including war mothers, Supreme Court justices, and ambassadors of foreign nations came to pay their respects.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

General John J. Pershing Saluting the Unknown Soldier in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda

Honoring America’s Unknown Soldiers

After World War I, Congress wished to honor the more than 116,000 American soldiers who lost their lives in the war. Most were buried overseas, and hundreds remained unidentified or missing. Letters from the public begging for the return of loved ones’ remains and widespread news coverage of the French and British Unknown Soldier burials established after the war prompted Congress to pass a resolution in 1921 to develop an Unknown Soldier memorial in the United States.

I . . . had first-hand knowledge of the brave sacrifices made by American forces during the First World War, and I wanted America, as a beacon of freedom and democracy, to have her own memorial to honor the Unknown Soldier.

Representative Hamilton Fish of New York, Hamilton Fish: Memoir of an American Patriot, 1991