Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by Philip Bigler


Anyone with the slightest interest in military tradition should find Philip Bigler’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: A Century of Honor, 1921-2021 (Apple Ridge, 400 pp. $24.95, paper) an entertaining historical read of the highest caliber.

This informative treasure is a work of love. Bigler’s association with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier began in 1983 when he served for three years as one of the official historians at Arlington National Cemetery. The contacts he established there led him to write a history of that famed cemetery. The approach of the Tomb’s hundredth anniversary impelled Bigler to do extensive research on every aspects of its history.

Some sections of the book include an abundance of photographs. Reading those pages is akin to watching a television documentary with detailed subtitles.

Bigler explains each step in resolving controversies about the Tomb’s design, along with determining the why, how, and who of selecting unknown soldiers. He also shows how other nations have paid tribute to their war dead.

He reviews the histories of America’s wars and their influence on expanding a monument for a single World War I Unknown Soldier into a resting place for unknown warriors from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War Unknown Soldier takes up a third of the book.

His voluminous and exceptionally informative endnotes reflect the depth and meticulousness of his research. Bigler showed me more about the Tomb than I ever could have anticipated.

An account of the duties of the ever-present Tomb Guards wraps up the story. Five appendices add to the picture of America’s dedication to its fallen warriors.


November 11, 1921: The first burial at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Bigler taught history and humanities in Virginia public schools for 23 years and later was an assistant professor at James Madison University. In 1998 he was named National Teacher of the Year. He has written ten other books: six on American history and four on teaching and education.

A companion piece to Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is Michael Lee Lanning’s The Veterans Cemeteries of Texas, which explains the procurement and development of burial ground for military veterans; procedures for interment; and practices for continued honoring of the deceased. What applies to Texas cemeteries applies to the rest of the states—or it should.

The book’s website is

—Henry Zeybel