Sutton’s Lonely Grave and a Great Arlington Cemetery Website

The body had been dressed for burial in socks, underclothes and an undress blue uniform. Lieutenant James Sutton’s limbs were so rigid by Sunday, October 20 that undertaker Raymond Taylor had to split his jacket in the back to get it on over his arms. The following day, after a brief service, Rose Parker traveled with her brother’s coffin to Washington and then to a hillside at Arlington Cemetery where he would be laid to rest in the “Southern division, officers section,” grave site 2102. Rose was the only family member to hear trumpeter Sam Nolan play the mournful sound of taps. She had made sure that roses, chrysanthemums and daisies covered the lonesome grave. Dwarfing the headstone behind it, a wreath stood propped against a stand encircling the word “Dad.” Below it, on the mound of fresh earth was a rectangle of large white flowers with the word “Mother” at the center. But the site had not been blessed by a priest and eight days after his death, the future of Jimmie Sutton’s soul remained very much in doubt. And so begins the story of A Soul on Trial.

On that sunny Monday afternoon in 1907, no one could have imagined that in September 1909 this grave would be opened, the body exhumed and an autopsy performed on remains that had remained, oddly enough, in almost perfect condition

Over the last century an enormous fir tree that may well be from Oregon has grown over the top of the grave; it is unlike any tree in the area. No graves surrounded Sutton’s small stone in 1907 but the scene is quite different today.

If you would like to see recent pictures of the grave or learn more about the later careers of some of the officers featured in A Soul on Trial check out  webmaster Michael R. Patterson’s  terrific site  about Arlington National Cemetery.

Information about the Sutton story, can be found if you click this link or scroll down to “click here to search the site” on the home page and type in j n sutton. The Sutton is article no.1. Scroll way down for the pictures. Harold Utley has some info at no. 3. Thanks to “Holly” for adding the roses to the grave on the 100th anniversary of Sutton’s death in 2007.

Michael has been working on this site for more than 15 years. The site’s real value comes from the more recent moving stories about those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan and tales of other military heroes.

The Power of Public Opinion

The influence of a gaping and curious public can have no effect on the conduct of the Judge Advocate in this matter. . . . The hallowed grave of a dead son is no more sacred than the grave of a military reputation and there are a great many military reputations at stake in this hearing.

—Major Harry Leonard [pg. 176]

Major Leonard proved to be a formidable judge advocate and an ideal one to handle Rosa Sutton in what began as an impartial investigation into the facts surrounding Sutton’s death. As it turned out, Rosa needed to be handled—she was strong minded and just as determined as he was to defend values that were (and are) sacred to a large number of Americans. So Leonard had a plan to attack her credibility. But the “curious public” did have a strong influence on his actions at the inquiry in the summer of 1909. Both of his comments reveal his concern about his own reputation, and his awareness that his job was to be impartial; at the same time, as a Marine Corps officer, his actions were also driven by his loyalty to his fellow Marines. This is a timeless conflict that has long governed the exigencies of military justice and it plays out in this case in a way that makes the subject fascinating and telling.

America’s service academies—then as now—are always scrutinized more than any other institutions of higher education in this country. Because so many citizens had a stake in what happened in this case, the government’s representatives fought for the hearts and minds of Americans inside this military courtroom. The Marines’ code of conduct was just as important to them as Rosa Sutton’s mission was to her. So the nation’s newspapers shaped the dialogue and the lawyers’ closing arguments both wthin the courtroom and outside of it.