The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Centennial on Digital Media
By Jenifer Van Vleck, Ph.D.
Contract Historian, Arlington National Cemetery
From November 9 through 11, 2021, thousands of people came to Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) to participate in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Centennial Commemoration. To supplement the in-person anniversary events, a comprehensive digital media campaign enabled millions more to participate in the centennial virtually. Throughout 2021, ANC featured blog and social media posts (identified with the hashtag #Tomb100) about a rich variety of topics related to the Tomb’s history, meanings, and global significance as a memorial site.
The ANC History Office and Public Affairs Office collaborated to create content that was historically accurate, engaging, and relevant to a broad and diverse public audience. Our successful #Tomb100 digital media strategy built upon broader virtual education and outreach initiatives, which became especially critical as the pandemic prevented many from visiting the cemetery in person.
ANC’s blog (https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/blog), launched in 2019, features original historical essays based on archival research, as well as journalistic accounts of present-day ceremonies and other events at the cemetery. For the 100th anniversary of the Tomb, we published thirteen blog posts, listed here: https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Tomb100/News-Photos-Videos. These posts highlighted key participants in the 1921 ceremonies (Chief Plenty Coups, Edward F. Younger, Frank Witchey, André Maginot); provided historical context and interpretation for the 2021 ceremonies (“The Centennial Flower Ceremony: Meaning, Symbolism, and History”); and delved into broader issues related to World War I, such as memorialization and trauma (“The American Battle Monuments Commission and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”; “A Tragedy after the Unknown’s Funeral”). Authors included subject matter experts from other federal agencies as well as ANC staff and contractors. Within a ninety-day period preceding the centennial on November 11, 2021, ANC’s website received more than 2.5 million views.
In addition, ANC developed a year-long social media campaign to publicize and interpret the Tomb centennial on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The #Tomb100 digital campaign produced 123 posts across these platforms, with a net of more than twelve million impressions. On November 10, our Facebook live video of the flower ceremony went viral, receiving more than 1.2 million views.
Other especially popular posts included an #OnThisDay feature on the four World War I unknown soldier candidates arriving in the French town of Châlons-sur-Marne (Facebook, October 23); a post on ANC’s restoration of the Tomb (Instagram, August 18); and a historic photo of Tomb Guards, to acknowledge the day that the U.S. Army’s 3d. Infantry Regiment (“The Old Guard”) began this sacred duty in 1948 (Twitter, April 6).
Additionally, ANC used its social media platforms to publicize Tomb100 blog and website content, to announce events (including webinars, exhibits, and publications), and to share both historic and current photos and videos.
Throughout 2021, Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb100 initiatives pioneered a new standard for hybrid (virtual and in-person) historical commemoration. Across multiple platforms, our digital engagement campaign enabled millions of people to participate in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier centennial—to honor, remember, explore, and learn from anywhere in the world.
All those who read our blog, followed our social media accounts, liked and shared our posts, or simply clicked on our Tomb100 website page were paying tribute to the three Unknowns buried at the Tomb—and all unidentified and missing American service members. Enhancing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’s status as a people’s memorial, digital media will continue to be an essential tool in ANC’s ongoing efforts to interpret the history and meanings of this hallowed site.