The 21 Steps

You’ve likely concluded from the feature image photographed at Arlington National Cemetery that this post is not one of those self help blueprints. I’m not going to provide the “21 guaranteed steps to early retirement” or the “21 proven steps to loosing weight”. Actually, this post has nothing to do with those kind of “steps” at all. 

Think about the many ways the number 21 is used around us.

In the United States, when you reach the age of 21, you’re legally permitted to purchase and consume alcohol. In neighborhood competitions of horseshoes, badminton and cornhole, you win the game if you are the first to reach a score of 21. If you’ve enjoyed a trip to Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or perhaps a vacation cruise, you may have tested your luck in a game of Blackjack. The objective in Blackjack is to get a card hand total closer to 21 than the dealer without going over 21. Lastly, if you’ve ever wondered what the total number of dots are on a six-sided die (surely a question we ask ourselves every day). Well, the answer is 21. 

Now that you have some useless trivia on the number 21, let me begin to unfold the real purpose behind today’s post. I want to share with you pageantry and tradition behind the story of The 21 Steps at Arlington, but before I do, there’s one more important aspect to the number 21 to examine. 

The 21-Gun Salute

Have you ever witnessed a 21-gun salute? The thunderous sound of the cannons is perhaps one of the most moving ceremonial traditions in our country. The 21-gun salute is often confused with the 3-volley salute. The confusion lies in the definition of the word “gun”. In the military, a “gun” is a long barrel artillery piece like the U.S. Army Howitzer. The 21-gun salute is fired in honor of a national flag, the head of state of a foreign nation, a member of a reigning royal family, and the President, ex-President and President-elect of the United States. The 21-gun salute is also fired at noon on George Washington’s birthday, President’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and the day of the funeral of a president or ex-president. 

On the other hand, the 3-volley salute is a ceremonial act performed at military funerals. The 3-volley salute is comprised of a military detail firing three to seven rifles. At military funerals, three volleys of shots are fired in honor of the deceased veteran. Typically, three of the fired cartridges are placed into a folded American flag prior and presented to the next of kin. The three cartridges signify duty, honor, and sacrifice. I most recently experienced this poignant military ceremony at the funeral of my brother-in-law, Korean War veteran Sergeant Richard Buck, U.S. Army, who was laid to rest on August 20, 2017 at the Indian Gap Veterans Cemetery in Annville, Pennsylvania.

The Old Guard

As I continue to reflect on that number 21, I’m reminded of something uniquely American. Specifically, I’m thinking about the soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard.” The 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment is the oldest active duty infantry unit in the Army, serving the United States since 1784. 

The tomb guards of the 3rd U.S. Infantry, called “Sentinels”, stand watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, at Arlington National Cemetery. Sentinels, who volunteer for this assignment, are considered the elite of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment headquartered at Fort Myer, Virginia.

Much of the Sentinel’s ceremonial guard duties revolve around the number 21 as they march along the black mat behind The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Here is their ceremonial process: 

  • Sentinel marches 21 steps to the south at a gait of precisely 90 steps per minute
  • Sentinel then makes a precision turn to the east and holds that position for 21 seconds
  • Sentinel then turns north and holds that position for 21 seconds
  • Sentinel then marches back along the mat 21 steps to the north
  • Sentinel then turns to the west, holds that position for 21 seconds and repeats this ceremonial process

Have you had the opportunity to visit Arlington National Cemetery? If not, I recommend you make it a priority next time you visit Washington, D.C. If you live on the east coast, chances are you’ve made the trip up and down the I-95 corridor around the Washington Capital Beltway. Next time you make that trip, consider taking the short 8-mile trip off the beltway to Arlington National Cemetery to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. 

Take time to witness the grandeur of The 21 Steps!


  1. U.S. Army Center of Military History, Origin of the 21-Gun Salute,
  2. Arlington National Cemetery, The Changing of the Guard,

Published by Dale Spaulding

Family historian and author of Fortitude.

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