There are perhaps no more hallowed locations in the United States than the various national cemeteries. These quiet reserves are the final resting places of thousands and thousands of soldiers who served in the U.S. military. While to be sure many soldiers died in America's wars prior to the 1860s, it was not until the Civil War that the United States set aside specific places to bury and honor its military heroes.
The burial of the Civil War dead began as soon as the conflict erupted. With more pressing matters to attend to, army units normally buried their dead, particularly battle casualties, on the ground where they had fought. In addition to battlefields, there were other locations where large numbers of soldiers died, such as hospitals and prisons, and in these places too soldiers were buried nearby. The sites where mass burials took place were normally on private land that had to be bought or condemned by the government. In order to legitimize national burial sites on private land, the 37th Congress passed legislation allowing for the establishment of national cemeteries as deemed necessary by the president. Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law on July 17, 1862. Section 18 gave him the "power, whenever in his opinion it is expedient, to purchase cemetery grounds and cause them to be securely enclosed, to be used as a national cemetery for the soldiers who shall die in the service of the country" (Holt 1992, pp. 2–3).
With the power granted by this legislation, the Lincoln administration created fourteen national cemeteries in 1862. Many were near the Northern capital, such as the one at Soldiers' Home, but other troop induction and care centers also gained national cemeteries, such as those at Annapolis, Maryland; Camp Butler, Illinois; and Philadelphia. In the early days of the war, these cemeteries held more soldiers who had died of disease than of battle wounds (Holt 1992, pp. 2–3).
A few of the fourteen original 1862 cemeteries were located on battlefields. One was on the small battleground of Mill Springs in eastern Kentucky, the site of a January 1862 battle. More famous cemeteries at Chattanooga, Tennessee; Sharpsburg, Maryland; and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, soon developed as well, as did a cemetery just outside Washington, DC, destined to become America's most enduring symbol of valor: Arlington National Cemetery (Holt 1992, pp. 2–3, Piehler 1995, p. 52).
One of the most famous national cemeteries was begun at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of a titanic battle in July 1863. According to the War Department report Roll of Honor, the cemetery "embraces that portion of the ground occupied by the center of the Union line of battle on the 2d and 3d of July, 1863,… [this being] one of the most prominent and important positions on the field" (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 16, p. 76). Following the battle, a corporation charged with honoring its dead was formed, led by a local Gettysburg attorney, David Wills. Its board of directors, made up of representatives from every state who had dead interred there, bought some seventeen acres in August 1863 and began the reburial of Union soldiers. This new cemetery commanded "an extensive view of the surrounding country, which is highly picturesque" (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 16, p. 76). By November 1863, some 3,512 Union soldiers from seventeen states had been laid to rest in a semicircular pattern around a central hub. On November 19, 1863, luminaries assembled for the "appropriate and imposing ceremonies" (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 16, p. 76). President Abraham Lincoln made "a few appropriate remarks," and in doing so defined for the nation not only why they were fighting, but also why this certain section of land on Cemetery Hill had been preserved and why it was so important. "We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives," Lincoln said, calling on the nation to continue the fight "that these dead shall not have died in vain" (Wills 1992).
In the years after the dedication, the cemetery took on the form of many national cemeteries. It was "enclosed by a well-built stone wall, surmounted with heavy dressed capping stone, with a gateway of ornamental iron-work" (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 16, p. 76). In 1869 the corporation marked the site of Lincoln's speech. In 1872, following claims that the corporation was not providing proper oversight for the venture, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania transferred the cemetery grounds to the Federal government (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 16, p. 76).
Another early burial site was the Chattanooga National Cemetery, established by general order of Major General George H. Thomas on December 25, 1863. Demonstrating the era's desire to simultaneously preserve and honor, Thomas wrote that the memorial cemetery was be established "in commemoration of the Battles of Chattanooga, November 23–27, 1863" (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 11, pp. 11–13). In his effort to preserve part of the Chattanooga battlefield, Thomas directed that a small knoll near Orchard Knob be used as the burial ground. The knoll, rising a few feet above the plain of Chattanooga, was "the most suitable ground for the purpose contemplated that I have ever seen" and offered "a view of unsurpassed loveliness," testified the chaplain in charge of the cemetery (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 11, pp. 11–13). The grounds would eventually receive the standard stone wall, lodge, avenues, and decorations of most national cemeteries. Comprising some seventy-five acres originally, the cemetery received the dead not only from Chattanooga, but also from Chickamauga, numerous local burial sites in the vicinity, and even the Atlanta Campaign. By 1870, more than 12,000 Union soldiers were interred at Chattanooga National Cemetery (Holt 1992, p. 65; U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 11, pp. 11–13).
The Antietam National Cemetery also began as a nongovernmental effort. Established by the Antietam National Cemetery Association, which was organized under the laws of the state of Maryland in March 1865, it was "composed of members from the different loyal States whose dead are represented in the Cemetery" (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 15, p. 2). The association bought land, built an encircling wall, and erected a lodge. The corporation soon found itself in debt, however, and "a large share of this work was undertaken by the General Government" (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 15, p. 2). Soon, the buried numbered 4,695, from nineteen different states. A third of the dead were disinterred from the Antietam battlefield, but others came from the battlefields at Monocacy, South Mountain, and Harpers Ferry, and also from several hospital sites in the area. The War Department completed the burial of bodies at Antietam National Cemetery on September 4, 1867, and a dedication was held later that month. The cemetery itself was a beautiful 9.5 acres situated inside what had been Confederate lines on a tall hill just east of Sharpsburg, Maryland. Its grounds are "handsomely laid off, partly in a semicircular form, with a twenty-foot avenue surrounding the whole, and numerous smaller paths intersecting the graves" (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 15, p. 2). Because the Antietam National Cemetery Association was unable to remain free of debt even with federal money infused into the project, Congress directed the Secretary of War to take control of the cemetery in 1870, although it was not until 1877, when Congress appropriated money to pay the debt of the original commission, that the cemetery became a completely federal project (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 15, p. 2).
These wartime national cemeteries, and many others located primarily on battlefields, inadvertently preserved a portion of these fields during the war itself. They also reflected a transition in the American mindset regarding the dead, particularly Union military dead. For decades prior, military dead from a battlefield were normally buried as a group with one large central monument or memorial to mark the location. Occurring simultaneously with the development of manicured, park-like civilian cemeteries emphasizing individual gravesites, the national cemetery phenomenon brought a new focus on commemorating individual soldiers (Piehler 1995, p. 51). Perhaps Thomas B. Van Home, the chaplain in charge of the Chattanooga National Cemetery, best summed up this developing attitude. Van Home noted that extreme care would be taken at Chattanooga to
secure a short military history of every officer and soldier interred in the cemetery whose remains have been identified…. It seems eminently fitting that this should be done…. It accords with our intense individualism as a people, and with the value we attach to individual life; and it is demanded by the eminent worth of those for whom historic notice would thus be secured. (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 11, p. 12)
These patterns of individual memorialization and inadvertent preservation of Civil War battlefields spread to other cemeteries after the war ended. Many battlefields were in the Deep South, where the war had precluded any burial work at such places as Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, and Andersonville, Georgia. Some areas under secure Federal control, such as Chattanooga, received national cemeteries during the war, but it was not until after the war that many other burial grounds on Southern battlefields were established (Smith 2004, p. 10).
For example, the cemetery at Vicksburg, Mississippi, was established in 1866. Vicksburg National Cemetery originally comprised some forty acres and was terraced and landscaped on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, the same bluffs "upon which stood the rebel batteries that offered most effective resistance to the passage of our gunboats past the city" (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 24, p. 7). By 1869, over fifteen thousand Union dead had been removed to the cemetery from such nearby battle sites as Champion Hill and Port Gibson, as well as from far away places such as Meridian and even sites across the river in Louisiana. The identity of many of the bodies was impossible to determine, however, and the problem of identifying bodies after five years soon became increasingly obvious. As the Roll of Honor observed, "it must soon become impossible, if it is not already so, to distinguish the remains of a soldier from those of a citizen" (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 24, p. 7). Nevertheless, the cemetery received the customary lodge and encircling wall, as well as walks and avenues to allow easy access to each grave (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 24, p. 7).
The ten-acre cemetery at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, was also established in 1866. It came to contain more than 3,500 dead from that battlefield as well as from other areas along the Tennessee River, such as Fort Henry. The unique Pittsburg Landing National Cemetery contains "numerous Regimental Groups, of which there are no less than twenty-nine" (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 20, p. 119). These groupings were facilitated by the soldiers' previous burial together in "scattered graves through that wild and desolate country" (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 20, p. 119). "On no other battle-field through the entire South and Southwest," the Roll of Honor observed, "does there seem to have been so great care and pains taken in the burial of the dead and in providing for their future identification" (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 20, p. 119). The grounds of the cemetery contained "a rough stone wall of the most substantial character" and a "flag-staff… overlooking the river, from which the Union flag is kept constantly floating" (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps 1865–1871, no. 20, p. 119). One 1867 visitor described the cemetery as "the handsomest cemetery in the South" (Smith 2004, p. 11).
With the war ended and the need for hasty burial removed, and as other cemeteries were established, it soon became apparent that new legislation to legitimize what had already been done would be required. In many cases, such as Shiloh and Chattanooga, the dead had been placed on private land. As a result, in 1867 Congress passed an act to establish and protect national cemeteries (Meyers 1968, pp. 200–201). The act took the 1862 enabling legislation one step further by allowing and mandating certain measures. Specifically, the bill required that each cemetery be enclosed by a wall and have a lodge. Additionally, the legislation required each cemetery to have "a meritorious and trustworthy superintendent, who shall be selected from enlisted men of the army disabled in service," and that each be inspected annually. The bill also required each cemetery to keep rolls of the dead with military information. Perhaps most importantly, the act allowed the Secretary of War to "enter upon and appropriate" needed land if the owners were not willing to sell (Meyers 1968, pp. 200–201). These measures thus insured that each cemetery would be protected and that each deceased soldier would be honored and remembered. Practically, the bill also took care of the growing problem of private ownership of cemeteries and legitimized condemnation, which would be a major stepping-stone toward future federal control of battlefields. Because of this act, the tracts of land on which the Shiloh and Chattanooga cemeteries stood were condemned, allowing for complete federalization.
As time passed, more and more national cemeteries were established as more veterans died. With the more recent wars of the twentieth century, national cemetery populations have mushroomed, with new cemeteries being developed even in the twenty-first century. These recent wars have added the new phenomenon of national cemeteries being established abroad, such as the American Cemetery in Normandy, France. Still, as the system has grown and developed, it has kept its roots firmly planted in the Civil War era.
Holt, Dean W. American Military Cemeteries: A Comprehensive Illustrated Guide to the Hallowed Grounds of the United States, Including Cemeteries Overseas. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1992.
Meyers, Richard. The Vicksburg National Cemetery: An Administrative History. Washington DC: National Park Service, 1968.
Neff, John R. Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005.
Piehler, G. Kurt. Remembering War the American Way. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.
Smith, Timothy B. This Great Battlefield of Shiloh: History, Memory, and the Establishment of a Civil War National Military Park. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004.
United States Army Quartermaster Corps. Roll of Honor: Names of Soldiers Who Died in Defence of the American Union, Interred in the National [and Other] Cemeteries. 27 nos. in 9 vols. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1865–1871.
Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Timothy B. Smith