P.O. Box 5230, Fort Lee VA 23801

(804) 734-4339

info@qmfound.com

Menu

Early Growth of the National Cemetery System

Edward Steere
Quartermaster Review, March-April 1953

Congress provided the legal sanction for creation of a national cemeterial system by authorizing President Lincoln in the Act of July 17, 1862, “to purchase cemetery grounds … to be used as a national cemetery for soldiers who shall have died in the service of the country.” In accordance with a somewhat loose interpretation of the term employed by Congress, some 27 burial places bore the designation of National Cemetery by the end of 1864. The number reached 73 during 1870, when a reburial program pursued through the post-war years was brought to completion.

Like many legislative grants for the exercise of Presidential authority, this act left the formulation of policies and procedures to the executive until expansion of the activity required additional legislation. But joint action by the executive and legislative branches on cemeterial matters was influenced by practical considerations which governed burial operations during the period of hostilities. Then other complications arose during the post-war years of 1865-70, when officers of the Quartermaster Department were assigned responsibility for concentrating from isolated graves and untended battlefield burials the remains of Union soldiers in national cemeteries established from time to time for this purpose. Any understanding of the system involves some study of the diverse methods by which the 73 national cemeteries came into existence during the two periods.

Wartime national cemeteries fall into two general categories. The first includes burial grounds opened at troop concentration points, where mortalities in general hospitals first posed the problem of military burial. The second category embraces a number of cemeteries established in the combat zone as memorials to those who gave their lives in battle. It is difficult, however, to select any cemetery in either category that fully typifies the group and at the same time conforms to requirements of the Act of July 17,1862.

The Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery, D. C., illustrates this want of uniformity. In 1861 the Board of Governors agreed to permit usage for cemeterial purposes of a portion of the land originally assigned to its jurisdiction in 1851. A cemetery was opened on August 1, 1861, nearly a year before enactment of the legislation authorizing President Lincoln to purchase burial grounds. Since no compensation has ever been made to the governing board of this institution for the use of its land, the cemetery site first occupied in 1861 still belongs to the Soldiers’ Home.

Another variation is presented by the Alexandria National Cemetery, Virginia. Established in 1862 to serve the same purpose as the one at Soldiers’ Home, the original plot of 5.5 acres was used under terms of a lease. A clear title was acquired in 1865 and 1875 by purchase from individual owners and the city of Alexandria. Additional parcels of land were bought in 1870 and 1882.

Arlington National Cemetery appears at first glance to occupy an extraordinary position in the cemeterial system. It seems doubtful, however, if consideration of the facts attending its establishment and development supports any assumption that this burial place may be regarded as the Valhalla of American military heroes. While harboring the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the graves of many distinguished officers of the armed forces, the remains of Ulysses S. Grant, General in Chief of the, armies during the climactic years of the Civil War, repose on the Hudson. Those of Sherman, Meade, Thomas and other army commanders of the conflict between the States rest elsewhere. Like the cemeteries at the Soldiers’ Home and in Alexandria, Arlington was originally established to accommodate the dead of hospitals around Washington.

Realization of the need for additional burial space in the capital area prompted Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster General of the Army, to examine that portion of the Custis estate on Arlington Heights in the immediate vicinity of the mansion. Here Robert E. Lee resided with his wife, Mary Randolph Custis, during his last years of service in the United States Army.

Impressed by its suitability as a burial ground, General Meigs nominated Mr. Edward Clark, who accompanied him during the reconnaissance, as “engineer and architect” of the proposed cemetery. On June 15, 1864, Meigs recommended by direct communication to Secretary of War Edward C. Stanton that “the Arlington Mansion, now understood to be the property of the United States, be appropriated as a national military cemetery, to be properly inclosed, laid out and carefully preserved for that purpose.”

Secretary Stanton gave instant approval, instructing Meigs on the same day that “the Arlington Mansion and the grounds immediately surrounding it are appropriated for a military cemetery.” It was further stated that the Quartermaster General “is charged with the execution of this order” and that “he will cause the grounds, not exceeding two hundred acres, to be immediately surveyed, laid out, and inclosed for this purpose, not interfering with the Freedmens Camp.”

Stanton’s order of June 15 was transmitted by Meigs to Bvt. Brig. Gen. D. H. Rucker, commanding the Washington Depot, together with a rough sketch of the tract to be surveyed. The Quartermaster General expressed his concern for success of the project in the following terms:

“Being charged specially by the Secretary of War with establishment of this cemetery, I have to request that you submit the plans to me for approval before commencing the enclosure or opening the main road through the grounds.

I have requested Professor Bache to detail a skillful surveyor from the Coast Survey to make a topographical survey and maps of the grounds.

If the Coast Survey can spare an officer for this purpose he will he directed to report to you.

This work will be under your general direction and in immediate charge of such officer as you may assign to this duty.

Responding to Meigs’ request for technical assistance, the Coast Survey put Mr. R. M. McMath at his disposal in regard to the detailed survey of Arlington grounds, for a Military Cemetery.” Captain (later Bvt. Lt. Col.) James C. Moore, Assistant Quartermaster, attached to the Washington Depot, was selected by General Rucker as his deputy in. development of the project. Reporting his activities in this connection, Captain Moore stated:

“In May last the grounds of the cemetery in the rear of the Old Soldiers Home having become exhausted, the Secretary of War directed that a new site be selected on Lee’s farm, at Arlington, Virginia. The locality is well adapted for a cemetery, and is being appropriately improved for that object. Intelligent and reliable sextons are placed in charge, who keep a register of all interments made, with the particulars concerning each, for the information of visitors….

The improvement of the national cemeteries has been a source of great gratification to all who visit them, and entirely dissipated the prevailing opinion of those living remote from Washington that soldiers were irreverently or carelessly buried.”

By June 30, 1865, approximately a year after establishment of the cemetery, Quartermaster General Meigs reported: “The National Soldiers’ Cemetery at Arlington, continues to be used for the interment of the victims of the rebellion who die in Washington or its vicinity. It contains the remains of 5,291 persons.”

If, according to the Act of July 17, 1862, acquisition of land through purchase by the President is to be accepted as a basic requirement in establishing a national cemetery, two of the three burial places under discussion can scarcely be regarded as meeting this qualification until years after the dates of their establishment-Alexandria in 1865 and Arlington in 1883. The Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery has never met the qualification. Therefore, while practically all national cemeteries of the war period are considered to have been established under the Act of July 17, 1862, a great many were actually created in disregard of that statute. As will be presently seen, the land on which military cemeteries were developed in the battle zone was frequently acquired by outright confiscation. Arlington really belongs to this class, although the process of confiscation was veiled in rather obscure legal technicalities.

As summarized in “A Compendium of Legal Authorities for the Establishment of National Cemeteries under Jurisdiction of the Department of Defense,” a tax was assessed against the Custis property under certain direct tax acts of June 7, 1862, and February 6, 1863.  In default of payment, the usual sale was made. On January 11, 1864, the United States, pursuant to authority of law, bid in the property at the sale “for Government use for war, military, charitable, and educational purposes,” and under this title continued in possession until 1883. Redress sought by G. W. P. Lee in challenging the title thus acquired by the United States became involved in an action of ejectment in the Circuit Court of Alexandria, Va. The case was thence removed to the United States Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, where it was heard and decided in favor of the plaintiff. From this decision the case was taken to the Supreme Court on a writ of error. On December 4, 1882, this high tribunal affirmed the judgment of the lower court, embodying in their decision an argument which questioned the use of implied powers of the President in seizure of private property (U. S. vs Lee; Kaufman vs Lee, 16 Otto, 196). In order to secure a complete title to the property, the United States under an act approved March 3, 1883 (22 Stat. 584) accepted Lee’s offer to convey the property. On March 31, 1883, seventeen years after the date of confiscation, Arlington was conveyed to the United States by deed in fee simple.

Turning to battlefield cemeteries, we encounter so wide a variety of types, or rather an absence of uniformity, as to suggest want of a consistent policy. Four burial grounds, two in the eastern theater of hostilities and two in the western, illustrate this diversity. It should be recognized, however, before examining this phase in development of the system that the national battlefield cemeteries which came into existence during the war years were products of exceptional circumstances and owe their existence either to the decision of local military commanders, as exemplified by the national cemeteries at Chattanooga and Knoxville, or to a combination of civil authorities of the States and private associations who took the initiative in founding national cemeteries on the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg. In this respect they may be regarded as forerunners of the large numbers of national cemeteries subsequently established by the War Department under provisions of a firmer policy and more uniform procedures than were evinced during the years of war.

It nevertheless seems a curious fact that army commanders at such remote points as Chattanooga and Knoxville should have been solicitous in the matter military burial, while War Department officials in Washington ignored the physical development of cemeterial sites within a few hours rail travel from the national capital. Closer examination of the problem, however, will indicate that those strategic and tactical considerations which dictated movements of the armies also controlled expenditures of time and energy for care of the dead. Since graves registration units were non-existent and burial was of necessity performed by fatigue parties from the line, it is apparent that little or no provision could be made for any systematic interment of remains during a campaign of rapid movement. Nor could army commanders be expected to jeopardize the chance of victory in the midst of intense and prolonged combat by diminishing their striking power.

These factors applied in varying degree to tactical operations in both the eastern and western theaters. Generally speaking, the Army of the Potomac served as a strategic pivot for the western armies, which executed a grand left wheel from the Ohio River to the Appalachian barrier. The outer wing under Grant swept down through western Tennessee and Mississippi to Vicksburg, then converged on the inner flank at Chattanooga and swept the Confederates from Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. After a five-month pause, during which Sherman took command of the western forces, his army group pushed through the mountain gateway of northern Georgia to Atlanta and the sea, cutting a wide path of devastation through the heartland of the Confederacy, while Grant, now in supreme command of the field forces, hammered Lee on the anvil of Richmond.

Conditions produced by rapidity of movement in the western theater were appreciated by Bvt. Brig. Gen. J. J. Dana, Chief of the Sixth Division and the Cemeterial Branch in the Quartermaster General’s Office. He observed that:

“The graves of this Military Division are very widely scattered, in most cases very imperfectly protected and throughout the long and various marches of Grant’s, Buell’s, Sherman’s and Thomas’ armies, and in the countless skirmishes which took place there, the dead appear to have been buried generally where they fell, with very little attempt to record or mark the place.”

It becomes increasingly evident that circumstances permitting the establishment of national battlefield cemeteries in the west were exceptional, and that favorable tactical situations went hand in hand with a disposition on the part of some–perhaps only a few–army commanders to exploit such opportunities. This reasoning seems to account for the efforts of Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas who, after a distinguished record as a corps commander, assumed command of the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga. Perhaps it should be noted in passing that the burial ground he laid out in 1862 on the battlefield of Mill Springs, was created a national cemetery during the same year, being among the first to acquire this status under the Act of July 17, 1862. At any rate General Thomas took advantage of the pause at Chattanooga to put his impress on one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the national system.

This cemetery was established “in commemoration of the Battles of Chattanooga, November 23-27, 1863.” According to Chaplain T. B. Van Horn, who acted as superintendent during the formative period of development, General Thomas selected the site during the brilliant assault of his troops, which carried Missionary Ridge and brought the campaign to a victorious end. The 75-acre reservation consists of a round hill, rising with a uniform slope to a height of 100 feet. It stands within a natural amphitheater of magnificent proportions, inclosed on one side by Missionary Ridge and on the other by the looming eminence of Lookout Mountain. General Grant established his headquarters on the summit of the hill during an early phase of the four-day operation.

The plan of laying out the grounds was suggested by the undulating terrain. “Where nature suggested avenues,” Chaplain Van Horn reported in May 1865, “they have been made, and their curves define the sections. This rule has determined the form and size of the sections. It has given marked individuality to each, and has allowed a well-sustained unity of expression to the whole, as nature has nowhere been opposed.” He adds an interesting observation:

“During the march of our armies to Atlanta, there were buried, of those killed in battle or died from wounds, from twenty (20) to forty (40) per day; as those who were buried is the wide track of that march were companions in arms of many already interred here, it seems eminently fitting that their companionship should be extended to their repose in death.

From this statement it seems clear that such battlefield cemeteries as were actually operated in the combat zones did not serve the purpose commonly achieved by present-day military cemeteries in receiving bodies evacuated by an advancing field force. Neither special purpose units nor transportation were available for such a mission at that time. By May 1866 the reinterment of many remains gathered from scattered burials on the road to Atlanta, together with others gathered at Chickamauga, Athens, and Charleston in Tennessee, and at Bridgeport in Alabama, brought the total number of interments in the Chattanooga cemetery to 8,512. Of these 6,096 were identified and 2,416 unknown.

Lacking the colorful drama that attended the making of Chattanooga national cemetery, the one established by General Ambrose E. Burnside at Knoxville, in the upper Tennessee valley, illustrates the capabilities of Civil War military cemeteries without exposing their most serious limitations. This one was a product of siege warfare, and a somewhat desultory siege at that. Once characterized as a general with “a genius for slowness,” Burnside was admirably cast for the role; he lacked both strength and energy to break the lines of investment, while Longstreet, his adversary, was destitute of the resources that would have permitted a relentless pursuit of his objective. This impasse was somewhat modified by the Union victory at Chattanooga. Longstreet’s Corps was eventually recalled to the Army of Northern Virginia.

The cemetery was laid out in 1863 at Burnside’s direction by Capt. E. B. Chamberlain, Assistant Quartermaster. It was described in August 1866 by Bvt. Maj. E. B. Whitman, in charge of mortuary records, as “the only burial ground of Union soldiers in this department originally laid out and conducted to the present time in a manner and on a system that render it suitable to be converted into a National Cemetery without material alteration or change, or removal of a single body.”

Quite a different story is unfolded by cemeterial developments in the eastern theater. Aside from vigorous action in providing burial space at the larger troop concentration points, notably Washington, D. C., little attention was given to the problem of establishing permanent burial grounds on the battlefields in this area. The opportunity, to be sure, was somewhat restricted. Excepting the two great encounters at Antietam and Gettysburg, the Confederates enjoyed a series of tactical triumphs until Grant was invested with supreme command in the field and launched the hammer blows that destroyed the Confederate armies. Continuous combat and maneuver during this climatic phase precluded a satisfactory performance with means available in care of the dead.

With opportunity for creative work virtually restricted to Antietam and Gettysburg, the War Department seemed content to let others take the initiative. Before the end of 1862 proposals were considered for creation of a national cemetery at Antietam by joint action of the states represented by units on the field of battle. Due, however, to limited financial support, development of the project lagged, while Governor Curtin of Pennsylvania enjoyed greater success in applying the idea to a similar development at Gettysburg. Meantime, financial difficulties continued to thwart the Antietam National Cemetery Association, a private group incorporated by the State of Maryland on March 23, 1864. Title was acquired by the states to a suitable tract of 11 acres, situated on the south side of the Sharpsburg-Boonsboro road and in the center of the battlefield. Construction costs for fencing and a caretakers’ lodge caused the Board of Trustees to defer reburial of the dead. This activity was undertaken in 1866 by the Quartermaster Department and personally directed by Bvt. Lt. Col. James M. Moore, the officer who supervised the early development of Arlington. The Washington Depot supplied 6,000 coffins for completion of the Antietam burial program.

In 1877, the state of Maryland transferred to the United States title to the reservation in fee simple under terms of an agreement whereby Congress appropriated $15,000 to discharge the indebtedness incurred by the Board of Trustees. The Antietam National Cemetery was announced in General Orders, AGO, No.68, 1877, as a national cemetery of the first class.

Provision was made by the General Assembly of Pennsylvania for transfer of the Gettysburg cemetery in an Act approved April 14, 1868, authorizing the commissioners having charge of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg.. . . to transfer all the right, title, interest and care of the said National Cemetery, upon completion of the same to the Government of the United States.” The process was completed by a resolution of the United States Senate and House of Representatives, approved July 14, 1870, authorizing the Secretary of War to take charge of the Gettysburg and Antietam National Cemeteries.

Despite apparent indifference on the part of War Department officials regarding the creation of so-called national cemeteries by other agencies on the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg, it would be both inaccurate and uncharitable to cite these examples as proof of apathy. As already emphasized in relating cemeterial developments at Chattanooga and Knoxville, conspicuous performances in care of the dead were possible only under exceptional circumstances.

One such situation was presented in the eastern theater, including favorable tactical conditions, as well as the presence of a general officer of sufficient rank and authority to exploit the opportunity. Functioning much as a graves registration platoon in support of combat, a provisional unit organized by Captain James M. Moore, performed the unprecedented feat of completing the evacuation of dead from the battlefield, identifying each body and interring the remains in a cemetery established at a site selected by the Quartermaster General.

The situation that made this feat possible was indeed extraordinary. On July 11, 1864, Early’s Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia stood in battle order facing the northern defenses of Washington. Rumor swept through the city, hysterically proclaiming that Lee, with large reinforcements from the corps of Longstreet and A. P. Hill, was hastening to the scene and would direct a grand assault on Fortress Washington. Then the military command was obsessed by fears that Grant’s decision to cross the James River and strike at Richmond from the south had violated a strategic principle that had heretofore regarded the security of Washington, rather than defeat of Lee’s army in the field, as the primary mission of the Army of the Potomac. Whatever the validity of this strategic concept, Grant had taken a “calculated risk” in placing Lee’s army between his own field force and the national capital. Moreover, replacement of losses in the bloody march from the Rapidan to the James had all but denuded Washington of its garrison troops.

The risk, nevertheless, had been closely calculated-closer, perhaps, than the one which uncovered the Ardennes sector and invited von Rundstedt’s offensive stroke. Countering Lee’s maneuver against Washington, Grant embarked H. G. Wright’s VI Corps at City Point. As Early’s dusty columns converged on Washington, the transports bearing Wright’s veteran divisions steamed placidly through the interior communications of Chesapeake Bay.

Meanwhile strenuous measures were taken in the capital to enroll and equip every man capable of bearing arms. Civilian clerks of the Quartermaster General’s Office furnished a battalion, some 250 strong. Bvt. Brig. Gen. Rucker, commanding the Washington Depot, organized a brigade of 1,500 Quartermaster employees. Accepted for service at the front, Rucker’s Brigade was assigned to a provisional division which included two other brigades, one made up of veteran reserve corps units, another composed of convalescents from the hospitals. General Meigs took command of the Provisional Division and, late on July 11, took over a sector of the trenches on the right of Fort Stevens. After putting two brigades in the line, with the convalescents in close reserve, he established his command post in an orchard. He reports: “I slept. wrapped in a poncho, with my horse tethered to an apple tree.”

The crisis had passed sometime before Meigs rolled in his poncho. During that afternoon a dispatch relayed by telegraph to Fort Stevens for information of the President announced that the advance element of Wheaton’s Division, VI Corps, would disembark at 4 p.m. at the Seventh Street Dock. President Lincoln hastened from the Fort to greet the reinforcements. Recognition of his tall figure, with familiar top hat and bristling chin whiskers, evoked thunderous cheers from the veteran regiments as they filed out in column through the city streets. Sight of their gleaming weapons and tattered battle flags had a magic effect in restoring the confidence of the populace. They marched with swinging stride out Fourteenth Street and massed in reserve.

The brisk action in front of Fort Stevens on July 12 came as an anticlimax to the tense anxieties inspired by Early’s march on Washington. Wheaton attacked in order to drive Confederate skirmishers from sheltered positions within effective rifle range of the fort. Had Early been determined to attack in force, the sortie would have touched off a violent battle. In such circumstances it would have been impossible for Moore’s provisional unit to function.

Of no great importance as a tactical encounter, the affair has considerable significance in American graves registration history. Lightly engaged on his own front, General Meigs selected the site for a battlefield cemetery and instructed Captain Moore to evacuate and bury the dead of Wheaton’s Division. Unfortunately, Meigs does not mention these arrangements in his report on operations of the Provisional Division.

However, he noted in his annual report as Quartermaster General that:

“The bodies of the loyal officers and men who fell at the sortie [were] buried in a piece of ground selected for the purpose in the midst of the battlefield and is sight of Fort Stevens. It is hoped that Congress may see fit to cause a monument to he erected to the memory of these patriots who fell in defense of the Capital itself.”

General Meigs’s wish was partially fulfilled that same year in the establishment of this burial place as the Battleground National Cemetery, which is now entered by a memorial gate fronting Georgia Avenue. The cemetery contains 40 burials, all identified and all evacuated from the battlefield of Fort Stevens. Regrettably, the organizational principle which momentarily came into play and demonstrated its capabilities at Fort Stevens could not be employed during the final operations which overthrew the Southern Confederacy.