Evolution of the National Cemetery System 1865-1880
by Edward Steere
Quartermaster Review-May/June 1953
The accompanying article is the third of a series on the development of the national cemetery system. The fourth, which will appear in the June-August issue, will trace those transformations in the system that accomplished the nation’s emergence as a world power.
The American Civil War was one of those great conflicts in human history that shaped the political destinies of a continent. Assuming many aspects of a major contest between two sovereign powers, this war was in reality a violent revolution attending the creation of a nation-state of continental proportions. Although animosities lingered through a difficult period of readjustment, the spiritual forces that eventually brought reconciliation to both sections were precisely those which found expression in Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and second inaugural’. Created originally to afford a decent resting place for those who fell in defense of the Union, the national cemetery system symbolizes in its in its gracious landscapes and marble headstones both the violence of the struggle and the and the healing aftermath. Soldier sons of bitter foe-men of that war now sleep side by side in many of its cemeteries.
Growth of the national cemeteries system was furthered by a resolute determination to repair the dislocations of civil strife. But thousands of scattered burial places marking the sites of great battles and innumerable actions of lesser consequence appeared to impose an all but insuperable obstacle to realization of the intent expressed by the Act of July 17, 1862, that those who gave their lives in defense of the Republic Should rest forever within the guarded confines of a national cemetery. Recorded interments of individuals made by Quartermaster officers during the war and submitted in compliance with General Orders No. 40, July 3, 1865, to Quartermaster General Meigs listed only 101,736 graves.
This figure, it should be noted, is less than 30 per cent of total fatalities (359,528) killed in battle, died of wounds and from sickness and other causes during the war.
As interpreted by the Quartermaster General, these reports included few of the interments made immediately after battles by details of troops, and reported by the commanding generals in the lists of killed in battle. These were the records of those who died in hospitals, camps, and barracks, for whose burial there was time to make a decent and orderly provision under the general orders and regulations.
The wide discrepancy between reported burials and total fatalities would indicate that antiquated methods for care of the dead were little influenced by innovations that revolutionized the whole conduct of warfare between the bombardment at Fort Sumter and the capitulation at Appomattox. Steam transportation and the electric telegraph, together with the creation of such specialized services as the Signal Corps, and the railroad construction corps, not only gave a vast extension to the logistical support of combat formations, but speeded the regroupment of strategic masses. Yet no serious effort appears to have been made toward providing an organization for execution of new regulations (GO No. 33, 1862) requiring burial of the battle dead in registered graves.
As a matter of fact, only five active military cemeteries were established on the sites of major battles during the course of the War-Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Stones River in the West; Antietam and Gettysburg in the East. The two eastern cemeteries, however, were sponsored by officials and citizens of the states whose troops fought on the two battlefields.
Moreover, as already noted in the second paper of this series, these burial grounds fell short of the purpose now served by temporary military cemeteries in the active zone of operations, namely the identification and interment of remains evacuated from the battle front through a collecting point system. As such a service was lacking, burials were necessarily restricted to remains found in the immediate vicinity.
A similar limitation applied, with certain notable exceptions, in those rear areas which are now known as the zone of communications, and which then, as in more recent wars, included large military centers serving as troop concentration points and depots of supply for the field forces. The Department of Washington, a command embracing the District of Columbia and certain adjoining territory, furnished the most conspicuous exception.
Here under direction of The Quartermaster General officers of the Washington Depot supervised every phase in the selection, physical development, and maintenance of four national cemeteries established during hostilities-Soldiers’ Home, Alexandria, Arlington, and Battleground. Then the burial grounds at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, as well as those at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Fort Scott, Arkansas, were designated national cemeteries when those old posts acquired new importance as centers of operations in the trans-Mississippi region. At the same time, no steps were taken at Louisville and Nashville, the two great bases of the western armies, to provide burial facilities comparable in scale to the developments directed by officers of the Washington Depot. Not until peace came were national cemeteries established at Louisville and Nashville for the concentration of remains originally buried in scattered plots.
The larger number of wartime cemeteries fall into a category which should be – -differentiated from those identified with battlefield sites and military centers in the rear. Elements of this category appear in that part of the over-all area of military operations now regarded as the zone of interior. Acquired by the national government in immediate compliance with the Act of July 17, 1862, they were located as a general rule within the properties owned by cemeterial associations. Some were situated near the larger metropolitan areas of the North, notably New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore; others meeting the emergencies of an unplanned national mobilization, were established in private cemeteries near cities such as Annapolis, Md., Rock Island, Ill., and Keokuk, Iowa.
Growing piecemeal to meet local emergencies, this miscellany of burial places could scarcely he regarded in 1865 as an integrated system. It would be more accurate perhaps to say that the nucleus of a future system included only a few elements of a whole, that is, the cemeteries in the Washington military area and those on the sites of great battles. In consideration of their geographical distribution and availability of additional burial space, the group as a whole offered few advantages in effecting the final disposition of remains.
The so-called zone of interior cemeteries were beyond the range of economical transportation. Elsewhere the established cemeteries were inadequate in number and remote from the scene of decisive operations during the culminating phase of the war. Due to such limiting factors it became necessary to extend the system to areas determined by distribution of the war dead.
The problem of multiplying national cemeteries went hand in hand with other difficulties. The compilation of interment reports in 1865 for the Quartermaster General indicated that approximately two thirds of the war dead must be recovered before final interment in national cemeteries could be accomplished. In present-day graves registration parlance, this requirement involved a search and recovery program surpassing in many respects the one attending final disposition of World War II remains. Two aspects of the Civil War situation, however, confined battlefield search areas to narrower limits than applied in the European theater. The front of deployment of an average Civil War army corps occupied about the same space now taken up by a regimental combat team. Then, while far-ranging cavalry columns of the 1860’s left for future search teams the same difficulties contributed by armored columns of World War II, present-day war in the air extends the search of remains over vast areas that were not encompassed by operations in the American Civil War.
The reburial program was initiated within two months of Lee’s capitulation at Appomattox. In accordance with orders issued on 7 June 1865 by Headquarters, Department of Washington, Captain James M. More, the founder of Arlington and Battleground national cemeteries, proceeded tot he battlefields of the Wilderness and Spottsylvania Court Hours ‘for the purpose of superintending the interments of remains of Union soldiers yet unburied and marking their burial places for future identification.” Similar measures were taken in the West; on 23 June General George H. Thomas, commanding the Department of the Cumberland, instructed Chaplain William Earnshaw, Superintendent of the Stones River National Cemetery, “to take charge of the work of disinterring and reinterring remains in the national cemetery at Stones River.” Due, however, to excessive heat of the summer season, field operations were suspended until October of that year.
The operations conducted by Captain Moore and Chaplain Earnshaw illustrate both the similarities and differences of graves registration problems in the Virginia and western theaters. Both officers enjoyed the benefits of wide experience in burial matters both had created cemeteries and understood the complications involved in the reinterment of remains. Proceeding by way of Belle Plain, Captain Moore reached the Wilderness battlefield some 14 months after the two-day encounter between Grant and Lee. He found ‘hundreds of graves…without marking whatsoever.” Exposed skeletons scattered in front of the enemy’s abatis offered mute testimony to the savage assaults delivered by many Union regiments. Other skeletons were found partially buried in and near the trenches. Unburied remains, it is reported, were interred in two temporary cemeteries, “where the scenes of carnage appeared to be the greatest.”
Intending originally to remove all partially buried remains to a suitable site. Captain Moore encountered the same difficulty that delayed Chaplain Earnshaw’s reinterment program in the Stones River area-summer heat.
Completing his reconnaissance of the Wilderness battlefield, Captain Moore went on to Spottsylvania Court House, where he identified and marked with newly-inscribed wooden tablets the graves of 700 Union soldiers. The unidentified dead were marked by tablets bearing the inscription ”Unknown, U. S. Soldier. ”In all, he made 1,500 identifications on both battlefields-800 in the Wilderness and 700 at Spottsylvania Court House. This total, however, was only twenty-six percent of the 5,350 fatalities suffered on these fields.
Fortunately for Moore and his party, the problem of unburied dead at Spottsylvania Court House had been solved late in the spring of 1865. During the march of Sherman’s army from the Roanoke to Washington, the General arranged with Mr./ Sanford, a local resident, for the interment of all exposed remains. Thus a Western army command gave impetus the first postwar recovery operation in the East.
Captain Moor’s work in Virginia was interrupted at this juncture by an assignment which included all phases of the reburial program in a single operation. Spurred by Secretary Stanton’s insistence that a national cemetery must be established immediately as a memorial to the Union soldiers who perished in the prison pens of Andersonville, Georgia, the Quartermaster General organized an expedition with Captain Moore in command. General Meigs reported in some detail to Secretary Stanton the achievement of this subordinate.
Captain J.M. More, Assistant Quartermaster, was, by your order, immediately upon the opening of communications, dispatched in a steamer, loaded with materials, with workmen and clerks, to identify and mark in a suitable manner the graves of those who died at Andersonville. With the aid of a detail, furnished by Major General Wilson, this duty was performed.
The ground on which 12,912 of our comrades had been buried in trenches was inclosed; the bodies, where the earth had been washed from them by the rains, were again covered. Headboards painted white, were placed over each, bearing the name, rank, regiment and state, with the date of death, as ascertained from he captured hospital records.
Twelve thousand four hundred sixty-one were identified, and upon 451 graves Captain Moore was compelled to place the inscription “Unknown U.S. Soldier.”
Meanwhile in Tennessee. Chaplain Earnshaw took up the task of concentrating remains at the Stones River National Cemetery. Like Chattanooga, this historic burial ground was a creation of General George H. Thomas. Unfortunately, Thomas had no authority to establish the cemetery near Murfreesboro, where the bloody battle of Stones River occurred late in December, 1862, until he superseded Rosecrans at Chattanooga as commanding general of the Army and Department of the Cumberland. Although the furious fighting that raged for three days in and around Murfreesboro preceded by nearly a year the storming of Missionary Ridge, establishment of the national cemetery on Stones River was delayed until 1864.
Beginning with removal of remains from three know burial places on the battlefield, Chaplain Earnshaw extended his search eastward through Murfreesboro to Union University. Examination of graves in that locality led to discovery of a large burial ground which was identified as ”the first burying place used by our brave defenders.”
After recovery of the battlefield dead, attention was directed to the burial sites of general and unit hospitals which had been erected during the eight months pause of Rosecrans’ army before resuming the advance on Chattanooga. Altogether some 3,000 remains were recovered and reinterred.
The next step involved an examination of the three mountain defiles-Hoover’s Gap, Liberty Gap, and Guy’s Gap-forced by Rosecrans in the first stage of his push southward. The Chaplain reported that the number of dead recovered in these passes corresponded exactly with the figure given by General Rosecrans in his official report of fatalities. Search operations then followed the path of advance to the Tennessee River while a party went northwest along the Nashville and Chattanooga railroad collecting bodies between Murfreesboro and Florence, and then turned back to search the rail line to Tullahoma. The total distance of search north and south through Murfreesboro was about 85 miles and yielded some 600 remains.
An intensive area search followed exploration of the rail line and the path of advance of the main army. According to Chaplain Earnshaw’s report parties went out “searching the entire country and tracing obscure byways, feeling it our solemn duty to find every solitary Union soldier’s grave that marked the victorious path of our men in pursuit of the enemy.” The thoroughness with which these activities were conducted and the sense of devotion to the task are reflected in the following statement:
We also visited all points were camps or garrisons were stationed. . .In fact, we have visited every place within 80 or 90 miles northeast, east and southeast from Murfreesboro, which is the extent of the country assigned for the removal to this cemetery.
I am free to say, that within these limits not more than 50 Union soldiers still sleep outside our beautiful cemetery.
The reinterment activities initiated by Chaplain Earnshaw in October 1865 extended over into the following year. Similar operations were conducted by Chaplain Thomas B. Van Horne in the area assigned to Chattanooga. Captain W.. A. Wainwright, Assistant Quartermaster, completed the concentration of remains from the upper Tennessee Valley, Cumberland Gap, and eastern Kentucky into Knoxville. Supervision of these operations was exercised by Bvt. Maj. Gen. Donaldson, Chief Quartermaster, who formerly commanded the Nashville Depot. In this new capacity he acted under authority of General Thomas. now commanding the Military Division of the Tennessee, a new jurisdiction embracing the States of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia.
A somewhat different situation existed in the East. Excepting the special cases presented by Antietam and Gettysburg, which were then controlled by private associations under state law, Arlington was the only established cemetery which could accommodate any considerable number of reinterments. This possibility however was limited to a radius of some thirty five miles, including some burial places in nearby Maryland and extending into Virginia to the Bull Run battlefields. For the rest, new national cemeteries must mark the somewhat erratic paths of advance and retreat of Union forces between the Potomac and the entrenched lines finally enclosing Richmond and Petersburg from the east and south.
Turning again to the west, the three areas which gave remains to established cemeteries at Stones River, Chattanooga, and Knoxville were no greater in relation to the vast expanse over which the western armies left their dead than was the one assigned for concentration purposes to Arlington when compared to the whole Virginia theater. Indeed, this relationship determined the pattern of cemeterial distribution in both regions. A cartographical representation would exhibit a thick cluster of black points in north-eastern Virginia, while in the west two paths would be marked by widely separated dots, one extending southward from Cairo through Fort Donelson, Shiloh and Corinth to Vicksburg, the other traversing central Kentucky and Tennessee. through Nashville and Murfreesboro to Chattanooga. Here a concentration of offensive power from the west determined a projection of the spotted pathway through Atlanta to the sea and thence northward across the Carolinas toward Virginia. The picture thus presented would indicate the distribution of national cemeteries covering the principal theaters of operations and harboring over three-fourths of the war dead. In representing the secondary theater, there would be the littoral zone extending from the estuary of the James to the mouth of the Rio Grande. and marked by a few cemeteries that recall various amphibious attacks from the sea-New Berne, Wilmington, Mobile, and Chalmette. Finally, the Shenandoah Valley, the uplands of West Virginia and the trans-Mississippi region would claim several scattered points.
Supervision of operations in the Department of Washington and a strip of territory running along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad to Orange Court House was assigned by General Meigs to Colonel M. I. Ludington, Chief Quartermaster.
Colonel Moore, commanding the Washington Depot, directed field operations in Virginia south of the strip assigned to Colonel Ludington. A central file of burial records, including casualty reports prepared by tactical officers during hostilities, was established in the Quartermaster General’s office. Functioning under Colonel C. W. Folsom, this records office furnished valuable information in planning search programs and determining the sites of new cemeteries.
By the end of 1866 substantial progress had been made toward the completion of concentrations in existing burial grounds and the development of new cemeteries. In Virginia, Moore created ten national cemeteries, including one at Fredericksburg, which received 2,442 remains during that year and eventually contained some 15,000 burials-the recoverable remains from Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spottsylvania Court House, as well as those found on the battlefield of Fredericksburg. The program was pushed with equal vigor by General Donaldson in the Military Division of the Tennessee, where attention was first given to the establishment of national cemeteries at the two western depots, Louisville and Nashville, and then along the broad pathways of advance from Cairo to Vicksburg and Chattanooga to Savannah. Excluding Andersonville which was established under direct orders of the Secretary of War, nine national cemeteries were receiving disinterred remains. Three were completed–Knoxville, Millen, and Savannah. Progress was reported at six, with Chattanooga and Stones River nearing completion. The sites of seven additional cemeteries had been selected, including Nashville and six other sites identified with the advance on Vicksburg.
A brief analysis of achievement since the termination of hostilities would indicate that the program was rapidly approaching the point of peak performance. In all areas of the continental theater 87,664 remains had been reinterred in 41 national cemeteries. The total number of interments by 30 June 1866 was 194,528. Taken together, burials in the Washington and Virginia cemeteries (41,353) and in the Military Division of the Tennessee (39.485) comprised over 75 per cent of the total. Then, according to computation of interments based on data acquired by Colonel Folsom’s records office, the graves of 237,142 Union soldiers were in 431 burial places classified as ”other than national cemeteries.” It was estimated that not more than 135.881 of these remains would, for one reason or another, be removed to national cemeteries. Assuming the correctness of this estimate, the national cemetery system would offer its protection to 249,395 war dead upon completion of the reburial program. In other words, over 90,000 would continue to lie in family and village burial grounds, soldiers’ plots, and post cemeteries, or in isolated graves that eluded the most exacting search. As will be seen, these predictions were overly pessimistic.
Reliable cost analysis also appeared at this juncture. The Quartermaster General reported that total expenditures to 30 June 1866 amounted to $1,144,791. Allowing $1,609,294 for all future contingencies, he estimated $2,609,294 as the ”total cost of national cemeteries, and collection, transfer and reinterment of remains of loyal soldiers.” The average cost of transfer and reinterment per body was $9.75. The largest single item in this phase of the program was the wooden coffin, costing $4.00 at the Washington Depot and $3.00 in Tennessee.
The program continued with diminishing returns each year in reinterments, but showing a substantial increase in the total number of recoveries foreseen in 1866. In 1870, when, according to General Meigs, the project was virtually completed there were 73 national cemeteries in which the remains of 299,696 Union soldiers had been laid to rest. This marked an increase of 50,299 over the figure (249,397) estimated in 1866. The number of remains interred in national cemeteries, private plots, and post cemeteries, together with those marked for reinterment, aggregated 315,555. This final figure falls short by only 26,175 of the total number of Union fatalities as estimated in 1866. Of the total interred by 1870 there were 173,109 positive identifications and 143,446 unknown remains, i.e. 58 per cent of the recovered dead were identified.
An activity involving the acquisition and development of extensive lands for cemeterial purposes of the scale foreseen in 1866 required some amplification of the authority originally granted to President Lincoln by the Act of July 17, 1862. Furthermore, administrative expediency dictated that such authority be vested in the Secretary of War. This was accomplished by An Act to Establish and to Protect National Cemeteries, approved February 22, 1867, and directing the Secretary of War to have every national cemetery enclosed “with a good and substantial stone or iron fence”; to cause each grave to be marked with a small headstone or block; to direct the appointment of reliable veterans as cemetery superintendents and the erection of adequate quarters; to provide for annual inspections of the conditions and required improvements at all cemeteries by a field-grade officer and to submit the reports of inspection to congress at the commencement of each session ”with an estimate of the appropriation for that purpose.” It was further enacted that the Secretary should acquire title in fee simple to all cemeterial lands, either by mutual agreement with owners, or by processes of court action specified in the act. These procedures were helpful in securing a clear title to tracts confiscated during the war, notably the reservations at Chattanooga and Knoxville.
The act of February 22, 1867, not only provided a legal basis for the system in process of development, but committed Congress to a constructive fiscal policy. But while the act provided for a year-by-year improvement in landscaping and such facilities as became necessary for security and administration, the extraordinary cost of erecting permanent grave markers could only be met by a special appropriation of Congress.
During hostilities the cost of maintaining wooden headboards had suggested the long-range economy of providing a more durable type of marker. In his annual report of 1866 the Quartermaster General proposed an economical solution. “A design,” he stated,. “has been adopted for a small cast-iron monument, to be protected from rust by a coating of zinc, to have in raised letters east in the solid, the name, rank, regiment and company of each soldier or officer. One of these will be placed at the foot of every grave and will remain when the wooden headboards decay and perish.
Prompted no doubt by hopes of including a permanent marker program within regular appropriations General Meigs stoutly resisted every proposal for marble or granite slabs in place of his unsightly design. He made a special point of rejecting in his 1868 report a recommendation in favor of the stone slab. He insisted: “I am still of the opinion that the best monument for this purpose yet contrived is the small rectangular block of cast iron, galvanized to protect it from rust and filled with earth or cement.
This planted at the grave will last for many years. It is not costly, it is easily transported, is not an object of plunder.”
With wages of stone cutters at $5 a day, the cost of 320,000 headstones properly lettered would be a very great charge upon the treasury.
In a day when tolerance of deficit financing was as repugnant as professions of heresy Or free love, the Quartermaster General’s argument was hard to meet. Although required by law, no progress was made until Congress took action on March 3, 1873 by appropriating $1,000,000 “for the erection of a headstone at each grave in the national military cemeteries, to be made of durable stone and of such design and weight as shall keep them in place when set.” Subsequent interpretation of the act held that stones should be erected only at the graves of soldiers, omitting those occupied by “contrabands” and civilians.
Under authority of the act, the Secretary of War specified that the markers should be of white marble or granite, 4 inches thick, 10 inches wide, with 12 inches above ground and 24 underground in areas south of the latitude of Washington and 30 inches in those to the north. The granite or marble for unknown soldiers should be 6 inches square by 2 feet 6 inches, with 2 feet set in the ground. The project was completed in 1877 at a total cost of $786,360.
Headstones for the marking of new national cemeteries, including Antietam, that had been acquired since 1873 were erected at a cost of $20,000. It was then recommended to Congress that the balance of $192,000 be expended for marking those graves in national cemeteries not included by the Act of March 3, 1873, and for the erection of permanent markers at all known soldiers’ graves outside the national system. An act, approved February 3, 1879, authorized these expenditures and the second gravestone program was undertaken.
In 1881, Quartermaster General Meigs reviewed the great accomplishment of 16 years in creating the national cemetery system and raised the first troubled question about its future:
“There were 219 interments made during the year making the total number of interments in the national cemeteries on June 30, 1881, 318,850. All soldiers’ graves have been marked with marble or granite headstones as provided by law, and neat marble slabs will be erected at the graves of other than soldiers yet remaining to be permanently marked as fast as means will permit. .
I repeat a recommendation heretofore made that the Arlington Cemetery, containing 208 acres of land, now laid out and improved at the cost of the United States, be declared and constituted by law the official national cemetery of the government, and that its space, not needed for the interment of soldiers, be used for the burial of officers of the United States, legislative, judicial, civil, and military, who may die at the seat of government or whose friends may desire their interment in a public national cemetery. It is safe from encroachment of the rapidly extending cities of the District of Columbia. It is a safe distance from the population of the cities, while the existing Congressional Cemetery is rapidly filling up, and the extension of the inhabited and populous part of Washington threatens before many years to make it necessary to abandon the practice of interment within its limits. Almost all great cities have forbidden the use of cemeteries within their corporate bounds.