Expansion of the National Cemetery System, 1880-1900
By Edward Steere
Quartermaster Review, September – October 1953
Within 15 years following the termination of the Civil War in America, the War Department had created a national cemeterial system, with administrative control vested in the Quartermaster General. After having completed by 1870 the final interment of war remains in 73 national cemeteries, and adding several more in the West to receive remains from the burial grounds of abandoned frontier posts, Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs undertook the task of replacing some 300,000 wooden headboards with markers of durable stone.
The magnitude of this undertaking may be appreciated by noting that the exact amount of marble used for these headstones, if cut in larger slabs with a uniform thickness of three inches, could have restored the glistening white sheath that originally covered the Great Pyramid of Cheops. But it is the use of the marble rather than the amount that is most arresting. Cheops, divine ruler of a state that presents history’s classic example of theocratic socialism, spent 80 years building a tomb to perpetuate his fame. The Government of the United States sought rather to cherish the memory of those individuals who gave their lives in its service.
Neither the full significance nor the actual magnitude of the program initiated in 1862 was fully appreciated at the time by the Government or the people of the United States. The original act, as pointed out in the first paper of this series, was intended to afford a decent resting place for those who died in the service of the country. Due, however, to organizational deficiencies of the national forces, the final interment of these dead necessarily awaited more favorable conditions brought by peace. Then the vast area of military operations, together with dependence on animal-drawn transportation for most of the work, created a situation in which the distribution of temporary wartime burials determined the location cemeteries designed for this purpose. Thus, aside from considerations of sentiment, the sites of great battles became the logical points for the location of many national cemeteries.
The very coincidence of place of final burial and scene of dramatic events in the military history of the nation invested the whole cemeterial system with a memorial aspect that was neither foreseen nor, perhaps, intended in the Act of 1862. At any rate, General Meigs’ persistent advocacy of an economical policy which would have restricted the right of burial to soldiers who gave their lives during the war for preservation of the Union seems by 1881 to have given way to trends he could no longer control. As related in the preceding paper, he then proposed that Arlington be declared the official national cemetery of the government and “that its space, not needed for the interment of soldiers, be used for officers of the United States, legislative, judicial, civil and military, who may die at the seat of government.”
General Meigs’ proposal offers a striking illustration of an inability, not infrequently displayed by administrative officers, to control developments within the institution confided to their management. Furthermore, it illustrates one of those paradoxical culminations which responsible officials may have stoutly resisted in principle, but to which they themselves inadvertently contribute. By making certain decisions that are justified on grounds of expediency, they eventually discover that the cumulative effect of such decision presents a challenge to major tenets of the policy they sought to uphold. Despite several piece meal departures from avowed policy, General Meigs vigorously resisted the first obvious attempt to divert the national cemeteries from the purpose originally stated in 1862 and reaffirmed by the joint resolution of April 13, 1866.
The wording of the latter instrument, indeed, susceptible of an interpretation that narrowed the original purpose, it being stated that the Secretary of War, among other assigned responsibilities, was required to protect the graves of soldiers of the United States who fell in battle or died of disease in the field and in hospitals during the war of the rebellion.
Two years later these implied restrictions were put to the test. It appears that Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, Commanding General of the Department of the Cumberland and founder of the Chattanooga National Cemetery, had reserved by a departmental order a large section of this cemetery for the burial of deceased war veterans and their families. A considerable number of burials had been made under the provisions of this order before the Quartermaster General became aware of the situation. In December 1868, however, he instructed Bvt. Maj. Gen. Shields, the Department Quartermaster, to prohibit the practice. Accordingly, the remains of Sergeant S. J. Wight,. late of the 29th Maine Volunteers and twice wounded in battle, were refused a burial place in the cemetery.
A large body of Union veterans resident in Chattanooga immediately addressed a petition to General Thomas, pleading reconsideration of the prohibition and pointing out that the large amount of unappropriated grounds inside the limits of the cemetery was ample to furnish burial space for United States Army veterans and their families for many years to come. Their final argument was loaded with the sentiment that has more than once unseated reason in the consideration of problems relating to veterans. generally and to national cemeteries in particular.
Many of us, in pursuance of the order mentioned above [Thomas’], have buried there those who are near and dear to us in this spot, hallowed by the bravery of those whose remains there repose, and, are anxious to know whether the same privilege may be expected in the future, or whether those already buried there will be allowed to remain.
General Thomas “respectfully” forwarded the petition for consideration of General-in-Chief and the Secretary of War. Reference of the matter, in turn, to the Quartermaster General, the General-in-Chief and the Judge Advocate General evoked conflicting views.
A sound administrator, Meigs adhered to the letter of the law in justification of his action, citing Statutes at Large on which were based the general orders defining the scope and limitations of his authority. He quoted that part of the resolution of 1866 which seemed most pertinent to his argument, and underscored in his quotation the words during the war of the rebellion. This opinion was amplified in the annual report of Cemeterial Branch, QMGO, stating that “it was deemed impracticable to provide suitable burial places throughout the country for the many hundreds of thousands of veterans that might avail themselves of such right were it found to exist.”
General-in-Chief Sherman expressed unalterable opposition to the views of the Quartermaster General in a terse but devastating statement: “Surely, when practicable these cemeteries should be devoted to the burial of soldiers for all time to come.
While sustaining the action which denied burial to the remains of Sergeant Wight, Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt delivered an opinion that fairly well reconciles the views of both Meigs and Sherman. In other words, the many loopholes in the law suggested that Congress should clarify the situation by additional legislation. Arguing in support of General Sherman’s endorsement, he observed that the Act of 1862 provided that national cemeteries shall be used “for the soldiers who die in the service of the country.” This description, he noted, “clearly includes soldiers dying in the army at any or all times, and nothing is to be found in the Act of 1867 which is regarded as necessarily restricting this designation.”
Although the controversy ended in a partial victory for the Quartermaster General, denying burial for the time to deceased veterans of the Civil War, Judge Advocate General Holt’s opinion provided a legal basis for Sherman’s contention that national cemeteries should be devoted to the burial of soldiers for all time to come.
As a matter of fact, it was the Secretary of War, acting under authority of the law approved February 22, 1867, who made the first departure from the policy he upheld. In 1867 he incorporated the post cemetery at Fort Smith, Arkansas, in the national system. Many Civil War dead, it is true, had been concentrated in this cemetery during the reinterment program. At the same time, it included the remains of officers and soldiers and their families who had been interred in the old post cemetery between 1819 and 1824, when the original stockade was abandoned. Re-established at a new site in 1838, Fort Smith continued for 23 years before the outbreak of hostilities in 1861 to bury its dead in the post cemetery. Expediency, of course, dictated that these dead be included with those of the Civil War.
The Fort Gibson National Cemetery, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), presents another case in point. Founded in 1824, and garrisoned for several years by the 7th United States Infantry, Fort Gibson served as a frontier post in the heart of the Cherokee country. The national cemetery was established in 1868, largely with a view to reinterring the scattered remains Civil War dead and partly for the purpose of receiving the remains of abandoned frontier posts
By 1872 there were 2,123 burials at Fort Gibson, mostly the remains of soldiers who had died prior to the Civil War. These included the remains exhumed from the old post cemetery and reinterred in graves which form a circle around the flag staff of the National Cemetery. Headstones in this honored Circle mark the graves of three lieutenants of the 7th Infantry who died in 1831. John W. Murray, Frederick Thomas and Thomas C. Rockway. Several women and children occupy graves in the Circle: Flora Coady Rucker, a Cherokee princess and wife of Lt. Daniel H. Rucker, later to become Quartermaster General of the Army, died January 26, 1845; Talahina, the Indian maiden who was wedded to General Sam Houston during his sojourn among the Cherokees; Alice Rockwell, died 1842; George Graham, son of Lieutenant Colonel Graham, died August 1, 1842; Hiram R., son of Commissary Sergeant F. R. Read, died 1846. Remains of Indian Scouts were included among reinterments in the national cemetery. Their fame is perpetuated by inscriptions on the headstones that mark their final resting place. Among these are Kah-Yer-Skow-He, Billy Bowlegs, Good Dollar Young Bird and Woodpecker Joe.
During the next year Secretary of War William W. Belknap informed General Meigs that he had made arrangements for removal of the remains of his father, General Belknap, from the post cemetery at Fort Washita to the cemetery in Keokuk, Iowa. In the same communication he stated that he had reason to believe that the remains of officers and soldiers and their families are buried at the abandoned posts of Forts Arbuckle and Washita, and that “I would be pleased to have you make arrangements for the removal, at about the same time, of the remains of such soldiers and their families as may be buried at these two posts to the national cemetery at Fort Gibson, I. T.”
Precedents established at the Fort Smith and Fort Gibson National Cemeteries really amounted to an admission that traditional practices determining burial at post cemeteries had exerted considerable influence in modifying the policy that sought to restrict interment in national cemeteries to Civil War dead. That is, the new cemeterial system could not ignore the force of tradition invested in the old one. As stated at a later date in conceding the right of burial to wives and minor children of officers and enlisted men, this tradition was inherent in the fact that the Army had always recognized the family relationship, manifested in the construction of quarters at military posts and the provision of burial space for officers and enlisted men and their families.
A new turn was given in 1873 to the accumulation of precedents by establishing the national cemetery at Fort McPherson and admitting the Mexico City Cemetery into the national system. Both, of course, looked to the past, one to the Mexican War, the other to armed encounters with Indian tribes in an area far removed from operational theaters of the Civil War. In this latter connection, the Quartermaster General remarked: “A new national cemetery is being established at Fort McPherson, Nebr., to which bodies of those who have fallen in the Indian fights of that frontier and been buried at neighboring posts, abandoned with the progress of settlement, are to be removed.”
Any distinction that may have been drawn in identifying the national cemeterial system with wars prior or subsequent to the struggle for preservation of the Union seems to have had little significance in the sphere of policy making. Six years later a turn toward the future was made as a matter of course when Headquarters of the Army published in orders (GO No.78, 1879) that “the ground known as the Custer Battlefield, on the Little Big Horn River, Montana Territory, is announced as a national cemetery of the fourth class.”
Meanwhile Congress had taken steps to remove burial restrictions applying to Civil War veterans, as well as to classifications that would now be described in Army terminology as the “current dead.” The Army appropriations Act of 1870 included in the general and incidental expenses of the Quartermaster’s Department an allowance “for expenses of the interment of officers killed in action or who may die when in the field, or at posts on the frontier, or at posts and other places when ordered by the Secretary of War, and of non-commissioned officers and soldiers.”
The following year Congress made a feeble effort toward satisfying demands of the Grand Army of the Republic in the matter of extending burial privileges in national cemeteries to Civil War veterans. An Act approved June 1, 1872, provided that “all soldiers and sailors of the United States, who may die in destitute circumstances shall be allowed burial in the national cemeteries of the United States.”
Like most timid gestures of appeasement, this Act only incited the powerful veterans organization of that day to a furor that demanded nothing less than unconditional surrender. Bowing before a storm of criticism that denounced an attempt to transform the national cemeteries into potter’s fields, Congress hastened to approve the Act of March 3, 1873, providing:
That honorably discharged soldiers, sailors, or marines, who have served during the late war either in the regular or volunteer forces, dying subsequent to the passage of this Act, may be buried in any national cemetery of the United States free of cost, and their graves shall receive the same care and attention as the graves of those already buried. The production of the honorable discharge of the deceased shall be authority for the superintendent of the cemetery to permit the interment.
The memorial aspect conferred on national cemeteries largely by reason of their location came to be regarded in the minds of thousands of visitors who attended Memorial Day rites as a primary justification for existence of the system. This may explain the fact that announcement of the establishment of the Custer Battlefield as a national cemetery was accepted as a development of no extraordinary importance. Yet this decision reflected an attitude that subsequently admitted without question or debate both the dead and deceased veterans of the Spanish-American War to the national cemeterial system.
Three distinct phases of cemeterial development during the period should be examined. One was the westward projection of national cemeteries which carried units of the system into the upper Rio Grande Valley and to the Pacific Coast. In 1875 national cemeteries were established at Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Vancouver Barracks, Washington Territory, for the purpose of receiving the remains from abandoned posts in those territories. In the case of Santa Fe, it should be noted that remains were concentrated from burial grounds containing dead of the Mexican and Civil Wars as well as those from later conflicts with the Indians. Vancouver, in contrast; occupied the status of a national cemetery only so long as the reinterment of remains from abandoned stations of that territory was in progress. Thereafter it reverted the the rank of a post cemetery. With the same purpose in mind, the San Francisco National Cemetery was established in 1884 within the reservation of the Presidio of San Francisco. Due, however, to its metropolitan location and adjacency to the San Francisco Port of Embarkation, this cemetery was destined to a phenomenal growth, attaining on the eve of World War II a position second only to Washington in the number of its interments (20,306). Perhaps the most interesting and significant development in the whole process of adapting the national cemeterial system to conditions of the Indian frontier is illustrated by a movement of remains in 1886 from Fort Craig, New Mexico, to the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, Kansas. Completion of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad between Kansas City and the Rio Grande in 1882 had deprived the cemetery at Santa Fe of much of its usefulness as a concentration place for New Mexico and Arizona. Although this cemetery was not far distant from the main line, it was deemed expedient in 1886 to ship the Fort Craig remains over a much greater distance by direct rail communications.
The second phase of development during the period under review relates to the impact of liberalized burial regulations, notably the Act of 1873. Ten years later, representations were made by the War Department to Congress, calling attention to this situation and proposing a special appropriation for enlargement of the Cypress Hill National Cemetery, near New York City. In presenting its argument the War Department made a remarkably accurate estimate of the proportional number of living veterans who would elect to be buried in a national cemetery one that has persisted without serious deviation to the present day.
Objections by Congress to the price asked by the Cypress Hill Cemetery Company for the desired tract led to the purchase of 14 acres outside the company limits. This addition, with the subsequent acquisition of four more acres, met burial needs of the New York Metropolitan Area until 1941, when the Cypress Hill National Cemetery attained 17,852 burials, giving it third place in the system, following San Francisco which enjoyed all the advantages of Cypress Hill without the competition offered by Arlington and other national cemeteries in the East.
Similar provisions were made for additional burial space at the London Park National Cemetery, near Baltimore, Maryland. Attention thus focused on metropolitan areas corrected an unsatisfactory situation at Philadelphia. Here, since 1862, the so-called national cemetery has consisted of nine leased lots in seven privately owned cemeteries within the city. In 1885 the War Department acquired a 13-acre tract on the Limekiln Pike and concentrated all remains from their original burial places into the newly established Philadelphia National Cemetery.
Remarkable progress toward completing a long range program of physical improvement characterized the third phase of development during the eighteen eighties and nineties. Briefly, burial grounds that first presented an unsightly appearance of bare mounded graves, wooden headboards, picket fences and frame buildings had been transformed by structures of iron, stone and marble. With landscaping projects adapted to each locality, the national cemeteries gradually assumed an aspect of stately parks, adorned with shrubs, trees, graveled paths and driveways and vistas of shaded greensward carpeting the mounded graves.
The attraction exerted by these improvements prompted the construction of access roads to many cemeteries from nearby cities. On the whole, Congress was liberal in its appropriations for such projects. An illustrated in the case of Vicksburg and Chattanooga, supplementary funds were provided to cover unforeseen construction problems and to correct faulty estimates. Arlington, however, suffered the disability of having no elected representatives to champion its cause. In 1881, while surveys for the access road to Chattanooga were in progress, General Meigs stressed in his annual report the desirability of improving the road to Arlington Cemetery, on account of its proximity to the Capital and the consequent large number of visitors. The Office of National Cemeteries was more explicit in its supporting report.
The roads to these places, namely Vicksburg, Fort Scott and Chattanooga, when completed, will afford easy access to the cemeteries which are much visited. The number of visitors, however, is much less than at the national cemetery at Arlington, near this city, which can be reached only by a very bad, and, in winter, a dangerous road. Light vehicles have not infrequently been mired immediately in front of the cemetery, and,, although this journey to a place cannot fail to be of so much interest to the visitors to the National Capital is made only under serious discomfort.
Although Congress, in 1887 and 1888, authorized the construction of access roads from Alexandria, Louisiana; Danville, Virginia; New Berne, South Carolina; and Natchez, Mississippi, to nearby cemeteries, Arlington was listed by the Quartermaster General in 1889 “among the national cemeteries to which permanent means of approach has yet to be provided by Congress.” Then, in 1893, Quartermaster General Batchelder made an eloquent plea in behalf of a projected bridge over the Potomac, connecting the Virginia shore with a point near the terminus of New York Avenue. “Few cities,” he urged, “have so fine a park contiguous to their borders. Arlington Cemetery, where so many heroes lie buried, has in a large measure become like Great Britain’s Westminster Abbey, the nation’s ‘Valhalla’.”
General Batchelder’s proposal was written three years later into a bill sponsored by Senator Fry, of Maine, and describing a memorial bridge which would give a direct route from Washington to Arlington Cemetery and Fort Myer. Passed by the Senate, this farsighted measure died in the House of Representatives. Not until 1932, when the Memorial Bridge linked Arlington with the Mall and Tidal Basin, embracing in a scheme of magnificent architectural unity Lee Mansion, Lincoln, and Jefferson Memorials, the Washington Monument, Grant’s equestrian statue and the Capitol building, did General Batchelder’s dream come to fruition.
Meanwhile, in 1898, the United States went to war with Spain and sent three expeditionary forces beyond the seas, one to Cuba, another to Puerto Rico and a third, with reinforcing contingents, to the Philippine Islands. In 1900 an elite force of regulars sailed from Manila to join the Allied column that marched to the relief of the beleaguered legations in Peiping.
The decision to bring back to their homeland the dead of these far-flung battlefronts, marks a new era in the history of American burial policy. The transition was fully appreciated by Quartermaster General Marshall I. Ludington in his comment on the return of 1,122 remains from the West Indies during 1899.
It seems proper to remark here that this is probably the first attempt in history where a country at war with a foreign power has undertaken to disinter the remains of its soldiers who . . . had given up their lives on a distant foreign shore, and bring them by a sea voyage to their native land for return to their wives and, friends, or their reinterment in the beautiful cemeteries which have been provided by our government for its brave defenders.