"IN THE SPIRIT OF FRATERNITY": The United States Government and the Burial of Confederate Dead at Arlington National Cemetery, 1864-1914

By Krowl, Michelle A. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

"IN THE SPIRIT OF FRATERNITY": The United States Government and the Burial of Confederate Dead at Arlington National Cemetery, 1864-1914


Krowl, Michelle A., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


A cold, crisp day greeted President William McKinley as he emerged from his railroad car in Atlanta, Georgia, on 14 December 1898. McKinley had journeyed to the city as the guest of honor at a jubilee celebrating the peace treaty that ended the Spanish-American War. In recognition, Atlanta planned several receptions, a parade, military demonstrations, and an elaborate banquet for the president. However, little did the citizens of Atlanta, or indeed the rest of the United States, know that the so-called "Peace jubilee" would not only signal the restoration of peace internationally but would also mark a significant step toward further healing the sectional wounds created during the American Civil War.

President McKinley planned to use a speech delivered before the Georgia legislature to urge the federal government to assume some of the care and responsibility for the graves of the Confederate dead. The United States had administered a system of national cemeteries since 1862 and had long demonstrated a commitment to see the graves of the Union dead properly marked and tended.1 With the demise of the Confederate government in 1865, no central agency existed to exert the same authority over the maintenance of Rebel graves, which left care of the Confederate dead largely in the hands of private individuals and southern memorial associations.

The president strode into the chamber of the Georgia House of Representatives and took his position at the speaker's podium to address a joint assembly of the legislature. Speaking in a low tone, but one that resonated throughout the room, McKinley proceeded:

Sectional lines no longer mar the map of the United States. sectional feeling no longer holds back the love we bear each other. Fraternity is the national anthem, sung by a chorus of forty-five States and our Territories at home and beyond the seas. The Union is once more the common altar of our love and loyalty, our devotion and sacrifice. . . . The national cemeteries for those who fell in battle are proof that the dead as well as the living have our love. . . . Every soldier's grave made during our unfortunate Civil War is a tribute to American valor. And while, when those graves were made, we differed widely about the future of this government, those differences were long ago settled by the arbitrament of arms; and the time has now come, in the evolution of sentiment and feeling under the providence of God, when in the spirit of fraternity we should share with you in the care of the graves of the Confederate soldiers.2

Taken by surprise at the magnanimous sentiments contained in the president's remarks, the audience cheered wildly at the mention of Confederate graves. The emotion of the moment was almost too great for some former Confederates to bear. "One Confederate veteran, now a venerable legislator, had passed forward until he was leaning against the Speaker's desk, hanging on every wor[d] the President uttered. When the reference was made to the Confederate dead this old man buried his head in his arms, and, while cheers rang out, cried like a little child."3

With this demonstration of sectional goodwill in Atlanta, McKinley sparked a movement that would ultimately lead to legislation authorizing the federal government to locate and mark the graves of Confederates who died while in Union custody during the war. The first tangible step toward this legislation began with the reinterment of the Confederate dead in a revered Union cemetery. A number of Confederate soldiers who died in hospitals and prisons in Washington, D.C., were buried at Arlington National Cemetery in northern Virginia, designated a United States national cemetery in 1864. Concerned that these graves were neither marked nor tended properly, in 1898 Confederate veterans in Washington researched the locations of the southern dead buried in the Washington, D.C., area and petitioned the president in 1899 to have these remains collected into a single "Confederate section" at Arlington. …

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